Eating the Elephant

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

Shorter version: Often, the minor technical obstacles mask a wider small-p political obstructionism to the promotion of a more interactive form of government.

Having written this post about the small obstacles to open e-gov a few weeks ago, Tim Davies got such a comprehensive response in his comments thread that he’s rolled them out into a wiki.

The idea that there are ’50 small hurdles’ is a very powerful one – it enables those who want to move small mountains to understand that it can be done in the same way that an Elephant can be eaten: A bit at a time.

I think that Tim has missed an important one out, but I’m reluctant to break the symmetry and tidiness of the ’50’ number. It’s an important one though, and probably a bit less straightforward than the obstacles that Tim has identified, so the omission is understandable:

Promoting interactivity between local government and citizens is a thorny one. It presents a huge amount of potential for disruption. Nominally, under our political settlement, elected councillors are the ones that formally do policy. Continue reading


The internet is now the primary source of political news


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…..

Political parties and decentralisation

Irish elections: generally more posters than in the UK

Irish elections: generally more posters than in the UK

So much is changing so quickly. Newspapers and broadcasters are changing. Governments now communicate using radically different means to the ones that were practiced a decade ago. Here’s Exhibit A.

We now have free interactive tools that enable us to hold huge multilateral conversations based upon collaborative filtering and reputation management. We can find useful strangers easily – and I don’t just mean with dating websites.

Of course, these changes throw up hazards. New doors have opened for budding demagogues, busy-bodies, lobbyists, snoopers and quacks. But it also throws up huge opportunities.

For me, the glittering prize – from a democratic point of view – is the potential to promote decentralisation of power. Putting the levers of power in a place that is geographically closer. Breaking down the rigidities that made participation impossible.

In the same way that the DIY ethic of blogging and social media has helped millions to somehow dilute the alienation of modern living, it has allowed many of us the chance to test our voice, contribute and to take some responsibility for public discourse – often for the first time. Continue reading

How local government and the public sector disincentivise social innovation


Tenuous blogpost illustrations: Lemons from the market.

The reason that there is such a wide-ranging debate about what democracy is, and how it is likely to change in the coming years, is in no small part, down to the fact that technology is making new things possible. The technical infrastructure available to us is changing, and creative minds are being applied to find new ways to adapt it to solve old problems.

Those creative minds – the key to any success in this area – need incentivising to do their job properly. Or lets put it another way: They need to be able to earn a living doing it or they will turn their attention elsewhere.

A couple of years ago, Geoff Mulgan of The Young Foundation summed up the problems that ‘social innovators’ face.

“Although more policy ideas are now piloted than in the past, there are very few institutions devoted to social innovation, no widely accepted methods for doing it, no serious academic works analysing it and no widely used metrics for measuring it. Worse, there are strong disincentives to innovate in both the public and voluntary sectors. It is well known that the penalties for failed innovations are often high while the rewards for successful ones are slim…..”


“… all new ideas threaten existing vested interests. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that ineffective models survive far longer than they should – for instance, in fields as various as criminal justice (where recidivism rates remain ridiculously high) and education (where levels of truancy and the number of people not currently in employment, education or training have remained stubbornly high for a decade or more).”

I’d add another brake on social innovation: Anyone that comes up with a good idea, and finds a way of making it commercially sustainable faces the following hurdles: Continue reading

The right climate?

Andrew Collinge has a really good post over on the LGIU blog. He’s picking up on an also-good post by Matthew Taylor of the RSA. 

I don’t have anything to say that engages with it directly, only to add something that I mentioned in a post a while ago over on the Liberal Conspiracy site about civic energy. It probably breaks every rule about humility and blogging (is it wrong to quote yourself writing elsewhere?), but here are the relevant paras:

Paraphrasing Tim Garton-Ash a while ago, when politicians were able to win elections and start the process of government, they often exhibited what Machiavelli called virtù – the capacity for collective action and historical vitality. It is politics – the whole reviled shebang – strong yet fractious political parties, that are the engine of that vitality.

Referendums remove that capacity at a stroke. If you are looking for an explanation for illiberalism – for the promotion of a bureaucratic / policing agenda – look no further than a Parliament along with local and regional assemblies that have had the virtùsucked out of them by the constant imperative to consult with stakeholders, negotiate with veto-wielding vested interests, disruptive agenda-led newspapers, opinion-polls, well-heeled pressure groups, bureaucrats and managerialists.

The nature of democracy makes a huge difference to the options that policymakers can exercise.

Even Obama gets locked down

Subjecting politicians to excessive regulation discourages interactivity.

Subjecting politicians to excessive regulation discourages interactivity.

My friend Will has e-mailed this from the Washington Post to me – It may cheer Steph up a little to know that he’s not fighting a purely British problem….

“Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.”

Update: Steph’s results are up!

Social media, civic engagement, and the need for political leadership

Probably not as keen on encouraging his political grassroots to interact as he could be?

Peter Mandelson: Probably not as keen on encouraging his political grassroots to interact as he could be?

There’s a terrific post here, authored by Dave Briggs – brimming with positivity and enthusiasm as ever. It’s a really good round up, and a good introduction to what is possible for users that already have their heads in the right place.

I’d add a number of observations to it that I hope make sense.

Firstly, I’ve not found a good briefing anywhere that makes the basic moral case for interactivity – particularly aimed at local politicians and officers. This is really what we’re talking about here when we strip out the actual applications. Something that mirrors the biblical Parable of the Talents.

Continue reading