I was at the excellent Digital Futures event  in Shropshire on Monday and spoke about Community Engagement – here is the presentation from the event if you are interested:

It was an excellent day and hats off to @ashroplad for his curation of the day.  Lots of great presentations but the standouts for me were Carrie Bishop talking about digital by design not default and minimal use of technology and Alison from Pesky People who with humour and determination hammered home the point that technology has no excuse not to be accessible.  I also enjoyed hearing @loulouk sharing some of the highs and lows of GDS’s work with social media – great to see a high profile group being prepared to share their less than brilliant experiences as well as the stuff that goes well.

I was talking about the way in which networked technologies cause ‘disintermediation’  – removing intermediaries from processes and relationships – and what this pressure might mean for Citizen / Government relationships which are often mediated by the Community Engagement process.  My experience is from the digital democracy world – but my point is that the offline process needs to respond the change being driven online.

We have been doing a lot of work on Community Engagement over the last year both on our own and with our partners Demsoc and OCSI (we don’t just talk networks – we work in them!).  The work has spanned the CRIF project in Cambridgeshire, the NESTA Funded We Live Here project in Brighton and at the moment as part of the advisory and research work we are doing with the APCC and APACE around the new Police and Crime Commissioner roles.  Having these new roles to think about really opens up the debate and has started to develop into some principles which we are applying to projects:

  • Digital by Default – not just taking digital as your main channel but by taking the behaviours that we find online and applying them to the offline relationship
  • Open by Default – Putting the emphasis on an open, shared and public evidence base that can be used and contributed to by all participants as well as a creating a process which allows new ideas and agenda items to come from Citizens as well as the process manager
  • Networked – Connecting and creating ‘networks of networks’ which can maintain themselves (because they already are) but contribute to a wider more representative discussion
  • Agile – reacting to new evidence and ideas in a controlled but responsive way

That first one is now back on the drawing board as I think that Carrie is right to talk about digital by design however I also want it to reflect the fact that its about being culturally not just technically digital – might try our digitally native instead – views please!

We are influenced by the Asset Based Community Development approach of people like Jim Diers and our starting point for any project is to go and find the people in the community who are already talking as they are the starting point for your network – we use our social media audit process to do this.  By running and open and agile process from the start, and by making good use of both digital channels and offline events, we have a developed a new approach to Community Engagement.  We also put a shared, robust and OPEN evidence base central to what we do.

Up to this point we have strong evidence and experience which shows that this a highly effective – and cost-effective way of approaching community engagement which leaves you with a reusable asset in terms of a platform and a network of ‘willing localists’.

We think that this can go further however and so within these principles we embed an objective to create more co-productive outcomes – the final stage of community engagement should be a co-productive and self-managing network of local participants.  Over time the investment in creating these networks should reduce the costs of community engagement but more importantly strengthen the ability of communities to help themselves.

Community Engagement should be about creating the right kind of relationship between Citizens and Government and as such it should integrate communication, consultation and the democratic process – which means that reimaging Community Engagement means reimaging the role of the representative within it.  If we are going to ask more of our communities, and I think the financial picture if nothing else means that we are, then it is vital that we renegotiate this relationship.


We had a really great We Live Here project meeting earlier this week and so this post started as an action research one – however it got a bit out of hand as ever its also influenced by a couple of other things I have been up to this week hence this post turning up instead! If you find that a bit dull then you can just jump here to the WLH stuff.

I was at the launch of the SEEMP Localism and Accountablity Network yesterday and had the unenviable post-lunch slot which I used to talk about how the network society could be used to reframe engagement as well the need for Councils to step out of the way and allow some relationship collision to happen and trust in the ability of people to bring about good outcomes. I went a bit free range but the slides below are at least a basic guide to what I said:

There were some good speakers – Andrew Bowles, Leader from Swale, talked about the Kent approach to Localism and William Benson (CEX of Tunbridge Wells) talked about some of their engagement work, including hack days, ward walks and a full on assult on Morrisons – brilliant! There was also an excellent speaker from the LGA who took us on a canter through the Localism Bill – in summary not as local as we thought so take the general power and competance and run as far and fast from Westminster as you can.

We also heard from Imogen from the Westgate Hall Community Trust – a community interest company. They have a fascinating founding story that I am hoping to talk to Imogen about in more detail and blog about separately.

