What councillors should do online in emergencies

One of the workshops I attended at #localgovcamp this week was on councillors and digital. This has been written up by Dave McKenna as 11 digital tips for new councillors.

During that session a couple of councillors highlighted that they weren’t sure what the right thing was to do online during emergencies. Can we have 1 side of A4 telling us what to do? they asked.

This is an emerging area. I remember a deputy leader in a previous authority (some years ago) returning from her training at Easingwold to report that

“Councillors’ role in emergencies is to shut up and keep out of the way”

. That was only partly true then and it isn’t even slightly true now.

Though it is the case that dealing with emergencies is an operational matter and staff in public bodies are probably best left to get on with the job. There is still an important community leadership role for elected members which is both more important and made easier by digital tech.

Obviously as this is my particular area of interest I volunteered to draft something. Now obviously I am knowledgeable in this area but it’s not really my place to issue guidance to the thousands of councillors (tens of thousands?) across the country. So I’ve drafted something that could be used by comms teams or emergency planning teams to give to their members. It has so far, to my knowledge, been inspected by 2 people.

So let’s call this an Alpha version. I’ve put it on Penflip to make it easy for people to collaborate directly on it (please contact me if you’d like to do that) and to make it easy for people to fork it and release their own, improved versions.

And of course this may already exist. If it does let me know and I’ll save myself and maybe others a bunch of work.

Here is is on Penflip Draft guidance for local elected members: What you should and should not do online during an emergency.

The (long term (ish)) future of local government

Breaking vows

I start every govcamp with a vow to be quieter and more reflective. This time, I say I will not pitch a session and I’ll keep quiet in sessions and listen more to others.

This typically lasts about 3 1/2 minutes. And so at #localgovcamp last Saturday I pitched a session on scenario planning for local government.

Now scenario planning is a fairly sophisticated practice undertaken by many serious organisations. It involves looking at the data we have now and developing compelling and coherent scenarios about how the world might change. It’s not saying the world will be this way. It’s saying the world could be this way if these things we see now carried on.

It is a tool to assist with planning, especially planning investments that will pay back over a long period.

Good scenario planning is thoughtful, lengthy and evidence based. Ideal in fact for a 45 minute slot at a govcamp (irony there- or is it sarcasm?)

We gave it a go.

Short or long term

I suggested that we look over a fifty year period. I find that as I get older (I’m 43) fifty years doesn’t seem like such a huge expanse of time. Looking over 50 years frees you from having to consider shorter term cyclical issues (like funding cuts following a financial crisis) and to consider bigger, wider changes. On the other hand technology drives change at such a rate that it might be unhelpful to try to look that far into the future.

We settled on a 10-20 year horizon.


The first trend that the group identified which is obviously at the forefront of local government thinking was the ageing population in the UK. People are getting older, potentially staying healthier older but that then means that carers are ageing too. Potentially, over our 20 year timescale the people who are ageing will have less money to contribute to their own care.

This is likely to increase and change demand on local government, other public services and the wider community.

But it may also widen something at least some of us perceived which is intergenerational inequity as a greater proportion of local resources are focused on older people it inevitably follows that these resources are taken from younger people.


The subject of intergenerational inequity dominated our discussion for quite a while. There is a coherent narrative that says:

as public resources are concentrated on older people (who are more likely to vote) and away from younger people who are less likely to vote this will create a vicious circle whereby local government will tend to more and more focus on the needs and interests of older people at the expense of local people.

Housing was raised in the same context. You can argue that the lack of availability of affordable housing in many parts of the UK is a process whereby older people are becoming more wealthy because they own property funded by young people who do not own property.

We didn’t see it likely that access to affordable decent housing would be radically improved over our twenty year window.

It’s also worth stressing that we were trying to develop coherent narratives, we didn’t make judgements (well most of us didn’t) or try to find solutions. We only had 45 minutes.

Devolution and structures

Will local government be reorganised over our 20year window?

If past performance is any guide then that would be a definite yes. Personally I’ve worked through reorganisation in local government in Wales in the early 90s, Herefordshire in ’97/98 and Shropshire in 08/9. I’m not THAT old.

