This post is a Dave Briggs appreciation post for two reasons – one is that I promised him I would read and blog about this book and I am a woman of my word and the other is that its thanks to him that I read it on my shiny new Kindle. I am a self-confessed gadget fiend but was hesitating about the Kindle as I am hoping Father Christmas brings me an iPad and having both seemed profligate even for the most techno lust driven individual. However Dave was quite right when he told me that the two things hold different places in your life and that the Kindle is brilliant for the kind of ‘deep reading’ the PHD is requiring where I am trying not to be distracted by the myriad possibilities of the internet. After 2 years using the Sony eReader the best thing is the excellence of the notes and highlights feature as well as the software interface – though the ease of purchase with the Amazon integration has meant this is in the same category as eBay and twitter in terms of best avoided after a couple of glasses of wine (this was valuable learning after I nearly ended up owning a canoe – but that’s another story). So – Dave – right as ever – thank you – and does anyone want a second hand Sony eReader??
But back to the book – The Myth of Digital Democracy by Mathew Hindman – published in 2008.
The myth in question which is central to idea of the internet as a tool for democratic renewal:
“Most talk about Internet-fueled democratization has been quite specific about the political changes that the Internet ostensibly promotes. In these accounts, the Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites. This second definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of ordinary citizens.”
Hindman is looking to examine this underpinning belief that the internet is of necessity a democratising force in the world. He goes on to talk about the fact that this belief is also connected to an evolution of our democracy from a representative to a deliberative one.
“Political philosophers have also worked in recent years to expand the notion of political voice, with a torrent of scholarship on what has come to be called deliberative democracy. Much of the initial credit for refocusing scholarly attention goes to Jurgen Habermas (1981, 1996); yet what John Dryzek (2(X)2) terms the “deliberative turn” in political thought now includes numerous prominent scholars (Rawls 1995; Cohen 1989; Nino 1998)”
Going on to say:
“Despite their differences, these deliberative democrats all agree that democracy should be more than just a process for bargaining and the aggregation of preferences. All suggest that true participation requires citizens to engage in direct discussion with other citizens. The Internet’s political impacts have often been viewed through the lens that deliberative democrats have provided. The hope has been that the Internet would expand the public sphere, broadening both the range of ideas discussed and the number of citizens allowed to participate.”
So the specific claim here is that the Internet is increasing the volume of citizens talking to each other – which is a vital democratic activity (particularly if they are talking to the people they disagree with). However the myth busting starts here with the thought that:
“Using longitudinal data, M. Kent Jennings and Vicki Zeitner (2003) found that Internet use had little effect on civic engagement. Pippa Norris argued that the Internet “probably has had the least impact on changing the motivational basis for political activism” (2(x)1, 22). Markus Prior (2007) found divergent effects depending on one’s political engagement: Internet use increased political knowledge among citizens already interested in politics, but had the opposite effect among the previously apathetic. Bruce Bimber similarly concludes that despite some organizational innovations, “it does not appear, at least so far, that new technology leads to higher aggregate levels of political participation” (2003a, 5)”
However this was all a bit of a smokescreen as what Hindman really wants to pursue is not whether the internet is achieving a new form of democratic utopia but whether it is competing effectively with pre-existing media forms. And this is where I first disagree with him – I think this is an attempt to find a solid place to stand in a constantly shifting environment – which is fair enough – but I don’t think you can talk about the media without also talking about the pressures that the network society puts upon the media – for example look at Castells analysis of media ownership and the effect on political discourse.
“But as Yochai Benkler observes, “We need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated the public sphere in all modern democracies” (2006, 260)”
And this is where Hindman gets to the meat of his argument which is an examination of how political activists, in particular bloggers, interact online through a thorough examination of the links and influence of these people – and his conclusion is that the internet is an amplifying rather than expansive environment and that “The link topology of the Web suggests that the online public sphere is less open than many have hoped or feared.” – he is talking about the emergence of a new elite.
“For political scientists, the demographics of Web users have seemed consistent with a familiar and disturbing pattern. In Voice and Equality, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) argue that differences in political resources result in a systematic distortion in the perceived preferences of the public, and that this distortion favors traditionally privileged groups and those with conservative views. If the Internet is itself an important political resource-a powerful tool for political organizing, fund-raising, and information gathering-placing the new medium disproportionately in the hands of advantaged groups might perpetuate or even exacerbate a conservative bias in U.S. politics. Yet survey data seem to tell dominate the audience for politics online.”
