edemocracy


I was really lucky to be invited to participate in a 2 day workshop in Stockholm the week before last organised and hosted by SALAR, with help from Jeremy Millard and brilliant facilitation from Martin Sande.

I have worked with SALAR on and off over the last five years and one of the many things which are impressive about them is there openness to external ideas. This event really came out of this as they gathered a group of about a dozen practitioners, academics and weird hybrid types like me to ‘deep think’ about how technology could and should change democratic participation in Sweden. The process was interesting; they asked us each to write a 5000 word positioning paper in advance and then present to the group (this is going to turn into a book – at some point) and we then debated these in small and then larger groups. Day two (after a well timed process intervention by Rolf) was focused on creating practical suggestions as to the way forward. They also had a ‘ginger’ group of Swedish local government people and the SALAR team to critique and comment on the process.

Some overarching themes emerged from the day; openness in terms of process and data, greater collaboration, networked behaviour. There was a question running through about the nature and extent of the realisation of the network society and there was also an ongoing discussion of civic space online which I will pick up separately as this is a big topic in its own right (picked up by Andy Williamson in his paper in fact).

The group I worked in created something we called the ‘Collaborative manifesto’ and Matt Poelmans who was in the group has blogged in it here. Also in the group were Chuck Hirst from CEECN, Rolf Luhrs from Pepnet and Valerie Frissen from Erasmus University. The presentation we created is below:


We wanted to create something which would allow the team and SALAR to start working towards change without having to have complete clarity of the final destination so we discussed the idea of a collaborative audit which would establish the readiness of a Council to move forward against the values which we had described. We suggested that research needs to be embedded in the process and proposed some specific experiments which could be bridges between the current and new reality.

This is by no means finished thinking and it is something that some of us want to keep talking about as it felt like a practical way to start effecting change in an environment that has no burning platform for change.

This last point, the fact that Sweden is actually in very good financial, social and democratic shape compared to other european democracies was addressed by the other group who discussed the rapidly approaching issue of the ageing population and how to bring this debate to the centre of current political thinking.

It is odd to think of the UK as being ‘lucky’ with respect to our financial crisis but if you do believe that the pressure of social change is demanding that government transforms itself then the more pressing financial problems have to be seen as a good thing in that they place the need for innovation on everyones agenda. Never waste a good crisis as they say.

I’d like to thank our hosts and the other participants. As I said at the start I often feel like something of a hybrid – not quite academic and not quite practitioner – and it was refreshing and exhilarating to be in the company of other action researchers to discuss both theory and practice. I do hope we get to do it again.

My thesis is (currently but persistently) titled “Civic Architecture in Cyberspace” and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean by this. Be warned that this also a draft for a section in the final document so may be a little slow….

When William Mitchell described his ‘City of Bits‘ in 1996 he recreated the physical city with retail, educational civic and commercial elements. He was in many ways talking against the zeitgeist at the time as the focus was on the potential of new technologies to break down barrier of time and place and create virtual communities as described by Howard Rheingold (Homesteading the Virtual Frontier, 1994). However now, as we see internet use near pervasive and mobile devices offering the potential for an augmented reality with real time, real place information it may be time to reconsider how we want to build our City of Bits. If market forces are taking care of retail and commerce and the education system is taking care of itself – who is building civic space online?

In a 2003 paper Benkler suggested the need for a common infrastructure to complement the proprietary one created by the market – he in fact refers to the commons as a place which is free of the market and in common with Lessig talks of these shared spaces as being a place of open innovation unfettered by market forces. These ‘commons’, an echo of the mediaeval idea of common land, require a number of conditions according to Benkler who I paraphrase below:

  • An open physical layer should be built through the introduction of open wireless networks, or a spectrum commons.
  • An open logical layer should be facilitated through a systematic policy preference for open over close protocols and standards, and support for free software platforms that no person or firm can unilaterally control.
  • An open content layer. Not all content must be open, but intellectual property rights have gone wildly out of control in the past decade, expanding in scope and force like never before. There is a pressing need to roll back some of the rules that are intended to support the twentieth century business models.
  • Reforming organisational and institutional structures that
  • resist widely distributed production systems.

To create such a commons we would need to align legal, technical and governmental structures as well as market forces and corporations who are currently very happy to be have the freedom to create walled gardens in the way many of us criticised AOL and others for doing when people first started going online domestically.

There is in my view another layer that needs to be considered – perhaps best described as social and cultural. Boyd’s description of networked publics and the way in which people use web 2.0 spaces makes clear the importance of the audience in forming the nature and behaviour of the space and Donath’s work on social signalling online further extends this. Online the participants have a far more active role to play in the creation of the space than is possible offline.

