No longer a pipe dream

Here’s Will Davies on how what used to pass for blue skies thinking is now just down and dirty:

“When David Cameron declared the need for a new constitutional settlement recently, quite a bit of this was based on the capabilities of new technologies such as youtube and text messaging. Leaving aside the overall quality of his vision, I was struck by how credible and necessary this exploitation of digital technology suddenly appeared. Prior to this constitutional crisis, the e-democracy movement had preached e-this, e-that, cyber-parliament, the Big Conversation, a civic commons – none of which ever acquired any political plausibility. It operated in a rhetorical realm in which ‘participation’ and ‘interactivity’ could be celebrated to the heavens, without ever imperilling a decrepit parliamentary system.”

Here’s an illustration. less than a fortnight ago, my kids came home with a letter in their bags saying that the school was considering ending the school day 15 minutes earlier than the current time, and that this change would take place in September. A short consultation period would follow the letter and the governing body would be making a decision … about now.

I ran into half-a-dozen parents that evening at a school play. They were fuming. The consultation period was over the half-term, and it all looked like a done-deal.

Now, as it transpired, I”m prepared to believe that the school was acting in perfectly good faith. The plan had come up quite late in the school year, there was a lot of enthusiasm for it among the staff for good professional reasons. There were a number of reasons why they really needed to get it in place by September. The consultation time-frame was unavoidable.

The parents I met were going to organise over the half term. A few of them are fairly tech-savvy (there’s already a TXT tree), but I’m the one with the reputation on that score and after a few phone-calls, a site was established using a Ning group.

Someone from the PTA has a list of mobile numbers for parents and a text message went around within a day or so. Soon after, the number of registrants to the site had climbed past 50 to it’s current number (74 as I write – not bad for a primary school).

The ensuing discussion was heated. More than 20 people contributed lengthy responses to the consultation – lots of evidence, research, even a spreadsheet of comparisons with other schools and an attempt to cross-reference school hours against performance was loaded up to the site.

A few parents questioned the motives of the teaching staff. Others even questioned their competence. By the time the open meeting started to discuss the event, the senior teachers were struggling to hide their outrage. Some of it was justifiable – feelings were hurt, reputations had been called into question.

They were also slightly baffled. Other schools had done the same thing with their timetables over recent years without a peep from the parents. Now, thanks to the ease of networking, and the convening power that we all can wield using free applications, they were having to offer detailed powerpoint presentations to a well-prepared (and often hostile) bunch of parents.

I’d guess that more than 50 attended the meeting, and I’m waiting to hear what the governing body has decided in the end.

The school now has a growing online community of parents who can ask any questions they like. I’m not convinced that it will make the school any better managed. It may make it worse. It may reward the time-rich Victors. The teachers may feel battered by this experience and think twice before making potentially controversial decisions. They often work 10-12 hour days and weekends to-boot, and they have a right to have grievances against them handled in an orderly, confidential way (web-forums are bad at this).

But of one thing I’m sure: Someone would have set up that site if I hadn’t done. I hope that I did it according to Mick’s advice (it’s now got a set of ‘play the ball not the man’ rules and a moderation policy).

This is the kind of participation that a lot of e-democracy projects would have spend £tens of thousands on a few short years ago. Now, they’re so simple, it’s easier to do them than not do them. Local public servants are starting to get a sense of what MPs and the BBC have felt in recent months.


Pro-social councils

Here’s the RSA’s Matthew Taylor making the case for a pro-social framework for local government

This bit may seem like a triumph of hope over expectations, but it’s interesting to ask ourselves why that would be:

“Engage local councillors in a redefinition of politics and social change, moving from a government-centric to a citizen-centric model. Support and incentivise councillors to be capacity builders (if this sounds crazy, there are places it is happening).”

Prior to this, he argues that….

To create the future most of us aspire to we need citizens who are… more actively engaged in collective decision making at every level.

Matthew is to be congratulated for this term ‘pro-social’ I’ve started to hear it being dropped into conversations all over the place, but I’m fairly certain that Matthew first mentioned it on his blog about a year ago. (I await correction on this if I’m wrong). So, I’d like to get an idea going in my own puny way. I’m sure that it won’t go a fraction as far as his but here goes:

Don’t aspire to involve people in collective decision making. You will be lying if you tell them that you are going to do it, and no-one will like the outcome. Instead, involve people in describing the problem and drafting proposed solutions.

I’ve outlined the thinking behind this on my own blog over here. What do you think?

Digital Britain – unconferences

For anyone interested in social inclusion and online participation, this is an exciting initiative. Go and have a look!