He takes this link analysis and comes up with the fabulously named theory of ‘googlearchy’
“Taken together, the insights in this chapter add up to a new theory that my collaborators and I call Googlearchy: the rule of the most heavily linked. Building on previous research and the data referenced above, this theory offers several claims. First, Googlearchy suggests that the number of links pointing to a site is the most important determinant of site visibility. Sites with lots of inbound links should be easy to find; sites with few inlinks should require more time and more skill to discover. All else being equal, sites with more links should receive more traffic. Second, Googlearchy indicates that niche dominance should be a general rule of online life. For every clearly defined group of Web sites, a small portion of the group should receive most of the links and most of the traffic. Communities, subcommunities, and sub-subcommunities may differ in their levels of concentration; yet overall, online communities should display a Russian-nesting-doll structure, dominated at every level by winners-take-all patterns. Third, Googlearchy suggests that this dependence on links should make niche dominance self-perpetuating. Heavily linked sites should continue to attract more links, more eyeballs, and more resources with which to improve the site content, while sites with few links remain ignored.”
He really sums this up by saying:
“Yes, almost anyone can put up a political Web site, but this fact matters little if few political sites receive many visitors. In the areas this chapter examines, putting up a political Web site is usually equivalent to hosting a talk show on public access television at 3:30 in the morning.”
Now I have some concerns with the idea that link analysis gives a good analysis of influence – but that’s another matter. The real issue is that once again he is embedded in the idea that the potential of the internet is its potential to challenge traditional media – he is putting an old world analysis on the new world order. And here is more of it:
“Discussions of the online public sphere have imagined that political blogs, advocacy organizations, and other noncommercial outlets would challenge the monopoly that commercial media have had on public discourse. Judging by traffic, this challenge does not seem to be especially strong. News and media sites still receive thirty times as many visits as political Web sites do. That level of readership is large by the standards of traditional opinion journals, such as the Nation, the New Republic, or the National Review, all of which are minor print publications. Yet political sites remain a small niche amid the larger Web.”
My fundamental objection to what he is putting forward is his narrow definition of political and the lack of inclusion of civic participation – the kind of hyperlocal activism which happens below the radar of the mainstream media in many cases but has the potential to have far greater impact on our political landscape – his is an analysis which is really describing the conditions of democratic defict – which is useful – but does not look beyond a political analysis to bring a social analysis to bear.
However its extremely useful to look at his analysis in terms of the digital divide and where new forms of activisim are rubbing up against the old elites:
“Yet perhaps the most striking characteristic of this group is its educational attainment. Of the top ten blogs, eight are run by people who have attended an elite institution of higher education-either an Ivy League school, or a school of similar caliber like Caltech, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Seven of the top ten are run by someone with a JD or a PhD-and one of the exceptions, Cox, did graduate work at Berkeley and worked as an editor at the Chronicle of’Higher Education. At least three of the ten bloggers-Marshall, Reynolds, and Drum-are the children of academics. All of this raises the question, How different are bloggers from what many bloggers derisively term the “elite media””
“The culture of blogging may somewhat ameliorate the elitism inherent in having blog readership focused on a few bloggers who are unrepresentative of the general public. Still, there are limits to what the openness of blogging culture can accomplish. The top bloggers may read more blogs than the average citizen, but their reading habits are likely also skewed toward popular blogs. It is one thing if the top ten bloggers, who serve as filters for the rest of the blogosphere, come from relatively elite backgrounds. But what of the second- and third-tier bloggers? If we are to take seriously the trickle up theory of online debate, we need to know who these ideas are trickling up from. We need systematic knowledge about a broader swath of the blogging community.”
And this is pithy reminder of Virginia Woolf’s point about a room of ones own:
“In the blogosphere, as in the Athenian agora, those who devote themselves to public debates are those with social autonomy.”
and he is spot on when he says:
“These findings raise the question of what, exactly, the phrase elite media means. These top bloggers have educational backgrounds that exceed those of professional columnists. The readership of the top blogs rivals the nation’s top op-ed pages. Moreover, the blogosphere has succeeded in re-creating some of the traditional punditocracy’s most worrisome elitist characteristics. One of these is a dearth of gender and ethnic diversity.”
I think my concern is that his argument is skewed towards the idea that politcal blogs are the point of entry for greater democratic participation online and I just don’t think this is the case – I think people are becoming civically engaged before they are becoming politically engaged and that that’s the big change here – hence my desire to catagorise and measure this in the PHD. Hindman talking about a ‘missing middle’ of the public sphere – I think that can be found in hyperlocal or campaign focused civic activism.