I went out for dinner with a very dear friend of mine last night who lives in Australia – which was lovely. There is nothing special as time spent with someone you can talk to about anything and everything. We ended up laughing like maniacs about the fact that she has no idea about what I do – despite having read this blog and following me on twitter. I think we can safely assume that she is not alone. However, later when we were chatting with her parents I started to explain (they really are very polite and did ask) and it turns out her Dad is involved with the ‘Hoathly Hub‘ – a hyperlocal site for their village. Talking about that, and how it relates to local decision making made the whole thing come clear.

Why am I boring you with this? Good question.

Often, when we talk about community or democratic engagement I think we over-complicate things. A lot. I am obviously more guilty of this than most but I think we mystyfy the process of community engagement and turn it into something or a ritual. Sometimes ritual and process is important – protocol afterall is a mechanism for stopping people killing each other – but it can also be used to try and control a situation. I am now acutely aware that part of my motivation for creating a formal agenda is a desire to control what we are going to talk about – just doing a list of stuff to be covered feels very different.  The people who do this stuff within their community just get on and do it so it is no surprise that they are perplexed when faced with practitioners and professionals trying to formalise something that to them is a natural extension of their social life.

One of the points I made at the SEEMP event which got some willing and unwilling nods was the fact that we often use community engagement as a buffer between the citizen and government that covers what can be inadequate democratic representation – a cosy jumper that reassures us but stops us having to have unpleasant but sometimes necessary confrontation.  We preserve relationships but we don’t always make progress.

Are we helping anyone by doing this? I feel very confident that a lot of members could if asked step up and work more effectively and I know the public could. Perhaps if we want to demonstrate leadership in social change we need to start by trusting people.

I couldn’t seem to find a quick description of what I mean by online civic space and thought I’d better pop up a definition.  The purpose which I prescribe for a civic space is: 

to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making

However we also need to look at the affordances of that space to define it – what does it do.  Affordance is fancy way of saying ‘ the effects that you expect something to have’.  Rather than a quality which is largely descriptive an affordance is something that you expect your design to have.  Below are the affordances which I expect an online civic space to have:

  • Publicity– you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives
I think I may be being a bit slack with my use of the word affordance here and may need to tidy up this language – comments on this very welcome.I am also considering whether or not I need to add in the idea of representativeness into this list – or whether the fact that identity is here means that the representativeness is something that needs to be considered in the context of the decisions being made rather than an affordance of the space.  More on that when I finish mulling.

This is by way of a short overview of the session I ran at CityCamp Brighton on Saturday proper post on the whole event to follow. Being chair of the judging panel meant that I could’t pitch it so I am hoping that the write up at least will be of use.

The basic premise is the fact that people do not live in postcodes or wards and they definitely don’t live in lower supra-output areas. Neither do they live in Neighbourhood Policing areas or even in Parishes a lot of the time. People live in communities and the reach and geography of these are defined by the people – not by the data. This is an essentially narrative led view of the world that requires us to view community as a living thing as opposed to a post hoc measurement.

The suggestion is that we enable people to draw the shape of their community on a map and that we then serve data back to them on the basis of where they say they live – rather than where we put them for administrative purposes.

We were lucky enough to have people in the group from the Council, Police, Community groups and actual residents so we had a productive session.

Before we go any further – this session was very much focused around communities of place not communities of interest. Though we all fully accept the fact that not all communities are geographical this was our interest for the 80 mins we had together.

Data? What data?
We started by taking a view as to what data actually exists that can be matched by whatever means to longitude and latitude so that it could be treated in this freehand way. The list was legion:

  • Neighbourhood policing data – this is organised by neighbourhood policing areas
  • Snap points – the Police assign incidents to common points so as not to identify specific locations
  • Point data generally – anything that does have a longitude / latitude
  • Ward – smallest electoral unit
  • Lower Supra-Output areas and Output areas – have a look at the ONS definitions for these
  • Logical operational boundaries – these are the areas that make sense for specific service delivery tasks – for example waste collection routes
  • Postcode – this is where the postman thinks you live….
  • Property Gazette – and this is actually where your house is….

So – the good news is that all this data is there – the question for the #opendata folks is how actually useable it all is but let’s not dwell on that problem right now……

The devil is of course in the detail
The big issue is that many of these data sets do not, and probably should not, connect to specific points and so its gathered and managed into larger sets which are not going to be congruent with the areas that people actually draw on the map – in fact this is the essence of the problem.