The networked publics that Boyd describes, places like Facebook and Myspace, suffer from the structural flaws which Lessig and Benkler explore and as such I would challenge their ability to be truly and persistently civic.

Stephen Coleman and Jay Bluhmer have suggested the need for a civic commons online – a mediated democratic space – and this has been echoed by Sunstein in his book Republic 2.0. In this conception of civic space online their is an agreed space for democratic debate which has been created for this purpose and is linked to the formal decision making process.

So – what do I mean by civic architecture online?
Our built environment now produces a vast amount of data and as individuals the content we created is increasingly geo-located as we create more of it from smartphones and similar devices. I would like to see more that being open and available as feedback to the people. My work examining hyperlocal social media sites shows huge numbers of people using these technologies with the purpose ‘I want to talk to my community’ but in many ways these individuals are talking blindly as the civic infrastructure which could knit these contributions together is not there – this absence is what I refer to as the ‘civic communicative layer’.

There is not obvious gathering place of place online. Where the town hall, village hall, pub, churches or the commons all serve as focal points in the physical world there are as yet no online equivalent and also no infrastructure to bring these together. Coleman’s civic commons is one element of this but that is formal – we also need the informal spaces where communities meet.

I agree with Benkler who proposed an open legal and structural layer and I also agree with the need for process and organisational reform to achieve this. I would like to see open standards around the transfer of civic data and I would like to encourage the creation of focal points for civic discourse which are not mediated by the state.

This could be simple – imagine that on connecting to the internet in a new area you were asked if you wanted to know what was happening in the community. Imagine that as you walk down the street you are able to see examples of civic projects and active citizens rather than the advertising that would currently be the only thing to flood an open phone. How about a civic weighted search engine which prioritised content which is relevant to the social fabric and not to commercial interests?

Evangelists are tedious and I would be the first to admit that I am an evangelist for the potential of the social web. But much of this is rooted in my experiences 15 years ago when I first discovered these technologies and where the balance between commercial and civic content was I believe very different and when the hacker/academic antecedents of the social web were stronger. We have diluted this culture and though I think change and adoption is good now is the time to temper this by returning to those more civic roots and demanding that if we are building a City of Bits we should make sure that it includes civic space as well as a really big shopping mall.

In common again with Benkler and others I freely admit that this is a moral as much as a researched position for me. However I don’t think its uncommon. What needs to be considered is the depth of this issue – practitioners in many different disciplines feel the absence of civic space as is discussed above but without often without the technological and legal perspective and writers like Benkler and Lessig bring. To be concerned about democracy online also means to be concerned about the fabric of the internet – the technical and legal standards which protect the openness which is so essential I believe to democracy.

There is of course an alternative position which is the optimism of a benign market which talks about collaborative consumption and crowdsourcing of solutions. If true then this is an exciting thought but I currently fear that this is a closed wolf in open sheeps clothing and that commercial organisations need to be compelled to behave with more open practice. Its possible that local market forces might achieve this but not I believe without some strucutural intervention.

Finishing with a Benkler quote the potential of a strong common infrastructure is there:

Building a core common infrastructure is a necessary precondition to allow us to transition away from a society of passive consumers buying what a small number of commercial producers are selling. It will allows us to develop into society in which all can speak to all, and in which anyone can become an active participant in political, social, and cultural discourse. (2003)

We can and should continue to focus content and civic activists and I believe we will continue to see citizens creating civic spaces online with their hyperlocal activity. I hope we will see politicians interacting with them there. However, without addressing the structural restrictions described above this activity is limited as is our freedom online.

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.

When I say Facebook is evil its firstly a cheap shot aimed at getting an immediate laugh out of the audience – I have to say that it usually works. I think it hits a chord with people as all good jokes should. While evil is perhaps an overstatement its true that my values and those of Facebook are not aligned – they are making decisions which effect me which I don’t agree with – over which I have no control.

 Lawrence Lessig (http://www.lessig.org/ ), a Stanford law professor, wrote this about internet architecture in 2005:

 The first generation of these architectures was built by a noncommercial sector—researchers and hackers, focused upon building a network. The second generation has been built by commerce. And the third, not yet off the drawing board, could well be the product of government. Which regulator do we prefer? Which regulators should be controlled? How does society exercise that control over entities that aim to control it? (Lessig, Code v2)

 The architectures that he refers to are the fundamental underpinnings of cyberspace – our virtual plumbing of transfer protocols, the addressing, the packet shifting that turns bits and bytes into space and place. Lessig points out the very simple truth that what is good for commerce may not be good for government – and I would go further than this and ask whether what is good for government is also good for democracy. You only have to look to the Middle East to see a clash of government and democratic and in the West we see the cultural and practical effects of cyberspace colliding with our formal decision-making – for example the role of twitter in the recent super-injunction furore and the ongoing shift towards open data in government. We need to start making some conscious decisions about how this new world is going to function.

