So…CityCamp London…..where to start??

Firstly with a huge thank you and congratulations to Dominic Campbell and I suspect, more quietly, Carrie Bishop and the rest of the team who ran an amazing event with enthusiasm, generosity and intelligence – and I didn’t even manage to make the last day. FutureGov, I am not a fan girl type but I am now officially a fan.

Its easy to get very jaundiced about these kind of gatherings and the fact that I have been to a lot of conferences over the last few weeks makes me all the more inclined to view to whole thing rather cynically (yes – this will be a huge surprise to anyone who knows me) but I have to say that Friday afternoon, and to a far far greater extent the Saturday, really blew me away. Why? Good question. Firstly – the quality of the speakers was excellent but more importantly the quality of the attendees was fantastic and the format gave us chance to explore each others expertise. Even within the more traditionally arranged Friday session there was more time for Q&A than is usually managed. I have never been so spoilt for choice in terms of interesting and engaged people who could hold a real debate about democratic, social and technological change. I certainly didn’t agree with them all but the discussion was great. Part of this is the acknowledgement by choice of format that there were at least as many experts in the crowd as with the organisers and that the real benefits are in learning from each other – yup anyone would this was a little like co-production…… Not a surprise for the unconference crew but I think this was done unusually well.

I’m off to the SOLACE annual conference this week and I cannot help but contrast the way that will work with the way in which CityCamp is arranged. SOLACE will have some good speakers but it will be in a traditional chalk and talk format and will not challenge the audience to participate. Its a small thing in the face the kind of changes we want in government but perhaps we should have a goal to expose senior decision makers to these new ways of engaging so that they can see how productive it can be – less threatening and more enlightening perhaps than forcing them all to crowdsource their budget from the getgo…

It also struck me that though London is a great starting point the CityCamp format could really flourish for a smaller city where the issues are perhaps more contained. CityCamp Brighton anyone? #ccbtn

And one last thing before some actual content – I am one of the people who constantly highlight the lack of gender balance at events and I think CityCamp did much better than most – but still not good enough if I think about the line up on the Friday. I’m not even all that militant about this stuff – but its starting to irritate me and I find it hard to understand why this is even an issue any more.  I know that FutureGov in particular are gender blind and not consciously making wrong choices – but why is that women just don’t end up more prominent when you are talking keynotes and main sessions? Its not because there aren’t enough of us doing interesting stuff – and I normally get sympathetic nodding when I point out what is to me the glaringly absence so I can only conclude that we are not as successful at the self publicity that puts people in the frame with the agenda writers (not something I feel I have a personal issue with (!!) and have often concluded that the fact that I am running a company makes me less agenda acceptable – though I could of course just be dull – anyway). So – have made a resolution to start raising the issue as soon as I see the line up rather than moaning about it at the event and you can feel free to suggest women who could be put forward – and here is the start of a twitter list as well. BTW – its obviously an even bigger issue for anyone from an ethnic minority or even disabled group – I just choose to make a fuss about the lack of women and leave it to others to raise other issues.

But now for some actual content

But on to some real content. From the Friday session I enjoyed hearing from John Tolva again, was delighted by the the Lambeth Youth Mayor folks and particularly enjoyed Nathalie McDermott talking about accessibility in a fresh way. I was deeply deeply irritated by the very designy type chap from Berg as to be honest and had to go off twitter and DM my concerns with the much more even tempered @DaveBriggs (thanks Dave). I just have no tolerance for this blue skies stuff where I don’t see it backed up with action. Crazy ideas are easy – radical action is not and there is not enough of it. The political panel was interesting – but fell into the category of people trying to do the same thing better rather than changing the game – more on that later.

Democracy ought to be better

I ran a session on Local Democracy in the morning – this was a Democratic Society thing and aimed at talking through the issues of change that local politics are feeling acutely with the additional complexities of the London political system thrown in. I tried to outline the scope of the session with these points:

  • Democracy in London is unusually complex – the interplay between GLA, Mayor, Boroughs as well as informal groups and the fact that as the capital London gets more than its fair share of media attention
  • There is a huge pressure on democratic structures from the network society and the fact that people are willing and able to participate informally – and London is also ahead of the curve in terms of technology adoption
  • Most representatives have neither the skills nor the inclination to engage with the public in the way that the public is increasing engaging with each other – collaboratively, productively and socially

Of course I was just as eloquent when presenting to the session….