Our proposed solution is that we display the map areas that data sets relate to surrounding the area that has been created by the user and that they can decide the relevance for themselves. That way we are being clear about how the data works and also allowing people to choose the information that makes most sense to them.

How would it actually work?
The user would draw – either with the mouse or touch screen – the area on the map that they were interested in and then have the opportunity to save the drawing. This would then be used to query the data – basically using the map in place of the usual postcode search. Simples.

Where point data exists we will simply display this, however aggregated data will need to be returned as a whole set as you can’t necessarily break this down further.

Rather than try and recalculate statistics based on your chosen geography the tool would return all of the relevant data as an overlay to your map and you would be able to choose which ones you felt were useful. Imagine a honeycomb with your drawing a blob in the middle….

Interpreting the data
We were trying to keep a tight scope for the project and so declared data interpretation and further exploration tools out of scope – partly because we felt that a tool like this could support a lot of other tools. However we did have two immediate thoughts:

  • It would be great to have traffic lights or something that would establish relvance of the data. Relevance is something of a moving target but in this case we are thinking of a measure which shows how good the fit is between the returned data set and your chosen area – ie the degree to which any stats returned fit the group you are interested in.
  • We also wanted to be able to show national and regional norms against your point data. This may become statistically problematic – but not impossible.

Crowdsourcing the world
The starting point for this is a desire to show relevant data to people but our vision was that you capture these maps and use them to start to redraw the map bringing service delivery together with real communities – breaking down barriers between different parts of public sector as they all have the opportunity to view the same crowdsourced view of the world rather than their traditional boundaries.

Individuals might save multiple maps to reflect where they live, work, commute or have family which also gives us the opportunity to understand more of the narrative of people’s lives.

Does it already exist?
We don’t think so but no good idea exists in isolation so thanks to Dom Campbell for sending us these links:

What needs building?
All of it! But in an attempt to entice a little open source collborative coding this is my view of the discrete bits:

  • Really nice front end for the map drawing
  • Code to store the (multiple) maps against individuals and plug this into different identity management systems so that this is portable
  • Code to check new maps against stored drawings and suggest a best fit
  • Code that can return point data and display within the drawn maps
  • Code that returns data sets as on/off layers alongside the drawn maps – which can then be saved against the map record as well

And then all of this would need to be implemented against various open / opening data sets from around the city.

If we get this far….then we would then like people to be able to raise queries / corrections against the data as well as add personal stories that can give a richer local feel but let’s not run before we can walk….

There are all kinds on interesting things you could do with GPRS for a mobile app – for example letting people walk their boundaries instead of drawing the or even letting them know which community they are in (lots to consider on that one). However in the interest of simplicity this is at the moment a browser based project.

What next?
Well – I don’t have a huge amount of time to do anything on this but I will share this and get some wider comments on it.  We may of course decide to build it at public-i – we’ll be thinking about it at least.

If the interest is there then I’ll pop along to the brighton open data group and see if anyone is interested in having a go… let me know what you think.

Bit of an odd week with all this snow – sadly I ended up stranded in London rather than snowed in at home as our train line gave up completely – and am feeling a little cheated that as soon as I did make it home the snow all disappeared. In common with many other people I spent a lot of time cursing the lack of real time information about what was going on – and would recommend a read of Paul Clarke’s excellent reflection on the disruption.

Personally I think a little disruption now and again is very good for us.

I spent Thursday at the Future Democracy conference and just wanted to post of couple of reflections from this before getting on to the main task of the day which is finishing that post on civic architecture from last week. The conference was fairly disrupted itself by the snow as a number of speakers (and the chair) were snowed in and we had to hack the agenda to try and make things work – full honours to Andy Williamson from Hansard Society who stepped in to run things.

As a result of all this I ended up stepping in for Anthony as the DemSoc representative and debating the merits of crowdsourcing policy with the excellent Gez from Delib – not surprisingly with him taking the ‘for’ position (given that Delib ran the projects) and me arguing against. So many people asked me afterwards whether or not I really agreed with myself – as I tend to sound fairly certain no matter what I am saying this is a fair question – so I wanted to clarify here.

