This post is focused on exploring the differences between civic and democratic behaviours and was drawn into focus by some really interesting conversations I have had this week while doing a short but perfectly formed trip to Yorkshire for various projects.

One of the major elements of the model which I am trying to develop is the drawing of a distinction between formal and informal modes of behaviour. This is something that I am drawing from Social Capital nomenclature (Wallace, 2007, “Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe”). However I am then making the further distinction to say that informal behaviours can be characterised as social or civic and that formal behaviours can be civic or democratic. I have defined civic as follows:

“Civic activities can be defined as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with.”

However this is old news and you can read the proper post on this here.

But my conversations this week have really made me think about the distinction that I have been making between civic and democratic behaviours really fails to take into account politics – the idea that you might have an overarching ideology which informs some of your choices and your context – and that this means it fails to really deal with the role of the elected representatives. The role of the representative is often the elephant in the room when you talk of changing the way we interact with the public and I realised that I have been dodging the issue as well.

When I first started to develop my model I used the term “Formal Consultation” rather than “Formal Civic” because I wanted to draw a distinction between what I saw as two separate interactions between Councils and Citizens – information gathering in the form of consultations and the decisions in the form of democratic process. However I moved away from this for two reasons:

  • I am describing the ‘bottom’ up activity of the public acting upon the decision making process – one way of looking at this is describing it as the pressure that informal civic behaviour puts on current formal processes. Formal consultation is initiated and driven from the formal body running the process not from the citizens and I wanted to reflect this ‘citizen pressure’ in the model
  • Consultation is not the only formal way for the public to get a hearing from the council outside of the formal democratic decision making process so my description was limited

This latter observation means that I need to spend some time looking at those formal routes into councils and I will write this up here when I have it.

When I talk about consultation I’m not talking about some of the ‘place-shaping’ market research type data that we need to get back from our communities in order to understand them on a macro level (though I think we could probably do this an awful lot better than we do right now this is a different post of even research project!). I’m talking of the wider scale consultations on particular policy areas or particular plans which often amount to showing the public a range of bounded choices rather than offering them – or even a thinly veiled communication exercise that attempts to herd public opinion is a specific direction.

I use this analogy a lot – so apologies – but consultation is so often about asking people if they want apples or oranges and never gives voice to the people who really fancy a banana (or – as someone pointed out last time I used this an egg sandwich – showing that I was already limiting people to fruit choices in my own thinking!!!)

Part of the reason for me evolving my thinking about this is the reading and learning I am doing around data collection and social research methods – its making me focus more academically and as a result look far more vigorously at some these processes when I come across them. Good research will do its very best to make sure that the context of the researcher has no place in the data collection – and this I think is the issue here.

By the time we get to the point of running a consultation the context is already set and we are not explaining this to the public – they don’t understand the policy cycle and as a result grow frustrated when they can’t affect the context. The issue is that the context is partly political and because we have tried to sanitise the consultation process from all political opinions we are not able to be honest with the public.

There are many good or at least understandable reasons as to why we have ended up here but I do think it would be an awful lot healthier – and a lot more open – if we were to put the issue of politics front and centre in the discussion and stop thinking that deliberations around decision making can be ideology free.

Of course the other issue is just the policy making cycle – at the moment we put deliberation in the mix before we carry out consultation – ie we consult of a fixed set of plans – but I think this needs to be turned around. For me decision making has four stages:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

I also believe that you need to view this as an iterative loop or spiral which allows you to check the agenda and context have not shifted during the deliberative process. This owes a lot to Rapid Application Development (RAD) or Rapid Prototyping methodologies which I think suit out network society. I was also very fond on the Boehm Spiral but that’s another post altogether.

So my formal civic behaviour is defined as the point at which civic society tells the state something by using an agreed channel. In terms of my decision making process this is really points 1 and 2. This means that Formal Civic behaviour relates to agenda and context setting and that Formal democratic behaviour is about deliberation and actual decision making processes.

This idea of “civic society telling the state” is an important point for me as there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how we could use semantic analysis or even sentiment analysis tools to feed into the decision making process and I think this is flawed. The public sphere needs to be healthy and vibrant – but there also needs to be a point at which it is fed into government in order to instigate action and this should be a conscious decision from the community – otherwise we are just imposing process on them again and the public are not taking responsibility for their inputs. The other flaw in the idea of passively harvesting public opinion is the fact that once again we are keeping the public out of the actual decision making process.

Deliberation is going to be political – its carried out in the main part by the politicians and they all have (or should have!) an ideological position on the issue at hand. We have created many barriers between the political and representative roles of the politicians in order to stop abuses of power – but which are being eroded by a more informationally demanding public and the authenticity and accountability that an online life affords people. These barriers inhibit local politicians embracing new channels such as social media. We have to accept the fact that our representatives have political views and that we either have to trust them to represent the people who do not share their views or we need to make the whole process more participatory and more open. We haven’t managed the first approach – we don’t trust them – so lets try and the second and create new standards that will allow us to deal with abuse.

The issue for me with consultation is that the deliberation will have already started and so the context is largely fixed in place but not necessarily communicated as consultation processes are not currently allowed to be political. To some extent this is inevitable – there is no such thing as a clean slate – but if we are looking to reform the relationship with the public and respond to the pressure that the informal civic space is putting on the formal sphere then we need to explore ways to include the ideological facts in the context setting process so that these can be understood by the public – after all they did cast the votes that put those ideologies there.

But the big question for me, for two reasons, is how we can involve the public in the deliberative process:

  • We already have representative who are there to represent the public in that process and involving the public risks undermining this
  • Most deliberation is, by my observation, largely informal or carried out in closed (for public participation) meetings such as cabinet

On the first point – I think there is strong evidence in terms of demonstrable democratic deficit that says that in many ways our politicians, especially at a local level, have a technical mandate through the voting process but no ‘real’ mandate because of low levels of voter turnout – Part of the thesis writing will be to evidence and back this belief up in more detail but it tends to get a big nod when you discuss it with practitioners. I believe that this disconnection means that we need to find a new ways to mediate this relationship. And yes – I believe that a lot of this new mediation will need to be online for many reasons.

Now for the PHD I’m not even going to start looking at how to change this – I’m going to stay focused on building civic spaces and looking at processes which could involve representatives – its someone else’s problem to see what we can do to ensure that representatives have the skills to participate.

However its an urgent problem because – lets face it – on many levels isn’t consultation as we use it now really about officers wanting or needing to bypass the representative in order to find out what people actually want? Or about members wanting the right questions asked to give them the answers they want (how often are survey questions vetted by members who know nothing about formal data collection and introduce inherent bias?) And is that not the reason that it is so often so limited?

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

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