A cityscape of Manchester at night.

Reclaiming local government’s digital relationship with residents.

Tom Forth, .

Turnout in my ward in last year’s local elections was 24%.

No-one thinks that this is good. But few have a plan to fix it beyond diagnosing the causes and doing the important and often thankless work of competing for the remaining votes.

A common and correct diagnosis of low turnout is that people have little to vote for. The days of municipal gas, water, and electricity are gone. Education has largely moved from local to national government via academy and free schools. Core tasks of local government such as voter registration have shifted to national websites. Even waste collection, one of few remaining services with local freedom and its associated variation, is now moving closer to national government.

There are some movements the other way. Some powers on buses are returning to some local governments, though these remain limited. For example, a local government in England could not realistically opt out of the £2 national fare cap or concessionary travel pass schemes. And in all cases the right to raise money locally to make up for central government cuts and use those powers that remain local remains heavily restricted.

Low turnouts and local government disempowerment interact. People see that their local government has few powers and see little point in voting. Low turnouts make it hard to justify greater powers for local government on democratic grounds, and thus local powers are reduced further.

At some point we will have to ask whether local government retains enough power and generates enough turnout in elections to merit being elected at all.

This is not in any way to question the hard work of councillors. Many do fantastic work in their communities. But they are frustrated that most of the problems residents come to them with are beyond their control. In any case the work of local government officers, employees, and contractors will remain essential whether they are ultimately responsible to an elected council or a higher tier of elected government.

Removing local democracy in the UK would be very bad for our country. Elected local councillors are the best way to maintain the greater responsiveness, adaptability, and efficiency of local government. But this been true throughout the last decade of disempowerment and the disempowerment continues.

Can we escape from the current spiral of decline?


Much of the relationship with its residents that local government has lost in the past decade could be reclaimed, especially using the tools of digital government. This could happen in hundreds of ways, but why not start small by thinking about two, even if we ultimately act on other opportunities.

Registering residents to vote and maintaining the electoral register remains a core competency of local government and yet council websites and letters direct people to a UK government website to register. Would it not be better for local governments to provide that web service themselves and strengthen their relationship with their residents rather than sending them elsewhere?

Similarly, all local governments in Great Britain (there are some exceptions in Northern Ireland) currently use the .gov.uk domain name for their websites. This has some advantages, but it sends the incorrect message to the public that there is one unified government and not an interaction of governments of different tiers. Cities such as Stokholm, Denver, and Lyon do not do similar, nor do devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. Instead, these governments establish their own identities and interact with their residents at their own domain names. They all enjoy higher turnout in elections than we achieve.

So far digital government in the UK has shifted power from local government to the centre. This was not inevitable. Local government could reclaim the relationships it has lost with its residents, a relationship that people consistently tell pollster they trust more than their relationship with national government. Let’s try.


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