Crowdsourcing is a real buzz word – not surprisingly as it was coined in an article from Wired magazine: The Rise of Crowdsourcing and was explored further in Wikinomics. But basically what we are talking about is getting large groups of people to co-operate in an open process to carry out the kind of tasks which have previously been carried out by small groups of experts in a closed environment. We could be talking about the naming of a new product, the analysis of mining data to find oil, the search for alien intelligence or the #uksnow map.  Some of the most interesting stuff I have come across is around the social crowdsourcing of medical research data – but the basic idea is that many hands make light work – so now do you see why the democracy folks are so excited by it????

However with such a new and amorphous term one of the problems is that we don’t actually have a tight enough common definition of what we are talking about and one of the issues highlighted from the debate was that people are using the term crowdsourcing in two main ways:

  • Crowdsourcing the issues – ie one huge agenda setting exercise where as many people as possible put something on the list for consideration
  • Crowdsourcing the solution – a more co-productive process where the participant both as the questions and

The main cases we referenced were of course the two large scale central government examples from earlier in the year:

  • Your Freedom: Where the government asked the public which laws they want shot of
  • Spending Challenge:  Giving people the chance to point out where we could save money

And to be clear – neither of these are attempts to solve problems – these are agenda setting exercises at best.  And more worryingly – do we think the public realised that – will they be disappointed if their ideas are not adopted?  Not sure that the communication around that point was clear to be honest.

However the question is whether these were successful projects.  They certainly got attention – over 100,000 ideas on the spending challenge. But I am not sure that this is the measure of success that I want to use – just adding an idea may be participation but I’m not sure its democratic and what I want to see happening are good democratic experiences rather than more opportunities for the mob to say “I want”. Democratic participation for me means also being involved in the process of creating a compromise between competing ideas, or at least being aware that this is the next stage,  and that means we need to go further than just listing the ideas. Before judging the success of this exercise I want to know whether or not any of these ideas are going to actually have a policy impact and for that we will have to wait and see for a bit:

Answer from Hansard on the Freedom Bill

A couple of examples are mentioned from the spending challenge around ideas that were generated and adopted – but I have to say I find it really hard to believe that anything being actioned this quickly had not been floating around Whitehall in some form already as an idea.

And here comes my rather great cynicism around all this – my concern is that without reforming the rest of the of policy process all we are doing is inviting lots of people to a party, asking them to hand their coats up and then shutting the door in their face before they get into the the main event.

I wrote a piece the other week about the idea of agile policy making and this links in to this thought. Its not enough to get mass participation at the start of the process – the problem of participation is almost certainly not a lack of ideas – the issue for me is how do you get meaningful ongoing widescale participation not just in the act of documenting bright ideas but then with the arguably more difficult process of researching, refining and developing these ideas into something that can actually work.

And this is where I think we really need to consider what crowdsourcing means. Government is an age of enlightenment exercise that assumes a huge amount of rationality from its participants. Crowds are not rational. It may be a great idea to involve as many people as possible in setting the agenda but this is not going to work for policy formation which needs to actively involve experts – problem solvers as well as problem owners – in a process of design and reflection which is then democratically evaluated and adopted/rejected.

And just one other point – there is a tendency in the narrative around this stuff to ignore or discount the expertise of civil servants in favour of the knowledge of the crowd. I think this veers from shortsighted to insulting and I think we need to value our experts a little more.

Were these two projects a success? We will have to wait and see – but in the meantime the risk is that all those people who participated get turned away from further participation because the rest of the process has not been changed and there is no place for their further involvement as yet.

I think its great to see new ideas piloted and hats off to Gez and the team for delivering this as its not easy to get government to innovate. I am sure that the learning was immense which is important as we clearly need something to change if we are going to involve more people in decision making. We also need to lean on these computer mediated methods as we need to accept that we can’t afford mass participation without using digital as our main channel – at the same time as hoping we solve issues of digital inclusion in time to avoid this being an elitist decision.

However until I see what happens next with the ideas that these processes generated I am going to keep an open mind as to whether or not this was a crowd pleasing rather than a crowd sourcing exercise.

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:

  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.

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:

  1. Agenda setting: establishing the need for a policy or a change in policy and defining what the problem to be addressed is.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Implementing the policy: this can involve the development of legislation, regulation, guidance, and a delivery plan.
  5. 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… 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.

