I was at the LGA Annual Conference last week and just wanted to capture a couple of observations from it.  Firstly, I found it genuinely inspiring to spend time with a group of people who, whatever their motivations or political convictions, are deeply committed to helping their communities  – and I hope that we continue to retain these kinds of people when we ask them to start reducing frontline services.

We webcast the event so if you want to see any of it you can catch up here.

For me the event was a number of contradictions.  There was clearly a buzz from the Conservative members, still having a majority in Local Government and with a General Election win under their belt.  This was tempered by the knowledge that a huge economic train is chasing down the tracks and they know that they are going to be asked to make some very difficult decisions.  It will be interesting to see how ideology and party loyalty holds up in the face of these.  The Labour folks seemed very disconnected from the Westminster party to be honest, determined to fight the cuts, but still very conscious that they would need to make them – that being said there was a big turnout for the labour candidate hustings.  The Lib Dems were slightly different – and perhaps more aligned with the national party than the others in that they seemed to be genuinely wrestling with the idea of being in power and opposition at the same time.  It will be interesting to see how this develops.

The theme of cuts and reductions was in every conversation and there is no doubt that the conference was full of people ready to accept this – though not like it.  I didn’t get to go to a lot of the conference sessions – the main one was Eric Pickles – and I have to say I have never seen a Minister miss the mark with his audience quite so badly.  His message of ‘more freedom / less money’ was confused by specific statements and he raised the idea of combining CEX and Leader roles very clumsily.  This should have been a real Henry V moment for him and he missed it – will have to see if he can recover.

There were  a lot of CEX’s at the conference as well  and this is where you start to see the real implications of 25-30% cuts – with the people who will have to actually make people redundant.  Lots of talk about the last 10% which is going to be cuts that really hurt the public.

There was also lots of talk about the Big Society and no little confusion about what this will mean – more  on that in a later post (I hope!!).

But finally we get to some good news.  There was huge interest in the way in which technology can help government engage and a greater acceptance than I have heard before of the idea that you will need to change the balance of your communications and engagement from offline to online in order to reach more people as well as save money – and I don’t think they were just being polite.  People who we have spoken to in the past who have shown interest but then just put up barriers around member or audience acceptance were now saying that yes, they would need to look at this now.  Innovators who we know who have been trying to get support for more radical change are energised and ready to do something – knowing that there is more support for change.  This is a good thing for anyone who wants to see new forms of engagement emerge from the social web.

However I think we now have a responsibility, a lot of us have been talking up a good story and have got a lot of interest around trying new ideas.  But we now need to start running the numbers.  In our gut we all know that better online engagement will be better value and cheaper than its offline parallel, and that online can help support valuable offline work.  But we need to prove it – at least the extent that people can start to fund more pilots that will then prove it.  The Democratic Society White Paper was read with a lot of interest and we will build on that – but we need to start drilling down in order to make a more detailed business case that people can feel confident will support the work that they are doing on the ground.  To start doing this I am going to start gathering financial data alongside the rest of the Virtual Town Hall data but I think we need to do a lot more than that – this something that will be on my list of things to think about over the summer.
Interested to hear other impressions from last week if anyone has them.