Cheshire West & Chester Council's budget simulator
The first worthily timid steps towards a full-blown participative democracy?
Cheshire West & Chester Borough Council is currently running a budget consultation. It's using an online budget simulator, which can be found by clicking here.
They introduce it with the headline: "Let's talk: Shape the future of your neighbourhood and borough." You can see a screenshot of the homepage below. As you can see, this initial consultation will last for a little under three months.
So. I decided to have a go at using the budget simulator, just to get a feel for the challenges that professional politicians may be operating under right now.
Whilst some of the explanations given by the simulator as to the effects of different options seemed to assume, to my mind, a certain politically oriented mindset and point of view - a set of prejudices and beliefs which don't marry necessarily with objective consultations - neither does this invalidate the process as a whole. At least, not to my mind.
And in any case, a borough council, elected by popular vote, will always be a political beast. The real issue to hand is whether the people, in general, feel the politics ends up serving them or self-serving the politicians.
After going through each step of the simulator, I sincerely feel that - whilst still only a timid step towards a wider participative democracy - Cheshire West & Chester deserves to be commended for its initiative.
In Adult Social Care and Health, I was looking to prioritise independent living over institutionalised wherever possible. Although I cut the support for healthy lifestyles, I felt - given the gravity of proposed government cuts - it would become fairly inevitable that private business would have to play a considerable - and far more socially responsible part - in delivering messages, products and services that served a wider community much better than they do at the moment.
I'm not hopeful or naive about this, but I can't see any alternative. (Similarly, as you'll see later on, I sustain the same principle with relation to waste disposal and other environmental issues.)
In this second case, Children and Families, whilst rather more specific goals caught my attention, the more vague one of "Supporting our families" didn't really float my boat. The implications given re contract and services review, administrative support and opening hours, seemed less important, especially four years down the line when we would hope the redefinition of council processes via digital tools would help a) narrow the existing digital divide, and b) serve to make local government more responsive and enabling of partner organisations than perhaps it chooses to be at the moment.
Place Services was challenging. On the one hand, I looked to increase spending on making our environment and economy greener, as well as maintaining the quality of physical spaces.
On the other hand, I decided to cut the Council's spending on waste disposal services - mainly by introducing charges of some sort or another.
Again, as already previously mentioned in earlier sections, I would - I hope not naively - be looking for the private sector to do a massive part in contributing, where it doesn't really right now, to reducing our generation of waste materials, in particular with respect to packaging of foodstuffs and other products and services. I would also hope, out of a common desire to survive on the planet, it could become far more responsible re consumers, both in terms of service provision, service level agreements, end-to-end quality of services and products and so on, as well as - far more widely - sustainability in general.
In essence, the challenges before us require not only legislative acts and inspection processes but also, more importantly, a step up in societal cultures - both with respect to individuals and communities as well as local, national and transnational businesses.
Corporate Services was also challenging, in the context of its multiple swings and roundabouts.
Coming as I do from a gently open-source background, I felt that there is a lot that could be done to extend the useful life of IT infrastructures, licensing and support.
I also felt that whilst many people in the Borough do not have a decent roof over their heads, the use of Council buildings should be maximised with partner organisations wherever possible - both from financial as well as business- and organisation-culture points of view.
Finally, in relation to support for councillors ... a tricky one, for sure.
I would expect the role of councillors to change hugely over the next four years: with hyperlocal websites, forums and initiatives surely just over the horizon (Hoole, Chester is one notable example, but other parts of the Borough must also be breathing down many virtual necks), it's inevitable that a facilitating/enabling mindset, more than a traditional leadership role, is going to be asked of future councillors.
One would assume that this would imply more training rather than less, but I'm not sure it's necessarily the case. Pointers, perhaps; opportunities to shadow already good practice, too. But perhaps, as the highly educated populace we all are begins to engage with a more 21st century democracy, our councillors will need less training and support, not more.
In particular because the voters will become more participative, not less.
In Fees & Charges, car-drivers would be at my throat. But I can't see it going any other way. There are already far too many motorised vehicles on the roads. There has to be a breakthrough set of alternatives, proposed and implemented by someone. Cycling en masse is an obvious alternative: it would reduce pollution, increase mobility within town centres and improve the general health of the wider population.
Meanwhile, I would leave commercial rents as they stand: we need a viable economy - it's our only way forward. Whilst I am asking business to engage with real issues of sustainability and future re the broader humanity, it's equally fair that business should be able to feel we want to engage with its underlying needs.
Fairness and equality on both sides, then. And acting in good faith from everyone.
My initial choice for Council Tax, as a result of my previous spending choices on the simulator, left me no alternative but to ask for a yearly 4 percent increase over the next four or five years.
And even then, I'm still overspending by 1.6 percent.
It's not easy; it really is not.
But what this exercise has brought home to me, as a result of being forced to make choices with reasonably self-explanatory - and, politically speaking, fairly balanced - implications to hand, is the sheer size and daunting nature of the challenges before us in Cheshire West & Chester, over the next few years.
Whether we are professional politicians, ordinary voters, digitally inclined hyperlocal enthusiasts, service users and carers, citizens who find ourselves wildly unrepresented in mainstream media, poverty-stricken working-poor, or the wealthiest of the wealthy living in walking-distance from the homeless, it is in all our interests that society learns how to function, whatever the challenges that face us.
Whatever the challenges, and whoever has engendered them.
So here's a vote of thanks to a council I think is currently doing its best - in very difficult circumstances, and with extremely small room for manoeuvre.
They will, however, only succeed if all of us - private- and public-sector, individuals and corporations, charities and profit-making institutions, and professions of all kinds - realise in time the magnitude of what's awaiting us, and respond, in time, to the nature of the common goals we have to recognise and acknowledge.