So – after much conference attending and gadding about the place I am back to some thesis writing – the whole work / academic balance having been rather upset by my diary planning. However – its interesting how being out and about and talking about these ideas helps clarify my thinking – and by speaking to the kind of variety of people I have spent time with over the last month or so you start to see the bigger patterns and stories that link things together more clearly.

This was particularly true of the CIPR conference that I was at on Friday. I will post about that on the Public-i blog but I’ve got a couple of more personal reflections I wanted to add on this here. There are some exceptional people working on Local Government Communications but they are nearly all people that really understand two things:

  • Effective communications is not possible without a deep understanding of the strategy of the organisation and cannot happen on a project by project basis – and new technologies mean that everyone has a communications role. The challenge is about getting people to understand the brand and the strategy to a far deeper extent than we have done before with command and control comms
  • Communications is a support function – and to stay relevant you have to be embedded in the process of negotiating a new relationship with the citizen

Social media, with its deep rooted connection to authenticity and transparency both highlights and helps these two issues in my view. In terms of the communications people in Government – personally I think they really need to understand that the pressures on them right now are not just budget cuts and to start to embrace the new landscape they find themselves working in.

I spoke about co-production as part of my conference session as I think its a big part of this step change in what it means to be a government communicator. As we move online we have to understand that the social web is not a merely passive space which you can broadcast in to. Of course not everyone is actively creating content but as you can see from Ofcom and other research (refs in the sidebar) people actually do things online. When you start to think about civic conversations that it start to become important that we talk about how we do things – not just about the fact that we do. Let me try and untangle that statement.

There is a lot of justifiable excitement about some of the spontaneous community activity that we see online around the hyperlocal space or around projects like FixMyStreet and the like. We see people start to organise and produce outputs online that reflect civic volunteering that has been going on for centuries and the pace at which it happens is both exciting and impressive. Technology and the social change it brings, combined with the opportunities such as the Open Data movement, gives us an unprecedented opportunity to change the way in which we make decisions as a society.

Government often gets fairly badly kicked for not embracing this change and I share that frustration – but I also think that the heart of the issue is that government needs to adjust to a very different role and to make sure that it really understands its relevance to the process. And what is this relevance?

Government is there to make sure that the process of designing and delivering services that the community want is legal, fair and reasonable – making sure that decisions reflect the will of the people not just at the micro hyperlocal level but at the larger ideological level that can think in the abstract and trade off the needs and rights of one group of people against those of a competing group. Separately the State might actually take on the responsibility of delivering services – but the function of Government as the arbitrater of the public will is different. As we reduce the role of the state we should not be forgetting the role of Government.

So – why co-production? And what is it?

Basically it can be anything that involves delivering a public service with the public rather than to delivering it to the public:

“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co- produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.” (Nesta 2009)

Co-production has emerged from the literature around citizen engagement and consultation and its important that it is more about describing the relationships and relative power states of the actors than a mandated process. I’ve put some useful links in the sidebar and will add to these as I find them but here are the origins:

“Co-production emerged in the social sciences nearly four decades ago. The idea was first articulated by the 2009 Nobel prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, and her team at Indiana University, who coined the term ‘co-production’ in a series of studies of the Chicago police in the 1970s. Ostrom was trying to explain why the wholesale adoption of centralised service delivery through large institutions was less effective than people had predicted. She needed a word to convey what was missing when the police abandoned their close involvement with the public on the beat, and became more distantly involved in patrol cars: it was that element of successful policing that only members of the public could provide to make sure services worked. It was Ostrom’s team who defined co-production as the “process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organisation”. (Nesta 2009)

I am using the umbrella term “co-production” which has a number of more limited terms associated with it: Co-planning, Co-design, Co-commissioning, Co-managing , Co-delivering, Co-monitoring, Co-evaluating

Professor Tony Bovaird has done work around co-production in the UK for some time and starts to give some idea of the amount of co-productive effort which is already happening:

“While the results…..indicate that citizens are less inclined to spend their co-production efforts in group activities, this does not mean that such collectivised co-production is unimportant. As examples of how important it is to the creation of public value, in the UK there are about 350,000 school governors, who not only serve on committees to help run schools but also have a legal liability for the affairs of the school; about 5.6m people help to run sports clubs; 750,000 people volunteer to assist teachers in schools; 170,000 volunteer in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes, etc. Of course, these activities often bring individual benefits, too – for example, school governors often have children in the school and parents often help run sports clubs in which their children are active – but the point remains that they undertake activities which have potentially important collective benefits.