But he does highlight one big danger of political activism online being dominated by the highly articulate and educated bloggers:
“But if online debate has not achieved “true” deliberation, it has given new urgency to the fears of deliberative democracy’s skeptics. Lynn Sanders argues that deliberative democracy fails because “some citizens are better than others at articulating their views in rational, reasonable terms”, those whose voices go unheard “are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people” (1997; 348, 349) Peter Berkowitz (1996) concludes that deliberation empowers an even narrower set of citizens: Since it shifts power from the people to the best deliberators among them, deliberative democracy… appears to be in effect an aristocracy of intellectuals. In practice, power is likely to flow to the deans and directors, the professors and pundits, and all those who, by virtue of advanced education, quickness of thought, and fluency of speech can persuade others of their prowess in the high deliberative arts. Something very much like Berkowitz’s vision has already taken hold online. The online public sphere is already a de facto aristocracy dominated by those skilled in the high deliberative arts.”
This is a really useful piece of work in that its a serious examination of one important element of political engagement online and it has some really useful facts on the dangers of elitism and a strengthening of the problems and weaknesses of our current democratic environment – the one that has delivered us a massive democratic deficit.
However – by failing to expand the scope to look at other forms of participation beyond blogging and by keeping such a narrow definition of political activism to exclude campaigning and civic involvement the book ultimately falls down for me in its analysis of the potential of digital democracy.
I should be writing my research methods chapter at the moment but to be honest I am finding that a combination of dull and demoralising so am just quickly putting this together instead. I am trying to resist the urge to write about the policy making cycle as part of my thesis because I really need to focus at this point and my focus is around that formal / informal transition that turns civic activity into democratic participation. However – there is clearly a huge need for reform around the policy making process – mainly with respect to transparency and speed. That post on transparency is still on the todo list so this is more a post about speed and process.
This is not a fully formed thought but the similarity between the evolution in software development methodologies and the needs of government keep occurring to me. After all – software developers have been adjusting to the pressures of the network society for some time now so they may well have something to teach us. But firstly – unusually – a picture:
Look familiar? This is the waterfall model of development (thanks to Conrad Huang for the picture) See how we have a nice tidy progress from the requirements to the delivery – with no change of context on the way? No new information is allowed to intrude on the sanitised process of development. This is how I think of our current policy process – though of course we don’t actually use it like that as we give it little political nudges enroute as per my last post. Look instead at this agile model of development:
Thanks to Neil Perkin for this one The thing that strikes me is that the idea of iteration is central to the Agile model (as is the idea of continuous testing and constant progress against a larger goal) and this is where it differs so much from the waterfall model. Instead of assuming that we can write the omnipotent specification document Agile (and associated methodologies such as RAD for example) assume that there is some kind of learning during the building process and that we can adjust to accommodate this without some kind of weighty change control process – we build the idea of change and learning into the process. There are many reasons why software developers have adopted this kind of approach but the main one is that the speed of web development means that its quicker to try things out and see what happens rather that fully describe them first. This may not be what we want from the people who are building roads and hospitals but as digital simulation technology improves it will become easier and easier to model policy before implementing it and the network society means that we can get more and more detailed reactions from the public before committing.
One of the byproducts of this kind of approach is also a shift in the attitude to failure as it becomes a learning enroute to our destination rather than an insurmountable problem. Isn’t this what we need to do with political decision making? Build a little more humility in and ask people as we go along? The risk here is that of never delivering anything as we constantly creep the mission – and its a mistake to think of Agile as a less disciplined approach than the command and control style of the waterfall approach.
If we were to translate this to government then we would need far better decision support tools and also a more transparent discussion as to our destination – our shared vision. There are some really strong parallels between the pressures that have moved software development from an engineering / waterfall type model to a RAD or Agile method that could be used to discuss the changes need to the policy forming process to both involve citizens more directly and also to speed up the process. One big barrier to this is the get popular acceptance for the idea of a non-perfect policy enroute to a good one – ie that mistakes can happen – but as people grow up with a digital footprint of youth indiscretions we will have to get more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ on public life generally.
Anyway – this is a rather wide ranging and undisciplined post – but its really a marker for a larger piece of work that needs to wait for the thesis to be a little bit more formed. Oddly it does also relate to the reading I am doing at the moment on action research methods so perhaps I will try and join this up as well.
