Here’s the thing. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for people who choose to stand in local elections. Local politics is a fairly thankless task however with a few exceptions we see exceptional public service from our local politicians. At the same time I find it screamingly frustrating as to how slow the adoption of new approaches and behaviours can be within this group.

This is an action research diary post for me and as such important that I state my personal bias on this subject (if the above doesn’t make it clear!!). I am a very strong supporter of the importance of having a representative democracy but I believe that elections do not deliver a perfect mandate and that politicians have an obligation to have an ongoing dialogue with their electorate to help shape their views and understand their preferences. I also think that this dialogue needs to be carried out openly and in places where it is possible for as many people as possible to participate. I think that today, to make this possible,  politicians will need to make far better use of online tools.

I spend a lot of time with Councillors and I am fairly regularly asked to do social media workshops of one kind or another with them – usually by Officers motivated by the same combination of feelings that I expressed above. I no longer use these as an opportunity to talk about tools as I have reached the conclusion that any idiot can learn to use twitter if they choose to (the evidence is there!) and these people are (in the main) not idiots. My belief is that the reason we don’t see wide scale adoption of social media tools is that most members lack the sense of urgency and purpose which would lead them to go online and talk to people.

When you dig a little deeper in this there are a few reasons underneath this lack of urgency which I think we can pithily sum up as confidence, ignorance and arrogance.

Confidence or lack thereof
The confidence point is of course about lack of confidence. Many of our politicians are older and often have not had to make a professional adjustment to new technologies in their working lives. In the same way as any other digitally excluded group they need to be given the confidence to try some of this stuff out. This is not about ‘training’ people though basic skills are of course needed. This is more about sitting down and giving people one to one support (in the way its done in social media surgeries) to help them achieve the things they want to do. Yes – this is more time consuming that running a course but ultimately it is hugely more effective. While on the subject of time – the other thing I try and is to help people think about how this will work with their wider workflow rather than as an extra task in its own right. So, if you have people like this in your council then sit down with them and talk about what they might want to achieve online.

Ignorance?
For some Members it really is as simple as pointing out the growth and centrality of digital technologies for civic use. Those of us who are fairly immersed in this stuff and see the growth in hyperlocal sites or community projects online get frustrated about the pace of change but one of the effects of the online space is the homogeneity of our experience – we tend to see what the people we follow see and this creates an amplification effect around the perceived centrality of social media. The truth is probably balanced somewhere between us evangelist types and the people who are not online at all. Simply pointing out the facts (and there are loads) on online adoption and the behaviour shifts seen with smartphone and tablet take up is often enough to get people thinking differently. By drawing together some of the offline social changes around for example in the shift towards less hierarchical and more networked organisations, or by looking at the public desire for greater openness which is so central to the online world, you can present the growth of social media as a symptom as much as a cause and so give it the relevance it needs if people are going to dedicate time to using it. Want to do something to help these people? Show them the facts.

Apathy or arrogance?
However, there is another group of members who I encounter who object to social media not because they don’t see how it could help but because they don’t think the public want to participate. This will either be spoken of in resigned terms – “I wish the public were interested but they just aren’t” or in a slightly more aggressive tone of “my voters are perfectly happy and don’t need any more contact with me”. The members who make this point are often fairly cross about the idea of more participation being needed – I am not sure if they are threatened or just a bit insulted by the idea. What I am not sure about with respect to the group is whether at the heart of it they are rejecting the idea that we need to change the way we are ‘doing democracy’ which is implicit in my belief that we need greater participation between elections. This group put the problem of democratic deficit fairly squarely on the shoulders of the public who are not turning out to vote. I find this group particularly disturbing because I meet a lot of them – I am not sure I have a suggestion for how to make a difference here apart from persistence and robust debate.
Most groups I encounter will have a mix of enthusiasts and openminded learners but there are always some of the these rather angry people who just don’t want things to change. Some of them have a thought out position on this but many that I encounter don’t.  It is the balance of these groups within a Council that is critical to moving forward. The more I do these sessions the more I let my frustration show (which is possibly not a good thing) because I think the evidence of the need for change in the democratic process is mounting and we are also close to a burning platform of financial crisis in Local government which, irrespective of ideological concerns will make it essential that we evolve the citizen/state relationship because we will need to the public to do more for themselves. And you know what, there is also evidence that in the right circumstances that they are prepared to do more.

This post is really the result of nearly 10 years of observations with respect to asking Politicians to consider how technology can change democracy. When we started suggesting that people webcast their council meeting we were met with a similar set of objections (and the far more relevant challenge of the fact that video over the 56kbps modem really did test your democratic resolve) and in some ways this has not changed. What has changed is the politics around this. We find far fewer Councils where the idea of using technology to make the Council more open and transparent (which is I believe the thrust of the webcasting project) is being rejected or being made to be a political issue and the battle ground around technology in the chamber has shifted to the degree of public participation. Even then we don’t see this splitting along party lines as we did with the webcasting and this is more likely to split along luddite / evangelist lines – with these two groups each having good and bad reasons for their positions. This makes the task of trying to create change programmes with members even greater as we are seeing two different interlocking dynamics as the party / technology groupings are different.

Returning to the question of participation, we are seeing more and more social media active members we are not seeing a step change in the way in which Councillors behave and I doubt we will with the current mix of enthusiasts, learners and naysayers. We will continue to see incremental change and improvement in this space but we won’t shift this as quickly as many of us would like without raising the level of urgency about this agenda.

What can we do this?

This isn’t about getting members online – as far as I am concerned this is about evolving our democratic process to respond to the social changes that we see with a more networked society. Getting members online and using social media could be seen as a positive byproduct of this process which is why the focus has to be on giving them a reason to go online rather than just teaching people tools.

There is also the question as to whether you should prioritise democratic reform when the rest of the system needs attention? I think we have to. There are financial savings to be had in changing the way that we manage our democracy and social gains to be made by creating a more connected community.

One way of moving forward on this is to remove the buffer zone of community engagement work and start to educate the public about politics. This is problematical as the public demonstrably dislike politics and process (Hansard) but by building the demand for change outside of the usual suspects group of digital evangelists we increase the chances of being heard.

Another way is for a body like the LGA to take responsibility for pushing this agenda, or for Political parties to take this on.  Another possibility is that we see something like the Pirate Party start to have the disruptive effect that has been seen in other EU democracies.

There is an inherent problem with democratic reform in that the time we get to spend on it is limited by the event horizon of the next election.  Perhaps the most important thing that may need to happen is for this issue of greater participation between elections needs to gain the kind of persistence in political circles that the idea of openness and transparency seems to have now done so that this debate can grow past the next vote.

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