The politics of interactivity

reboot_logoI’m currently convening a number of sessions at a Nesta conference on the 6th July called ‘Reboot Britain’, running a strand called ‘PICamp’ – Political Innovation Camp.

I’m looking for local government communications staff that have had any experience or thoughts about the changing relationships with the local media – and particularly issues around the politics of this.

I don’t mean the left/right/Lib/Lab/Con politics, I mean questions like….

  • the politics of neutrality and incumbency – if local government communications staff aren’t going through the filter of professional journalists, will this cause problems from a democratic point of view?
  • are local on-line communities – often very effective ways of communicating – suitable mediums to use to interact with people? Are such groups an effective substitute for traditional communications through the local press? Are they, perhaps, simply havens for unrepresentative sub-groups of local society?
  • is there a way for councils to use social media to improve the quality of local democracy – or is it a minefield that is best avoided? And would an unwillingness to engage create a vacuum of any kind?
  • how far are the local government rules on political communications being applied in an inflexible way? Does the uncertainly around this result in local government – particularly councillors – being unusually inactive in this space? And how can local authorities provide a leadership role in on-line communications without becoming de facto political press-officers?
  • the politics of decentralisation: The changing relationship between local government and the mass media may provide scope for councils to change the way they communicate and reassert the primacy of local government in addressing local problems. Is there a political opportunity to promote the ‘decentralisation’ that all of the political parties claim to want?
  • getting the obstacles out of the way. How can we remove the barriers that stop institutions from interacting?

These sessions have already attracted some great participants – the interest has gone well beyond my expectations with some real innovators putting their hands up to participate as well as a smattering of interest from prominent local and national politicians as well as mainstream-media journalists.

The schedule is still being finalised at the moment, but I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone with practical experience, or with considered views on any of these subjects – particularly from councillors or people working in local government communications / democratic services / electoral services?

If you have any ideas for sessions at this strand of Reboot Britain, please visit the PICamp site, register and let’s hear them?

More cognitive polyphasia

Responding to the Guardian’s reader-survey about reshaping our democratic settlement, David Blunkett offers a good illustration of the cognitive polyphasia that colours so much public debate of these issues:

With one breath we say we want less legislation and more active politics based on a participative political activism and decentralisation; and in the next breath we call for more legislation, for parliament to sit throughout the summer, and by dint a further disconnect of those who, in the hothouse of Westminster, become more detached from the communities they represent.
We want electoral reform, but then we want to ensure that MPs are properly connected to a constituency somewhere outside London – which, of course, means a defined, single-member community that they can represent and who can hold them to account.
In other words, we are full of contradictions. We want someone else to be responsible. We want to give power to the members of the Westminster parties. Or do we? Is it not the “people” we want to empower?
We want it every which way. We want someone else to blame, someone else to shoulder the contradictions and, of course, when we get a new leader (and therefore a new prime minister), what do we want? We want them out.

“With one breath we say we want less legislation and more active politics based on a participative political activism and decentralisation; and in the next breath we call for more legislation, for parliament to sit throughout the summer, and by dint a further disconnect of those who, in the hothouse of Westminster, become more detached from the communities they represent.

We want electoral reform, but then we want to ensure that MPs are properly connected to a constituency somewhere outside London – which, of course, means a defined, single-member community that they can represent and who can hold them to account.

In other words, we are full of contradictions. We want someone else to be responsible. We want to give power to the members of the Westminster parties. Or do we? Is it not the “people” we want to empower?

We want it every which way. We want someone else to blame, someone else to shoulder the contradictions and, of course, when we get a new leader (and therefore a new prime minister), what do we want? We want them out.”

If there is one good thing that could come out of the current crisis in confidence surrounding politics, it would be a greater understanding of the causes of political centralisation.

Sadly, I can’t see it being the major theme myself….

(other polyphasia-related posts here)

Reductio ad absurdum

Simon JenkinsContinuing Brendan O’Neill’s theme about the reduction of politics to the question of how efficiently politicians can tick the ‘democracy’ box, Simon Jenkins picks up on the calls for fewer MPs and councillors:

“The difference is that most democracies have many tiers of ­representation on which voters can vent their rage. The Germans run almost constant election campaigns for someone to something. The French ratio of voters to elected officials is 120:1. In Britain it is more like 2,600:1. The overwhelming majority of Europeans can name their local mayor or another official whom they can hold to account for most of their public services. In Britain the only representative people can begin to name is their MP, and barely half can do that. Britain is democracy-lite.