Before getting started here – large thanks to Anthony Zacharzewski from DemSoc for putting me right on a number of things – all mistakes still existing are clearly my own….
One of the things I like most about working through the blog is that a piece can start off as one thing and become something quite different. I thought this post was going to be something fairly straightforward documenting decision making processes in Local Government. Through writing it I realised that there is not a lot to write in terms of formal processes – we elect people and they make decisions. What makes this complex is the Political manoeuvring both from politicians and (with a small P) officers in order to get to the point of making decisions. With this in mind its hardly surprising that the public don’t feel part of the process.
So it turns out that this is all really an extension of the post I did on co-production last week and is really an outline one for a series of interviews I now want to do over the next couple of months with decision makers of all kinds in order to describe the special balance that exists between politicians and officers in most councils. Its an attempt to fill in the detail of what I mean when I talk about wanting to connect the informal civic participation of the social web with ‘formal democratic decision making processes’. This is really picking up on the detail of the ‘formal democratic’ from my catagorisation model as well as responding to some of the issues that will arise from the virtual town hall pilot at Kirklees (Decision Making 2.0) as we actually start to combine political and consultative processes.
These interviews should help describe the requirements for a decision making space from the point of view of officers and members with the work I am doing at the pilot site describing similar views from citizens.
Its also interesting to reflect on these issues as someone who has spent much of the last 8 years trying to get decisions out of councils (I deliberately don’t talk about positive decisions – after 6 years of talking to one Council we just wanted any decision at that point!!!). Because of the democratic impact of the decision to webcast council meetings over at Public-i we have spent a lot of time bouncing with greater or lesser degrees of productiveness between the bureaucratic and political decision making processes of local government and it gives an insight into how a decision that is often perceived as both political and risky is managed (or avoided) through the system.
But in the grand theory of everything this of course links to what I was writing about last week – how do we manage power and how does that power manifest itself into a decision. I don’t want to go over old ground and talk about the relationship between officers and politicians as I am still happy with my post on formal civic behaviours but I do want to return to one passage in that post:
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.
The essence of this is the fact that we need to embrace the fact that decision making within Councils is political – and there is no point in trying to sanitise this out of the process.
In terms of the decision making process I work from a fairly simple decision making model which doesn’t reference the political context:
- Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
- Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
- Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
- 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.
This is initially in parallel with models that have been defined within the eParticipation literature and I would particularly reference Ann MacIntosh’s work in “Characterizing E-Participation in Policy-Making” which uses the following:
- Agenda setting: establishing the need for a policy or a change in policy and defining what the problem to be addressed is.
- Analysis: defining the challenges and opportunities associated with an agenda item more clearly in order to produce a draft policy document. This can include: gathering evidence and knowledge from a range of sources including citizens and civil society organizations; understanding the context, including the political context for the agenda item; developing a range of options.
- Creating the policy: ensuring a good workable policy document. This involves a variety of mechanisms which can include: formal consultation, risk analysis, undertaking pilot studies, and designing the implementation plan.
- Implementing the policy: this can involve the development of legislation, regulation, guidance, and a delivery plan.
- Monitoring the policy: this can involve evaluation and review of the policy in action, research evidence and views of users. Here there is the possibility to loop back to stage one.
However as you can see I diverge after the analysis phase where I suggest a deliberative process rather than the creation of a policy. My criticism of MacIntosh’s model here is that it does not include the formative act of taking a decision – instead if moves from creation of the policy to its implementation without that decision making point. This is the basis of a larger criticism of much of the e Participation literature in that it supports the comfortable lie that consultation and engagement can happen in parallel with the political process and as having meaning in and of themselves rather than being characterised as a support function to political decision making.
What do I mean by decision?
In this instance I am talking about making a judgement on an action or path which will require the use of Council resources to implement or the creation of a policy which will subsequently affect future actions. As I am talking about decisions being made by ‘The Council’ then this relates to decisions that are devolved to Local Government rather than being subject to national legislation.
Local Government – what exactly are you talking about?
Local Government – Councils – describes the tier of government that is elected regionally rather than nationally and which is responsible for running much of the infrastructure of the Country as well as delivering services such as social support, housing and education. Council’s can take one of 4 formats; County, District, Metropolitan or Unitary – with the Greater London Authority being something else entirely as is the City of London. Below this there is also a network of Parish Council’s with very limited and localised powers which I will pick up on later.