Whatever the result of the independence referendum in Scotland this year devolution to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London seems to be a one-way street. There was a consensus in our workshop that England will be affected by this though it’s not clear exactly how. We settled on a concept of “differential devolution” which is inline with devolution so far. So powers and expenditure might be released to different “city regions” as they make separate cases with different governance models. We thought that was easier to see than an English Parliament or regional assemblies.

I tried to argue for a scenario in which there is no local government: where social care is handed to the NHS, highways and regulation handed to national agencies and education and child protection handed to local children’s commissioners. And it was pointed out to me that children’s commissioners would, in fact, be local government (as police and crime commissioners are). So we developed a narrative that suggests that local democratic oversight is likely to be persistent. Though the specific role and structure will change. Local bodies seem increasingly likely to be scrutinising, influencing, maybe commissioning rather than doing.

Network society

This discussion seemed to link very closely with a workshop Catherine Howe had pitched about different forms of democracy. I didn’t attend that workshop so I’ll need to look to others to join this up.

This is all very well but…

I know. Scenario planning might be an diverting way to pass an hour at an unconference but does it have application in the real world?

I would argue that it does. When we plan, when we invest, when we draw up strategies and try to do the stuff we used to call Place Shaping, we are making assumptions about how the world will be. All too often these assumptions are tacit. Scenario planning helps, if nothing else, to make those assumptions explicit. That in and of itself is of benefit. It could even lead us to (whisper it) make better investments and lay more effective plans.

And we don’t have to do that much work. Lots of people do scenario planning. Many of them publish it. So at the very least we could just look at the work others have done and ask how our plans would look in the world they are imagining.

I’m going to try to compile a list of scenario planning resources here (or somewhere else if there’s a better place). Any links, let me know.

Magic fairy dust

A confession

I like the Agile approach to project management,

There I’ve said it.

I’m trying to resist the zealotry of the new(ish) convert but there is a programme I’m involved in where my colleagues have started timing how long I can go without starting a sentence with “In Agile…”

Not long typically.

But I also like the waterfall approach to project management.

PRINCE2 is my preferred poison.

Which is something very few people confess to.

And I also like the IEM approach to project management which is not often described as project management at all. (That’s Integrated Emergency Management, it’s how we co-ordinate efforts to look after people in emergencies and try to return everything to normal quickly).

And I have come to the conclusion that there is no magic fairy dust.

There is no single way in which projects (or change management processes or whatever it is that you want to do) can or should be safely delivered.

There may be the right tool for the right job

1 Where you know what you are doing

Projects that are delivering in a well understood environment are probably best run in a waterfall framework. So the comms work necessary to deliver a change in bin collection services if probably best planned using products and managed using ganntt charts. It benefits from lots of planning up front and then just getting on a doing.

2 Where you don’t know what you are doing

Projects that are delivering completely new products can’t be safely delivered in waterfall. If you have no idea what the new product looks like then planning is largely meaningless. Agile provides a much better framework for this. Transformation or change processes should look much more closely at Agile IMHO

3 Where you want to start delivering straight away

If you are under pressure to start showing some results (or at least progress) immediately then you, probably, don’t want to use waterfall. I can see ways in which quick delivery could be crowbarred into waterfall but frankly it’s not what it’s for. Agile is exactly the right approach for jumping in quickly and then changing your maind.

4 Where you want a big bang

If you’re delivering something that will be a big bang at some point in the future. Like, for example, a football world cup tournament, then Agile is probably not the right approach. This is, in fact, the key use case for waterfall. Except because Agile is timeboxed it can be suitable for delivering something on a defined date, as long as you aren’t to worried about the scope of what you get on that date.

5 Where you want to co-ordinate lots of organisations

Multi-agency projects can be a real challenge. One way to handle this is to create a financial or contractual relationship, so that one organisation buys things from the other organisations. If you CAN do that then waterfall or Agile as appropriate will probably work well.

If you can’t do that then neither will. Agile adherents would probably argue that Agile has more to offer because of the emphasis on teamwork and visibility and I would tend to agree.

But I think Integrated Emergency Management has a lot to tell us here. Essentially IEM emphasises teamwork and communication (like Agile) and rapid delivery (like Agile). But unlike Agile it provides a framework for scaling projects and involving all levels of the organisations whilst keeping a focus on delivering the work at the coalface.

Enough already

This has been rambling on to long enough now. I might return to this IEM theme at a later date.

Or my butterfly mind might take me elsewhere completely.