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?

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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.

Steady state on citizenship stats

The England Citizenship Survey for April – December 2008 was published the other day by CLG (pdf, Excel data). Overall, despite the onset of the financial crisis, attitudes to and participation in politics don’t seem to have changed much.

A few headlines:

  • Only one fifth of people (22%) feel that they can influence decisions taken by national government, though two-fifths (39%) think they can influence decisions taken in their local area. 2001 (an election year) had higher numbers, but since then these figures have been stable, only moving a point or two each survey.
  • Also stable were statistics on participation. 10% of people had engaged in ‘civic activism’ (being a magistrate, school governor, councillor or in other way being directly involved in decision making). 20% had taken part in a consultation or completed a questionnaire about public services. 38% had taken part in a demonstration or protest, signed a petition or contacted an elected representative.
  • Taking part in demos, signing petitions or contacting elected representatives was least prevalent among the 16-24 age group. Only 23% of them had done that during the preceding twelve months, compared to 38% for the population as a whole.

There were some interesting results in the breakdown by ethnicity:

  • White people were by far the most pessimistic about their ability to influence events, but were also much more likely to sign petitions, contact elected representatives or respond to consultations.
  • At national level, 39% of non-white respondents thought they could influence things, compared to only 20% of whites. At local level the figures were 51% for non-whites and 39% for whites.
  • At the same time 40% of whites had contacted an elected representative, protested or signed a petition, compared with less than 30% for every other ethnic group.
  • White people were less likely to feel a strong attachment to Great Britain than Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Overall, 86% of non-whites (91% of Pakistanis) said they felt strongly that they belonged to Great Britain, while only 84% of whites did.

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.

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now”

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

There’s a really good, detailed bit of reporting here from Friday’s Guardian about the near-collapse of local newspapers in some areas.

The starting point that Stephen Moss chose was my old local paper when I was young – The Long Eaton Advertiser. 

This bit stood out for me:

“For the older generation, these things matter. “They want to know who’s passed away,” says the barman at the Corner Pin down the road, “and to check it’s not them.” But the younger generation don’t much care. Carl and Katrina Smith, a married couple in their mid-30s, not only didn’t know the paper had closed; they didn’t even know its name – and they were born nearby and have lived in the town most of their lives. They did, though, occasionally buy the Nottingham Evening Post – mainly for the jobs. For this generation, Long Eaton as a place has almost ceased to exist, lost in a more amorphous Nottingham-Derby conurbation.

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now,” says Carl. “For us it’s more a place to live than a community.” He was an electrician’s mate and worked all over the country (until he was laid off two months ago – people are as vulnerable as papers in the slump); Katrina works in Leicester. Long Eaton is a dormitory for them; they rent a house and say they have no idea who their neighbours are.

It used to be a proper community, with the railway, the canals and the upholstery industry,” says Carl, “but look round at the shops now. You’ve got Tesco and Asda, and everything else is in decline.” There is one new shop in Long Eaton – selling Polish, Russian and Lithuanian food, to cater for migrants from eastern Europe. The shop even has free papers in those three languages, as well as Ukrainian. But they are UK-wide and won’t record deaths in Long Eaton, in any language.”

Is it the local newspaper industry that is in crisis? Or is it the very concept of ‘local’? Everyone seems to be agreed that there’s no way back for the printed local rag – is this true for the idea of locality as well?

Peter Levine – a US blogger who has a blog that should be on everyone’s RSS feed – have picked up on the Conservative Party’s expressed interest in addressing this crisis.

Levine is sceptical of the Tories ability to convert their sentiments into effective action, and is somewhat critical of the communitarian spirit that it springs from, but it’s not an unduly critical post….. why am I explaining this here? Go and read it for yourselves.

Participatory budgeting – radio programme

Here’s a radio programme about participatory budgeting in the UK. I’m not sure where it went out first (Tiago Peixoto pointed me towards it via Facebook).

It’s quite short and worth listening to just for the note of joy in a council officer’s voice when she says that people were asking for council tax increases once they had their demands pushed back on them.

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