 Transparency and ‘public-ness’ online is both a cultural remnant from the academic antecedents of the current social web and a practical result of the depth and availability of our new digital footprint. The identity play of the first social spaces (Life on Screen, Turkle) is at odds with the commercial drivers that want to join up your data so that the sites you use can sell it. Facebook isn’t really free you know – we just don’t yet really appreciate the currency we are paying with.

 There are two thoughts I want to capture in this post – both related to the need for government to start building civic architecture online. This first is an observation that if we want to understand what we want from civic space online then we should look at where people are already creating their own civic spaces. The second is to consider the differing needs of government and democracy.

 What are these civic spaces anyway?

I tend to get in conversational trouble fairly early on when talking about civic spaces – particularly online ones – exactly what do I mean? The word ‘civic’, at least with respect to space, has become associated with municipal architecture – civic centres – but this is a limited application and perhaps an attempt to claim effect and ownership through naming.

When I talk about Civic spaces, both online and offline, I am referring to those spaces which support the user motivation of ‘I want to talk to my community’ where ever they are formed. Offline we are talking about spaces where communities come together for a variety of reasons – social and civic. This could be community centres, sports halls, local schools, pubs or libraries – these are places where you can connect to and ‘touch’ civic life. There are many other examples of civic connection – neighbourhood watch, meals on wheels and countless forms of the co-production that Tony Bouivaird has identified (Bovaird et al 2009) with varying levels if intervention or involvement from the state and civic spaces are also not necessarily provided by the State.

Online these spaces are being created by the people who choose to build community websites, hyperlocal sites or who blog and report on their locality. We have people contributing to FixmyStreet, The Good Gym connects runners with isolated people in their community, and there are countless examples of support groups and community of interests based in localities such as Mumsnet or even the RSPB. People are digitising some of the offline activities as well – neighbourhood watch networks using email, schools with facebook pages and community centre blogs –places where you can ‘touch’ civic activity online.

These spaces are an important element of civic life – community works better when you know where to go and find it – and its a central social capital argument that says that stronger communities have higher levels of participation in these informal groups of community life (Putnam, 2000). I would argue that online these spaces are also potentially a location for democratic debate.

One the central elements of my thesis is the belief that these new online civic spaces do not meet one of the criteria of democratic decision making which is an understanding of the degree to which the participants and their views are representative of the wider community – new spaces are needed in order to knit the different networks of a community together and create a more representative and shared space. In an offline, traditional context this doesn’t matter to the same extent – we have offline democratic structures and a representative democracy that should address exactly this point. However we know that citizens are increasingly disconnected from the democratic process (Hansard Society, 2011) and this has been a consistent trend for decades now.

Is there a good reason to consider online civic participation differently?

Earlier writers about cyberspace were immensely optimistic about the ability of the social web to create a new kind of democracy and universal conversation. Look at the rather grandly titled “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace”:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

I am not sure its happening like that. That statement is an artefact of that first phase of cyberspace architecture and doesn’t reflect the deep embedding and connection of our online and offline lives. However I do believe that there are different qualities to online civic participation to participation in the offline world and it is one of the things which I am examining with my research.

One of these differences is the depth and breadth of access to debate which comes about when you remove barriers or time and place – reach and access is far greater online. This makes no difference if people don’t want to get involved but the recent Hansard research that talks about 28% of people wanting to be more involved in local decision making and the membership growth of organisations such as Avaaz and MoveOn shows some indication of an audience for online civic activism which could, in the right circumstances, support increased democratic participation.

What are the right circumstances?

However there is a core concern here – that the people creating the legislation and enabling commerce seem to have little or no appreciation for the consequences of what they are doing – and there is no discussion of the implications of government activity online beyond the vital debate around privacy.

I think we need to move this debate beyond privacy and start talking about identity and we also need to start thinking about the needs of democracy as being beyond the needs of the State to govern.

The classical view of the territorial state finds architectural expression in the government assembly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support structures) that traditionally have been erected at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to replace these spatial and architectural arrangements with electronics and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible arguments in favour of such a substitution (Mitchell, City of Bits)

I agree with Mitchell, and also with Stephen Coleman when he talks about the need for a civic commons in cyberspace. However its not enough and it also doesn’t separate the process of democratic debate from the process of government.

