Ok then – I am going to try and reach past the gadget haze that my new iPhone has left me with in order to try and put some thoughts together. But it is a thing of great beauty which works very nicely indeed – I’m impressed – can’t wait to start really exploring what it can do (I have already learned that it can act as a torch and a mirror – who knows what other secrets may be uncovered when I actually start looking at useful stuff).

I spent a big chunk of this week in Brussels getting various projects reviewed – including the Citizenscape project. We are going to turn the full evaluation into a white paper and I will post it here as there were some interesting learning points – most of which have fed into the Virtual Town Hall work. The commission have asked us to do a toolkit document as well so I will post that too. We also had a review of Europetition and a really interesting meeting about the European Citizen’s Initiative – more on this at a later date.

But just wanted to capture a thought that has come out of a few conversations I have had recently – with Hugh from Networked Neighbourhoods amongst others. I need to think through and explain why all the Virtual Town Hall pilots are lead by Council’s rather than by other potential stakeholders. If this is co-created space then does it make sense that you target a specific stakeholder as the ‘host’?

In terms of the democratic engagement there is absolutely no reason at all -as we are talking about creating some kind of mediation between informal and formal conversations the host of that conversation could come from either end of that spectrum.  In terms of the practicalities of getting something like this in motion there are a few reasons to look to an institutional model:

  • Resources – Local Authorities are not swimming with free time but once they decide to do something they are able to resource an idea both in terms of people and actual cash
  • Responsibilities – it is not clear where the responsibility for local democracy sits – I would argue that the public should take far more responsibility but the fact is that recent legislation and the infrastructure leans towards the idea that Local Authorities are the custodians of local democratic processes. This does not mean that they ‘own’ it but it does mean they have more auditable responsibilities than anyone else which makes them more inclined to do something about it.
  • Knowledge – Local Authorities tend to have institutional knowledge about process and about services which means that they are very well placed to be central to a wide ranging conversations. They are also structured and organised to have these conversations
  • Representative democracy – Local Authorities are the home of the elected representatives and if we are going to join this all up again then this needs to be taken into account.

There is also a personal bias in here – I have worked with Local Government for nearly 10 years and so would hope to understand it better than I would the other alternatives – direct community engagement or working through third sector organisations.

However these are all practical concerns and none of this points really relates to community leadership or who has the best understanding of what the community needs – but these practical concerns give us a starting point for a process.

You do also have to take into account that there are tensions in this approach that need thinking about:

  • One of the reasons that trust in local decision making is difficult to build is because a lot of power is seated with the Local Authority – they currently run the budget, manage the services and co-ordinate the decision making process. This means that as organisations they are managing a lot of tensions and without being very familiar with the people and the processes it is easy for the public to assume that they are balancing this badly.
  • The usual suspects problem – Anyone involved in community engagement knows that there is a risk of ‘institutionalising’ community representatives so that they think too much like the local authority to be considered representative. This problem should also be turned around and applied to Local Authorities as institutionalised thinking can inability creative thinking and innovation.

I think that arguably a community led model could on the other hand provide a far more vibrant local conversation – my question is would it provide local decision making? I would like to test this – but my initial feeling is that it is unrealistic to expect the community to self-organise in this way without a lot of support. I believe this is where the project that Michelle Ide Smith is running in Cambridgeshire is focusing but will need to ask her in more detail.

There is of course the option of a trusted third party model through third party organisations and NGOs. This is along the lines that Stephen Coleman was describing in his writing around ‘a civic commons for cyberspace‘. This may well be the direction of travel with community ‘boards’ being created in order to manage the local civic space and you can see that as LSPs start to develop, as more single tier authorities are created and as initiatives such as Total Place focus in on describable regions it is clearer how this could work. However for the purposes of trialling these ideas there is no-on I can see to interface with – though I would be interested to here if anyone else has thoughts on this.

So – is this a reason or a load of self-justification about the constitution of the pilot programme?  Hopefully neither – I am going to see what I can do to try and get a community based trial running – or look around to see if there is something comparable in existence so that I can compare the approaches. For me, as per the last post, the issue is currently around building a shared civic space that is trusted and can meet the requirements of democratic accountability. Who builds it is perhaps less important.