I also used the contentious phrase “democracy is not broken – its just at risk of becoming irrelevant” which drew some debate – lots of people feeling that democracy is indeed broken. I still stand by my view – lots of people feel that they are unlistened to or unaccounted for but in fact most people just don’t think about it as actually the current system works well in the day to day for them. That is not to say that it doesn’t need a radical shake up – it does – but I say this more from the point of view of anticipating the nature and rate of change that will be forced on it by social change and wanting to pre-empt that in a positive way. Even with our current and growing democratic deficit we are still so much better off than so many other places – which is why I want to evolve and adapt our system rather than calling it broken and writing it off.

However – debate was lively and though we didn’t always agree we did I think tease out some specific issues – all in my own words so anyone who attended feel free to correct:

  • With a couple of exceptions we were a white middle class Guardian reading crowd and Joe Simpson (from the Leadership Centre – sorry I kept calling you grumpy Joe) did rather forcefully point out that this hardly gave us a mandate to speak for ‘the people’. No-one could disagree with this point but the push back was the feeling that we all believed it was important and that the new approaches we were discussing would help address this issue
  • We did not speak about technology – and this is important – we more focused on how new ways of working offer up meaningful opportunities to try different models and decision making and representation
  • This kind of debate always leads to a discussion as to whether a representative model is the right one and this was no exception. I am not sure that we reached a consensus apart from saying that we all felt that representation needs to change and allow experts and activists in specific areas to be more directly involved and that democratic forms need to adjust to accommodate this
  • When talking about representatives we (rather jargonistically) talked about the need for active listening from politicians – how do help them listen to a wider group of people but also acknowledge and communicate the fact that they have heard back to the citizens.
  • We also talked about the value of effective face to face meetings and the need to build more of these into the process (very DemSoc this is so I was pleased it found its way in without me saying it)
  • And finally – we all agreed that we need to find ways of getting homogenous communities to speak to people outside of their group – and the get people talking at the decision making unit level where they can start to trade off their own compromises. In social capital we need to think how to create bridging capital as people tend to be better at creating bonding capital themselves

I think the clearest consensus was that this is not a question of using new tools to improve existing structures – we all felt that democratic process needs to change and develop to respond to a very different social environment and if we really all believe that then we need to start lobbying for it at a local as well as national level. Lets at least have the debate please.

So – apart from being enjoyable was this any use? Not sure – I think we could bring out a few principles that we could a wider debate about but its too wide a subject to have an impact in an hour. In terms of what I took away I would say:

  • We need to start the conversation around local democratic reform – need to think about how to do this
  • Representatives need tools to help them listen and react and these need to use new technologies if they are going to be effective
  • There is a danger in supporting hyperlocal growth online if we don’t also think of ways to connect these communities into a bigger democratic whole
  • Bringing people together physically can be the most effective way of moving debate forward

I would be very interested to hear views from other participants as to whether they agree with this summary. Also will be reflecting on my facilitation style as I was told (by different people) that it was the least democratic event they have been to and the best facilitated – really not sure what to do with that though I still stand by my respect for an orderly queuing system for these things!!!

And some great conversations

The lovely thing about this format is you get to meet so many interesting people – had a really good debate with Chris Taggert of Openly Local about how we can push our work @ Public-i in a more open direction without losing site of the fact that we need to pace any changes at an acceptable speed for our clients. I have been struggling with the fact that I believe that systems should be as open as possible but that I also believe this is a choice the client should make (or be lead to!) rather than making it for them. The conversation really helped me with my thinking and we have a few immediate things we can start working on – we will be picking this up properly over at the Public-i blog soon.

I also met the man behind Tweet a London Cab – Richard Cudlip – and was fascinated to hear about what he is doing – definitely one to watch.

I also really enjoyed finally meeting the Lauren aka RedJotter who is behind MyPolice and catching up with Nick Keane to talk Police matters….its always interesting to think of this stuff from a policing perspective as they are a group of people with a genuine dilemma in terms of how they retain authority in an increasingly networked world.

I had some many other excellent conversations but will leave those for follow up and personal thanks to people.  Next post will be a change of pace – either the much awaited return to thesis writing a section on co-production or a rather less cheery summing up from the Solace conference – lets wait and see!