Identity and an understanding of representation is just one democratic requirement. Information is another. Sunstein’s concerns about the ‘daily Me’ (Sunstein, republic 2.0) and the impact of the information personalisation being the fact that we only choose to read content we agree with is the automation of the ‘dailyme’ is writ large in current technology which focuses us on content selected not only on our preferences but on the preferences of our friends. Google is filtering our searches to show us results tailored to their belief in our interests – our information is being filtered to show a rose-tinted view of the things that we agree with. Eli Pariser talks about this as “The Filter Bubble” (worth watching the RSA talk on this) which he wrote after realising that the same search terms do not provide the same results. This is not just a google issues – as Pariser says there are a lot of topics that are important that you don’t ‘like’ – the simplification of reactions in Facebook mean that our cultural drift toward this as a major networked public (Boyd, 2010) is robbing us of our ability to have a meaningful public discourse. We have noticed this at a local level with the social media audit work – google does not reliably rank significant civic sites in the top 10 or even top 20 results and what this means is that you will only be directed at the groups you are most likely to agree with.

Code is law online

Returning to Lessig: code is law online – Lex informatica. The worry is that the law makers and code makers are not currently speaking to each other in a way that we can see or understand. We are legislating on the fly and in reaction to changes because we are responding the commercial imperatives and expecting the market to sort this all out. It won’t because though strong government is in the interest of commerce democracy is being seen as a by product of that government rather than the engine on which it runs.

Commercial providers believe that they can offer us an answer to this – I am not sure they can. If we want privacy online then we’re going to need to find another business model and if we want democracy online then we can’t always direct people to the content they agree with.

People are creating civic spaces online, however they are doing it within the constraints that the commercial platforms put upon them – for example a definition of openness that goes only as far as the data needed to sell advertising. If we want to make these civic spaces truly open and democratic then we need government to start thinking about what democracy needs online – not just what it needs to govern.

Identity matters – it’s a vital piece of context in conversation whether it’s established by digital footprint or physical presence.  One aspect of moving conversations from the informal to the formal sphere is the reconciliation of your online persona with your legal citizenship.

People, like places, have a digital wrapper which extends their identity from beyond their physical presence in to the online environment.  This wrapper is asynchronous and pervasive but is also malleable and manageable if you choose to make it so.  The more alarming consequences of this is laid out in this article on Münchausen by internet where the author describes in detail the ease with which someone can create a false identity and the impacts of them doing this.  Few people take the possibilities of online identity in this direction – but its important the remember that this represents the risk of online identity – you don’t really know who you are dealing with.  The question is whether or not this matters.

Your identity online is currently a dynamic and self-reflexive creation with necessary external reference to the physical world.  Its part of the seduction of the online world that you do as Boyd says ‘write yourself into being’.  Few people do this consciously – most react to content and follow our friends behaviours rather than actively trying to create an identity which is distinct from your offline life.  As use of social media grows beyond the personal sphere where you are talking to your friends and family and into the professional and civic space where you are talking to your communities its clear that there is a growing awareness of the impact of the content that you create on your reputation and public persona – it recently cost a Caerphilly Councillor £3K plus costs.

This self-reflexivity can be seen as a consequence of modernity rather than just technology – Giddens describes it like this:

“Self identity becomes a question of reconciling the different narratives that we have in abstract systems.”

Giddens argues this from the perspective of a breakdown of traditional structures and agreed value sets rather than as a result of the network society but the effect is the same – the stories and ideas which express our sense of self may be different to different people but they collide online in a way which either requires enormous self-discipline to keep separate or a new kind of authenticity and openness in the way in which we create our self-identity.

We don’t yet know what the impact will be of having huge amounts of the narrative of your life being available to publicly look back on in years to come but its clear that we are en route to finding out as we build up the digital narrative of our lives.  Of course for many people this narrative, in this country at least, is largely if not entirely on Facebook – an environment that has a publicly stated lack of belief in privacy and an commitment to openness which means that you don’t even own the data that you post there.

Whether you like it or not it is increasingly difficult to keep your personal and professional lives separate – what does this mean for your democratic identity – you citizen-self?  Do you even have one?