Admittedly, these numbers are small (with the exception of the sports club volunteers), compared to the 1.8m regular blood donors, the 8m people signed up as potential organ donors, and the 10m people within Neighbourhood Watch schemes, all of which are more ‘lonely’ activities, which do not need to be programmed to the same extent within a person’s daily timetable. (Bovaird et al 2009)”

Short digital exclusion segue

There is a risk in all these things of pandering to an articulate and already enabled middle class and it is worth pointing out at this point that co-production is also something that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have looked at with respect of people who are not in work. Their researchers conclude that:

  • Organisations that want to develop co-productive ways of working need to focus not just on clients’ problems, but on their abilities.
  • The benefits system needs to be able to provide incentives for those outside paid work to get more involved in their neighbourhoods without endangering their basic income.
  • To be successful, co-production needs to retain its informal approach. Local intermediary agencies – in particular properly resourced time banks – may be best placed to achieve this.

These are clearly interesting findings for the current economic and political climate and something I will be picking up in more detail at some point.

But back to co-production

The reason I choose to talk about co-production is because it includes the delivery element as well as the design or monitoring – it involves the possibility of all actors in the conversation actually doing something. In a social web environment while the emphasis is on participation and action this is an essential consideration. The interesting point for me is how you interleave democratic accountability with a co-productive environment – but I will get onto that in a moment.

I started thinking about and researching co-production when it became obvious exactly how limited the idea of a ladder of engagement is (al la Arnstein) – something which had been fairly pivotal in my original thinking. When I started to work on the detail of my theoretical framework the weakness of an essentially linear approach to the process of citizen engagement became apparent. The main problem being the fact that actors will move in and out of different states and relationships with any process and an attempt to show some kind of progress through increasingly ‘engaged’ states does not allow for this. Instead I have chosen to look to categorise behaviours into types and then look at them on an informal / formal and then social / civic / democratic basis.

My interest in co-production, in so far as my thesis goes, is in respect to the degree to which it can be associated with democratic outcomes. My goal is to examine emergent informal civic participation and to look at ways of connecting this to democratic decision making processes. My approach is to create an online civic space which connects together all of the local participants into a larger democratic decision making unit. However as I start to describe this civic space I am embedding the idea of co-production within its description as a necessary condition for wider participation as I believe that it is extremely important that the local civic space is jointly owned by all actors and not controlled by Government. Whenever I talk about this at events there seems to be general support for the idea (though some nervousness when I explain this means no moderation) but I thought it would be useful to unpack why I believe this is essential:

  • One of the issues associated with the decline in democratic participation is one of trust – and lack thereof. This is often cited as lack of trust in politicians, but can easily also describe the lack of trust that government has in the behaviour of citizens – we need to trust people if we expect them to participate
  • Dealing with the social web should be considered a diplomatic rather than a technological issue. The culture of the social web is highly collaborative and transparent and does not respond well to control or monitoring.
  • If we assume that a healthy democracy requires active citizens (mmm….this might be a whole other post) then building in the idea of government management into the civic space is unnecessary – we just need to look at how we transition to that state
  • We need agile decision making and faster response times. If we accept the idea that the speed of technological change is bringing about increasingly rapid social change then we need decision making processes that can work in a similar way with iterative, self-regulating models that can build incrementally in an agreed strategic direction rather than more cumbersome ‘waterfall’ models of government (yup – this is another post as well). We need the pressure of social change to work more directly on government so that we can keep policy in better sync with people’s lives. A co-productive environment makes this more possible as citizens are active participants rather than customers. Government needs to speed up and in some cases citizens need to slow down and reflect

Yes…slow down…..

Adding the condition of democratic validity to the local civic space is about ensuring that decisions are fair, reasoned and reflect the wider macro environment rather than just to issues pertaining to the hyperlocal level. Co-production shares the process with all participants – democracy takes into account the interests of the non-participants.