Let me take this opportunity to tell my friends in Northern Ireland that I didn’t design the site though….

Debategraph on the G20

David of Debategraph has dissected the G20 communique, using his Debategraph application.

Quite a brilliant idea, Debategraph. It does everything that a pro-democracy technology should do – it enables a wide range of people to rationalise a problem. Once that’s done, elected politicians can make and explain their decisions – not in terms of interests bought off / betrayed, but as a decision made as a result of a series of trade-offs.


Debategraph makes us all ‘eavesdropable.’ Its worth a million consultations, petitions and ‘have your say’ exercises. Crowdsourcing opinion is as easy as crowdsourcing idiocy, and barely more valuable. Crowdsourcing judgment – and this is what Debategraph does – is invaluable.

Oh, have I said? I really really like Debategraph….

Mixed Ink

The wemedia pitch it competition took place in Miami, February 2009

The wemedia pitch it competition took place in Miami, February 2009

I want to tell you about Mixed Ink – a really good concept in collaborative authoring that I encountered on my travels a few weeks ago.

I was in Miami (‘ark at me!), touting a democracy project that I’ve been nurturing for years.

The conference I was at was designed to showcase bright ideas in the use of new media tools. With a high level of involvement from indie journalists, a lot of new commercial and social-enterprise spaces were being keenly eyed.

The emerging spaces that are being created as the mainstream media adjusts to the perfect storm that it thinks it faces over the next few years were of particular interest to all.

My project didn’t win the prize sadly (there were two prizes and 18 candidates). The winners were See Click Fix (a variation on the UK’s excellent Fix My Street) and The Extraordinaires. Both good projects – the latter is just soooooo, like, kick-ass (as we say in America) it’s eye-watering. Do have a look.

But the project that interested my slightly wonky head the most was Mixed Ink. I had a few talks while I was there with the founder, Dave Stern and the idea has passed all the relevant tests for me. More to the point, I like it a lot more now I’ve thought it through. I’d love to try it here – and I think it would have a more positive impact here than in the US. Continue reading

Will Victor be the eventual victor?

The voice of reason.

The voice of reason.

This blog is here to explore the concept of a more inclusive means of forming policy at a local level. So let me offer you two examples of the kind of people that we need to include in such processes.

Our first case in point – let’s call her Mrs Meldrew (though it’s not really a perfect parallel – perhaps Dot or Clarrie would do) is a woman who lives in difficult domestic circumstances. Caring for disadvantaged and difficult family-members, she was never able to develop a professional career, and she has no inherited wealth or private income.

She often works nights and always long hours because of the vicious circle she is trapped in – needing money to pay for occasional respite care.

She relies on public transport and local infrastructure. The library is one affordable trip to look forward to each week. She doesn’t have a PC at work and can’t afford to use one at home – and as a result, she’s not particularly tech savvy anyway. She doesn’t have an e-mail address, a Facebook account, and if you asked to Twitter her on the backchannel, she’d probably phone the police. Continue reading

Getting the message out

Local government has been thinking a lot about community engagement and reputation management, and one of the unexpected side-effects has been an increased focus on how council communications support the democracy and participation message.

Press releases are more focused on residents’ experiences, and repeat key messages about the council’s activities. Process description is kept to a minimum, and attention directed at what local residents can do or achieve alongside the Council.

That sounds like spin, and it’s true that the council and its political leadership benefits directly from good messaging and reputation management. On a more noble level, though, interesting and relevant press releases are essential information if we are to build support for local democracy and the local democratic process. The resident focus reminds people of the role they have in the decisions that are taken at local level.

These optimistic thoughts were prompted by watching a different public authority get the tone badly wrong. A popular art house cinema in Brighton wants to buy the possibly-for-sale fire station next door. The article was clearly a bit of a PR piece for the cinema, but the fire brigade’s reaction to the idea is a classic piece of prehistoric process description and legalese:

“We have still got to find land in Brighton and make sure we have got planning permission before we can look to sell. We are a public authority so when we do reach that stage we have to sell at the best price, we can’t take into account the popularity of different plans or anything like that.”

It’s a message almost perfectly calculated to disempower and discourage, and it gives the strong impression – particularly in the last few words – that the Fire Brigade couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for what the general public think.

Of course, the fire brigade don’t really think that, and their message is legally and procedurally entirely accurate. That’s not really relevant: it is possible to combine accuracy and legal backside-covering with positive messages that encourage people to take part. Councils do it all the time.

Good work on engagement by councils will be rapidly undermined if local public sector bodies undercut the message on participation. There’s a case on issues such as this, where the whole public sector’s reputation is at stake, for council press offices to step in and help.