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Wellington City’s new ICT Policy gets a cautious tick

16 August, 2006
By Andy Williamson

A new ICT policy articulates Wellington City Council's position as a catalyst for ICT, bringing together otherwise disparate groups in the city with a three-way focus: economic development; community ICT and e-democracy. This new policy tells us that size really does matter - councils can and should play a pivotal role in the uptake of ICT in local communities because they have the scale and the reach to do so.

Wellington City has long been a technology leader in New Zealand local government. Before others even considered the idea, Wellington was in on the ground supporting the City Link fibre network. Wellington today has one of the country's best ICT infrastructures, including a successful public access wireless network. The city has also been a leader in community ICT, supporting groups such as the 20/20 Trust and projects such as Smart Newtown.

Wellington City realised back in 1995 what some other local councils are now starting to figure out and most have yet to even consider; that council is in a position to do something about making sure people have access to ICT, know how to use it and that ICT can be harnessed to make peoples engagement with civil society, government and life in general better. This position is re-enforced by the Local Government Act 2002, which formally extends the role of local government beyond the traditional roads, rates and rubbish to be responsible for the social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of the city or district and its citizens. Local priorities are more than ever a matter for negotiation, not simply through a triennial electoral process but through the Annual Plan and the Long Term Council Community Plan (LTCCP), which runs from 2006 to 2016. The new policy also recognises the changing national ICT landscape, heralded through the Digital Strategy.

The first section of Wellington's new policy relates to ICT and economic development. This is still under development and so is rather light at present, although there is a suggestion that the focus is likely to be on infrastructure. The inclusion of a direct link between ICT and economic development is a positive sign. There is a well established correlation between process transformation and business efficiency - and ICT often creates the opportunity for such transformation. However, this is largely expressed at the level of the individual enterprise, so it is encouraging to see it being signalled so strongly at a strategic level in local government. Of course, one might also be cognisant of "economic transformation" as one of the three foci for central government. This mantra emerged from the 2006 Budget along with "families young and old" and "national identity". And the reference to infrastructure is unlikely to be a coincidence given the existence of $24 million in government funding through the Broadband Challenge Fund.

The section on ICT and community development is the strongest part of the document. This is unsurprising given Wellington’s track record. What is useful is the research to back up some of the proposals in the document. The aim is that Wellingtonians become "better connected" and "better engaged" and the focus is on enabling the disadvantaged parts of the city. It’s not creating a level playing field, let's be honest here, but at least this seems to be a serious and credible attempt to understand barriers to ICT uptake and to negate the digital disenfranchisement that is the result of wider socio-economic, educational, geographical and dis-ability related disparities. The demographic of Wellingtonians least likely to have access to ICT is echoed throughout New Zealand: Maori, Pacific peoples, low income households, single parents and refugees.

The policy is proactive, it promotes a pattern of increasing awareness amongst marginalised groups, providing access to ICT and ensuring accessible and affordable training and support. This very much echoes research in the field of community informatics as being an approach that is likely to succeed. It is encouraging to see the council putting money into its ideas, with funding through the 20/20 Trust and the city’s libraries. Other councils take note; first you need the ideas, then you need to fund them so they happen.

The third strand of the policy relates to e-democracy. Up front the document defines eDemocracy as going beyond voting to include consultation and participation. It states early on that the Local Electoral Act 2001 doesn't allow for e-voting and then discounts it. Not exactly how I had interpreted the Act. In fact, Section 5.1 states that a "voting document" can be:

... an electronic document or electronic message that is designed to enable a voter to record his or her vote at an election or poll and transmit it electronically for counting.

And that "voting method’ includes:

... any form of electronic voting.

That said, I'm no expert on the Local Electoral Act, so there could well be a fishhook lurking in there that I've missed the significance of. Also it's beside the point as there's really nothing much wrong with our existing voting system and I think the strategy is right not to linger too much in this area for the time being at least.

Rightly then, the focus is on better engagement with community. I was a bit disappointed with this section. There's too much rhetoric and perhaps it’s not as original as one might have hoped. Having said that, at least it's there and I don't really disagree with any of it - it just doesn't seem like there are many original ideas. I got the distinct impression that someone had done a frantic copy and paste from the AskBristol website or from some of the documents at the UK Local e-Democracy project. Perhaps that's not a bad thing. After all, local government in the UK is a long way ahead of local government in New Zealand in this area, so why not copy good ideas from elsewhere? One reason is that it's not entirely clear that these ideas will work and it's not entirely clear how ideas such as e-petitions and e-panels will translate to the windy city. The UK experience suggests that light handed e-democracy turns on citizens more than overly-regulated and formal approaches. The proof for Wellington will be in the delivery, not the words and, most importantly, in how "hands-off" they feel comfortable being. There is some limited funding ($55,000) to experiment. I wish them well and I really do hope their ideas work.

I hope, as well, that there is some scope in the policy framework for new and innovative ideas to emerge locally. You have to ask yourself a serious question about the need for and viability of live streaming of council meetings. It might sound interesting to councillors and on paper it might appear to increase awareness but I'm failing to detect a wave of excited anticipation sweeping through the proletariat. Rather, I would have preferred more emphasis placed on leadership - from within council and from the wider community. Democratic engagement is falling across Australasia and I remain sceptical that new ways to engage in the same process will do little more than temporarily arrest that decline. It is the underlying systems and creeping technocracy of government that have put people off and these remain intact, albeit transitioned to an online experience. e-Democracy gives way to e-bureaucracy. That's not the intent here but it remains a risk if there's no space for innovation.

In my own work I see the tipping point for e-democracy building from awareness and skills. It then needs individuals to become motivated enough to stay connected: A three-way relationship between ease of access/use, cost and perceived value. For e-democracy to spark at a local level, grounded leadership is needed. Leaders emerge from the community and from council to demonstrate the value of democratic engagement and the potential of ICT to make this easier. In other words, increasing the perceived value of democratic engagement and demonstrating how ICT can lower the barriers to that engagement.

Wellington's Policy is a good starting point on the local eDemocracy journey and a solid continuation of their past good work. It remains a little top down and it's not entirely clear how they intend to actually engage the disengaged. But at least they admit that people are disengaged and at least they are doing something about it. They should be applauded and supported for that.

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