However co-production is a relatively new approach and concerns about how easy it will be to connect to democratic representation:

“Firstly, there must be significant doubt about the willingness of politicians to contest the role of professionals, to place more trust in decisions by users and communities, and to rebut media criticism when things go wrong. Essentially, politicians would need to support users in co-constructing their own identity rather than accepting one constructed by ‘experts’. Secondly, the practical feasibility of greater co-production cannot be gauged from a small set of case studies, even though those above cover a wide range of service sectors (e.g. housing, health, social care) and of planning, commissioning and delivery activities. Only further experimentation will show the practical scope for co-production in other contexts. “ (Bovaird, 2007)


Ultimately this is all about power – how you use it and how you share it.  The State has got used to wielding its power through management of resources and one of the pressures that it is feeling now is the weakening of that power as the resources shrink.  However the pressure towards more co-productive ways of working is not just economic, its been emergent in the world of engagement practitioners for decades and has been it shares many qualities with the underlying culture of the social web and the network society that we now live in.  As the State shrinks then Government needs to find new ways to work with citizens and these need to be fair and representative if we value these qualities in our society.  Co-production may represent a more engaged and active relationship with citizens but it needs democracy to ensure it is also a representative one.

This is really a surface skim of the ideas of co-production and I need to make a decision about how much further I go with this in terms of the thesis. My inclination is to leave it here as my primary interest is around how this conversations connect to democratic forms rather than how they work in and of themselves but it may be that I need to look at some of the facets of co-production with respect to how they relate to the design of the civic space – specifically around how you would go about putting a code of conduct in place for a civic space which allows the participants to decide who to include in the space. Will try and pick this up next week and describe what I mean by an online civic space and its underlying design assumptions….am sure you can hardly wait.

I was at the excellent Policing 2.0 conference on Monday – big congratualation for the team for a very well planned and executed event – and especially for keeping the webcast participants involved as well – great job.  Here as promised are my slides from the event:

I focused on talking about the challenges that pressure from the network society brings for all of government and tried to frame this within the pressures of budget cuts – have a look and see how well I managed this.  I also trailed some research we are doing on Virtual Community Policing – I promise to blog properly on this once we have had the kick off meeting in a couple of weeks.

It was in interesting day all round with Gordon Scobie given us all context for the event and both him and Nick Keane talking about the fact that use of social media and new forms of engagement really seem to be getting traction with the Police and there are lots of examples of good practice now. As Gordon says, the trick will be to ensure that we keep momentum while the CSR reverberates around government.

It was also interesting to see the localism agenda as described by Cat Drew from the Home Office and a lot of the messages were very consistent with what I heard last week at Solace which is encouraging. I am increasingly feeling however that the dull but vital subject of boundaries may be the huge elephant in the room with all of this talk of Localism – are we able to define Local across all areas of Government consistently?

Star of the show was Kevin Hoy from Greater Manchester Police talking about their day of tweeting. Will not talk much about this as Andrew has covered this here but it was interesting to hear about the detailed nature of the planning undertaken – will be great to see what they come up with when they have actually analysed the data.

The presentation led to brief back channel chat about whether this project could be described as co-production. I think the final conclusion was a tentative yes, if we start to see the hashtag used independently to run a conversation without the Police being involved – or if you take Dave Briggs point that all 999 calls are co-produced anyway!!

Other good stuff included:

  • Really nice in-depth discussion of the use of Google tools by Nathalie Profitt, Head of New Media at Leicestershire Police.  My enjoyment of the content was only slightly marred by the fact that you constantly have to have in mind that Google’s goals with these tools are all profit orientated and you have to stay alert to make sure that you are not compromising your civic purpose – or in fact anyone’s privacy
  • Great session from Christine and Kate from Sussex Police on the success of webcasting recent public meetings
  • Good session from Amanda Neylon on the Met’s Crime reporting tool – nicely argued with proper cost savings involved as well

I greatly regretted not seeing the MyPolice demo or hearing from the famous @hotelalpha9 but such is the nature of parallel sessions – have heard good things about both of these.

Overall very useful – though the thing that I was musing about in the car on the way home was this place issue.  After weeks of listening to people at conferences talk about the Big Society in parallel its even more clear how much we need to start thinking either of true partnership working or about how we equip the local community to manage what will be increasingly complex relationships with the different parts of government who will want to engage with it.

Next up the CIPR conference and then I’m staying on the office for a bit…..and writing up that co-production stuff I promised ages ago.



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.

You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

Next Page »