The important thing to remember is that it is the Council that has the power – but often that power is used to delegate the power to a committee – thus making it in many case powerless – make sense yet?
But the complexity is actually in the relationship between the Council and the Leader / Cabinet as following the Local Government Act 2000 the Committee system was abolished and Council’s required to follow one of these forms of executive process:
- Leader and cabinet executive
- Mayor and cabinet executive
- Alternative arrangement
There was a fourth format, Mayor and council manager executive, which was repealed by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. With the exception of a few specified ‘alternative arrangements’ most Councils’ run either a Mayor or Leader system alongside their Cabinet. The Local Government Act 2006 (which Councils’ are in process of transitioning to) amended “Leader and Cabinet” to “Executive Leader and Cabinet” which further changed the balance here as executive functions are defined in law and given to the leader as an individual rather than being delegated. This splits the Council’s powers with the idea of providing more leadership and the potential for balance as the Full Council and Leader are not able to exercise each others powers. This might all change again soon as the Government has proposed bringing the old committee system back which once again has the Full Council delegating to committees but we shall have to wait and see on this.
So – where are the decisions are made? Mmmm…..no definitive answer here…..because either power is only delegated to the Cabinet or the spilt between Executive and Full Council powers means that neither can take dramatic action without the support of the other. In other cases, for example Participatory Budgeting, power may be delegated to other groups – however the actual power continues to rest with the Full Council – ie all of the elected representatives. The impact of this is the fact that the political strength of the Leader / Cabinet, ie how well it can reflect or manage the will of the full council, dictates the scope of its decision making power. What it does do is emphasis the fact that these decisions are driven by politics.
But what about community governance?
But that of course is not the whole story as there are a number of neighbourhood level boards, committees and other gatherings that need to be taken into account. A 2008 paper from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called “Designing citizen-centred governance” provided an overview of the governance structures in Birmingham. The list below is a subset of the full list in the paper:
- Birmingham City Council
- 10 District committees
- 40 Ward committees
- 70 Birmingham neighbourhood forums
- 20 Community networks
- 2 New Deal for Communities
Other parts of government are in a similar position with Birmingham having:
- 3 NHS primary care trusts
- 10 District strategic partnerships
- 2 NHS foundation trusts
- West Midlands Police
- Community safety partnership
and of course we also have the Birmingham Strategic Partnership. Birmingham is in no way untypical but with this volume of structures it is not surprising that decision making becomes opaque and the lack of trust that we see manifested in the democratic deficit starts to impact. And this is not the end of it – Anthony also points out, for example, the existence of shared NHS/Council bodies such as Joint Commissioning Boards, “which have even murkier arrangements because they are half responsible to health minister and half to councillors.” Decision making is as a result complex and one of your first difficulties is in finding out who is making the decision.
But if we are talking about any group below the level of Full Council the question is what power do these neighbourhood groups really have? A Young Foundation report “Communities in the Big Society: shaping, managing,running” says:
“Parish councils are the only bodies operating at neighbourhood level that currently have statutory power to directly control and fund a range of basic community services. They are empowered to raise funds through local council tax precepts and to commission or provide a range of local services such as footpaths, streetlighting, bus shelters, playing fields, sports facilities, allotments and community buildings. In some cases they also support the delivery of other services such as village shops, ICT training, play services and social support for the elderly by providing partial funding, community buildings, or access to volunteers.”
This question of funds is a critical one as this gives Parish’s (or Town Council’s) a distinctly different profile when compared with other neighbourhood formats and could be a critical difference as we start to see decisions and responsibilities being devolved as part of a co-productive relationship between citizen and government.
New forms of governance and devolution have been experimented with, for example New Deal Communities or Neighbourhood Management Partnerships but neither of these have the statutory powers of the Parish Council – though they may have other advantages in terms of specific reach or access to particular funding streams. Again Anthony pointed out to me that Parish’s are now about to be created in urban areas with the alternative name neighbourhood or community council and that if they meet the Quality Parish standards they are able to exercise the “wellbeing power” which gives them some degree of latitude to act beyond the Parish’s normal remit “to secure the economic and social wellbeing of the area”. What makes up a quality Parish is probably up for debate – but some semblance of democracy rather than droit de seigneur seems to be the heart of the matter.
Consult, engage or decide?
