Sunday, August 6, 2006

Govt also paid towards jaunt to Budapest

At the same time that Defra officials enjoyed a three-day waste disposal junket in Germany, the Government helped fund a trip for local politicians to Budapest to learn about blogging and e-democracy where they stayed in a sumptious 5-star hotel. It was an international event which included the Mayor of Washington as a speaker.

Among those who attended from the UK was Oxford Labour councillor Antonia Bance, who wrote about it on her blog. Now how could she resist this invitation?

"Strange phonecall a few weeks ago on newly-connected home phone: “Hi Antonia, it’s Dylan Jefferies at the Department for Communities and Local Government. We like your blog, and you’re a newly-elected councillor, would you like to come to a three day conference on the internet and democracy in Budapest at the end of July? We’ll pay your airfare and hotel…” Well, what would you have said?"

It seems like the DCLG had free tickets to give away and didn't know what to do with them, they appear to have been allocated in a rather ad hoc and cavalier fashion. On another post Antonia comments:

"I was invited to go on a bursary paid for by DCLG; I will try to give an honest assessment of the conference, but bear in mind that the fluffy pillows on which I slept and the wine I drunk at the evening reception was paid for by the great British taxpayer, helped out by a variety of corporate sponsors, so I may fail in speaking truth to power."

The great British taxpayer will be greatly reassured to know their hard earned money gives Antonia such luxurious comfort and pleasure. I posted a question on Antonia's blog, asking why she could't have attended training sessions on blogging in the UK. Her reply was:

"Ellee - it wasn’t a training event for local councillors, there were about five of us there from the UK who weren’t speakers. My understanding was that we were invited to add to the mix of attendees and to bring the experience of elected members who are involved in e-democracy."

True, it wasn't a training event, though Antonia's highlight of the conference seems to have been a workshop on blogging, and as her site looks really good, I don't imagine she needs many tips. But did she follow the advice on only blogging about what you want to see published in the Oxford Mail? I hope she will share some of her expertise with my friend Nick Carter, a Conservative councillor in Oxfordshire who was my boss during last year's election campaign.

Judging from the programme, it seems to have been an excellent event and I would loved to have been invited to "add to the mix of attendees"; I'm quite good at mingling and socialising too. I'm naturally delighted that Antonia had such fun.

I would have found it fascinating to listen to the Mayor of Washington Anthony Williams describe how to connect with hard to reach groups. The Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe offered tips on connecting mayors and citizens - pretty essential stuff for those entering the London mayoral race. But I think my highlight would have been listening to Najat Rochdi, UNDP rep in the Arab world, speak about e-participation for youth and women in Africa and the Arab Region. Not sure if Antonia was there, she hasn't mentioned it on her blog.

Where should we draw the line with making costly overseas visits at the expense of the taxpayer? We obviously need to at times, but are the delegates who are invited the right ones who can really make a difference, who can take things forward? Is there a special criteria that is considered before jetting off on these luxurious trips to assess their usefulness and value?

Good luck, btw, to Lichfield District Council which is shortly set to pioneer a national e-democracy project. I'm sure they will be leading on this at future conferences in the UK where more than a hand-picked few will be invited.

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