As a result, MPs carry a hopeless burden of responsibility. They must be national, regional and local representatives, chairmen of planning, social services and education, local health ombudsmen and elected mayors in all but name.”

He continues…

“We might think that the best response to the present crisis is to have more tribunes, unleashed to operate at every tier of government from parliament to parish. Yet both Brown and Cameron want fewer, both fewer MPs and fewer councillors in the form of unitary authorities. They want to take Britain from being the least democratically answerable nation in Europe to being even less so.”

The straight choice

oxford labourRichard Pope, Francis Irving and Julian Todd have developed a site – The Straight Choice – that allows you to upload election leaflets as they come through your door – with the intention of promoting consistency and honesty.

It’s an interesting idea. And – as you come here partly because you often get unpopular arguments, let me suggest another one:

That the demand for consistency from political parties often has the unintended consequence of promoting political centralisation. Surely it’s a good thing if Lib-Dems in Truro are saying something different to Lib-Dems in Anglesey?

(hat tip: Kathryn on Facebook).

Populist policing and speedy decisions

Apologies for the light posting this week. I’ve been in Northern Ireland where I met someone who was studying criminology. Her key concern was the question of local control of policing and populism: Would devolved policing result in a deterioration into populism.

Northern Ireland is an interesting case in point, given the historic divides. Unionists, with some spectacular exceptions, have often been close to the model of the deferential working class found elsewhere in the UK. Republicans, on the other hand, have a … er … history … of scepticism about the authority of state justice.<<< understatement of the year!

How far would Northern Ireland provide a good model for looking at the general question of devolved policing?

All of this is a prelude to a link to this post on the LGIU blog: Localise criminal justice now. And this brilliant one about waste and decentralisation

The latter link has some interesting implications: How far is the current centralised model of policing (lots of form filling, procedures and risk aversion) predicated on the need to keep highly paid managers apprised of the information that they need to make the right decisions, and to ensure that when the wrong ones are made, that the same managers aren’t blamed?.

The other post I’ve seen that is worth a look is this one about the speed of decision-making. It raises three questions:

  1. Has the active internet forced the speed of decisions up?
  2. Are those decisions better as a result?
  3. Is there a role that public bodies could be playing to deal with this issue?

The internet is now the primary source of political news

obama

Obama: Has the attention of the internet. Can councillors match this at a local level?

Neighbourhood blogger Kevin Harris has emailed me with a tip about this post over at SmartMobs: According to this Pew survey … 

Some 74% of internet users-representing 55% of the entire adult population–went online in 2008 to get involved in the political process or to get news and information about the election. This marks the first time that a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey has found that more than half of the voting-age population used the internet to get involved in the political process during an election year.

So what does this mean for local democracy? Here are my two hasty conclusions on what are, I think, the key opportunities that this presents:

  1. Because the costs (both financial, and in terms of expertise) of web publishing and interaction have fallen dramatically, this could lead to a weaker political centre and the emergence of a new more personalised local politics
  2. Because more people can publish and interact, the signal to noise ratio has changed – there appears to be a noiser-than-ever focus upon the activities of the political centre, and a marked frigidity at a local level in using new media tools

I have my own explanations for this frigidity, but I’d be interested to hear yours…..

Trust, marketing and centralisation

The Long Tail: See the yellow bit? That's you and me, that is...

The Long Tail: See the yellow bit? That's you and me, that is...

The other day, I posted on how the ‘level playing field’ demanded (partly) by marketeers was a significant contributor to the centralising tendencies of the previous half-century. As a short follow-up, Seth Godin picks up on the widespread and increasing distrust in big marketing. I don’t know if you would reach the same conclusion that he has though?

“…even if you have a really good reason, no, you can’t call me on the phone. Which means that even if it’s really important, no, I’m not going to read the instructions. Which means that god forbid you try to email me something I didn’t ask for… you’re trashed. It’s so fashionable to be skeptical now that no one believes you if you attempt to do something for the right reasons.

Selfish short-sighted marketers ruined it for all of us. The only way out, I think, is for a few marketers to so overwhelm the market with long-term, generous marketing that we have no choice but to start paying attention again.”

Is it really the case that marketeers need to come up with an even longer con based on ever more leveraged offers that are too good to be true?

Surely Godin’s observations should be a cause of some consolation to those of us that would like to promote a more decentralised economy? Reputation management may be a concept that has been mined most effectively by e-bay, but it’s a need that is increasingly met by the long tail – and not just the online long tail, but the offline one of personal networks.