But getting back to the original question of how Council’s take decisions – Its difficult to talk about how decisions are taken without also looking at the dynamic between consultation and decision making. The consultation function is ostensibly there to provide additional depth to the decision making process by ensuring that the decision makers have a clear understanding of the nature of the issue under debate and the views of those citizens most effected by the outcomes. In some cases additional consultation is mandated by Central Government and in other cases it is there as a decision support tool. My observation – and this is something that I want to qualify through the interviews I am running – is that consultation is often used to subvert the democratic process, either by officers who want to demonstrate the problems with the member’s strategy or by politicians who don’t have the political strength to get decisions through the process. The final reason for running consultation processes of course the need to persuade the public that a decision is the right one – communication dressed up as consultation.
But how does this effect decision making? Well – hardly at all – and that is a major issue for the public who have a not unreasonable expectation that having been asked their opinion it will be taken into account when a decision is made. Very little formative research – i.e. research that asks people to shape or create rather than critique ideas – is undertaken by Council’s with the focus being put on asking people to give specific feedback on specific issues. If you reflect on why this might be you may conclude that there is an expectation that formative work is carried out by the elected representatives. But this is not a sound conclusion when taken in conjunction with a democratic deficit which demonstrates at best a weak mandate for decision making by Members.
So what seems at the outset to be fairly simple with powers clearly resting with either Council or Leader/Cabinet is far more complex and inherently political in that what the public might perceive as a decision – for example “lets build a new shopping centre” – actually has to take a journey between different committees and functions as it moves through the decision making process. My decision making model looks hopelessly simplistic as the political debate might seek to shift both the context and the options before the Council actually takes that decision. Decision making is in fact iterative rather than linear and if we want to be more transparent in the decision making process then we need to consider what this means – and that’s another post I think.
And if this is not complex enough – one thing that is rarely taken into consideration is how the professional knowledge and personal inclinations of officers also impacts on this process – and the way in which Consultation has grown up as a parallel power base within many organisations demonstrates this. The question is how to return consultation to the decision support role and to embrace the fact that the decision making process is political. Co-production – equal sharing of power – requires this but we will still need decision support and this is potentially even more difficult when you are dealing with a wider group of people who are almost certainly less rather than more statistically literate and able to interpret the results of consultation processes. There is a link here to the effect of open data which I want to draw out in a different post – perhaps alongside something on transparency.
Democratic decisions are taken when the decision makers are transparently representative of the citizens who the decision effects. This power of representation may be ceded to other groups but unless it is formally and legally passed on then the responsibility lies with the representatives. There are strong arguments for improving this democratic function at a neighbourhood level (if we can meet Quality Parish standards!!) and going beyond the budget setting process to more formal governance and representation however this is not yet happening on a wide spread basis no matter what the Big Society rhetoric of the current government might say. This further devolution would sit well with the hyperlocal activity that we see online and reflect the fact that this micro units are possible in a network society.
Ultimately decisions are taken where the power is – for democracy the problem comes when there is a lack of strong political leadership and where what leadership we have has a weak mandate from the public in terms of low voter turnout. We have a crisis of political leadership at a local level in the UK in that we struggle to find people to stand – let alone have the opportunity to have a competitive race for the post in many areas. The Councillor Census 2008 showed:
- Only 30.8% of Councillors are women (and that’s an increase!)
- 96.6% of councillors are white
- The average age of councillors has increased from 55 years in 1997 to 59 years in 2008, and the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4% to 13.1% over the same period.
This does not reflect well on a representative democracy. The crisis in democratic participation means that the critical question about devolving democratic powers to a more local level may not be whether this is more democratic but whether or it will allow us to recruit more participants. Currently most people who exercise their democratic rights at a local level tend to do this in direct response to National politics – who else is expecting the Liberal Democrats to get a liberal kicking at the next Local Government elections that has nothing to do with their performance within local government? Democracy functions through participation – we may pontificate about the problems with devolving responsibility to the Parish (or equivalent) level but if this is where we can get people to participate then this may answer our most pressing issue.
However I don’t believe that this devolution is enough – what may then be needed are new forms of representation – for example using specialists or mixed length terms in order to reflect the flexibility and fluidity of the community at the same time as looking to strengthen representation at a neighbourhood level where the burden of time needed to fulfil a role will be much less and where the act of representing your community will have a more direct impact than in representing a larger group of people. We also need more iterative decision making processes that allow for the ongoing negotiation and context and proposal against the initial agenda setting process so that people can have an actual impact within the event horizon of their more flexible participation.
Understanding how we make decisions is also part of this – showing people where they can have an effect and then inviting them to participate in that process in a way that makes sense to them.