Researchers such as Sherry Turkle (Life on Screen, 1997) have established the fact that online environments can play a central role in people’s lives with individuals considering online interactions to have at least the same significance as those that happen in their physical world.  She has also explored the fact that for many people the potential for anonymity and role playing which the online world brings is its greatest attraction, with participants exploring aspects of themselves, trying out different opinions or working through problems.  In this context the participation of other people is irrelevant except as a mirror to see their own actions – the issue of course is that other people are real – even if you don’t see the consequences of your actions upon them.  However Turkle’s more recent work focuses on her concerns as to the implications of a life on screen.  The following is take from a 2007 article she wrote for Forbes magazine called “Can you hear me now?” (she develops these themes in her recent book – more on that when I have finished it)

We have become virtuosos of self-presentation, accustomed to living our lives in public. The idea that “we’re all being observed all the time anyway, so who needs privacy?” has become a commonplace. Put another way, people say, “As long as I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares who’s watching me?” This state of mind leaves us vulnerable to political abuse. Last June I attended the Webby Awards, an event to recognize the best and most influential Web sites. Thomas Friedman won for his argument that the Web had created a “flat” world of economic and political opportunity, a world in which a high school junior in Brooklyn competes with a peer in Bangalore. MySpace won a special commendation as the year’s most pathbreaking site.

The awards took place just as the government wiretapping scandal was dominating the press. When the question of illegal eavesdropping came up, a common reaction among the gathered Weberati was to turn the issue into a nonissue. We heard, “All information is good information” and “Information wants to be free” and “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” At a pre-awards cocktail party one Web luminary spoke animatedly about Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, an architectural structure of spokes of a wheel built out from a hub, used as a metaphor for how the modern state disciplines its citizens. When the panopticon serves as a model for a prison, a guard stands at its center. Since each prisoner (citizen) knows that the guard might be looking at him or her at any moment, the question of whether the guard is actually looking–or if there is a guard at all–ceases to matter. The structure itself has created its disciplined citizen. By analogy, said my conversation partner at the cocktail hour, on the Internet someone might always be watching; it doesn’t matter if from time to time someone is. Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon had been a critical take on disciplinary society. Here it had become a justification for the U.S. government to spy on its citizens. All around me there were nods of assent.”

Publicity and openness need to be considered carefully by the state and we must not risk the cyber-evangelism which Morozov and others have been writing about overwhelm a more through debate as to what online identity means with respect to democratic decision making.  What does a digital citizen look like?

Digital Citizens

Citizenship is a formal legal construct that defines your relationship with the state.  Its based on where you were borne and where you live – its rooted in the physical world.  Citizenship brings with it rights and responsibilities and in our society is a gateway to your participation in the democratic and political life, its taught in schools and its celebrated in ceremonies where we confer it actively.  However, there is little narrative of citizenship and we in fact only act in an auditable way as citizens when we vote.

Our citizenship today is formed as part of a representative democratic system – our citizenship gives us the right to vote for our representatives and in doing so we cede much of our decision making power to them.  The intriguing question that comes with the social shift described by the network society – or at least by the techno-determinism of the cyber-evangelists – is whether technology offers us the the opportunity to return to a more direct form of democracy.  This is a different question to the issue of online and democratic identity and so not for this piece – but it is lurking in the background….

Consultation is not democracy

There is a temptation to say ‘why bother’ when thinking about democratic identity.  There have been a number of forays into widescale online consultations with a variety of identity management approaches from none at all to physical identification in order to participate in citizens panels online and these have been fed very happily into the decision making process in the way that consultation outcomes often are.    I wrote a much longer piece on this a while ago here but the point to stress is that there is nothing democratic about consultation unless the elected representatives choose to listen to them – and I would argue that this makes respondents who get included in this lucky rather than democratically participative.

I would argue that the absence of a robust identity management system relegates recent treasury consultation experiments into the crowd pleasing rather than crowd sourcing category – that and the lack of integration with the actual policy process.

If Citizenship is a legal construct then at some point you need to be able to legally identify yourself to participate.  We do this offline with voter registration and the electoral role – how will it work when we want to participate democratically online rather than just answer some questions on a consultation?

A sliding scale of identification

Identification is in fact a sliding scale from the weak turing test of the RECAPTCHA that proves that its a human being through to the bio metric data of iris recognition attached to my passport.  The scale goes like this:

  1. Are you a real person?
  2. Are you a real person who tells us that they live somewhere relevant?
  3. Are you a real person who can prove that you live somewhere relevant?
  4. Can you prove that you are a specific person who has rights of citizenship?

Peter Cruickshank has an excellent post on this here with respect to the ECI. One of his proposed solutions is a statistical sampling approach – i am not discussing that here as its not appropriate for the smaller samples we see for most democratic conversations.  As we open up democratic processes online we will need to decide where on this continuum we want identity to sit.  At present most organisations stop at (2) – self reported data – to support consultation but we will need to examine whether this is far enough when you are talking about formal democratic decisions.  Or put differently – should our identity management be less stringent for democracy than it is for managing our bank account?

Its perhaps not an immediate issue if you believe that Citizen participation in actual democratic processes will continue to be concerned with voting either in elections or even in referenda as the technology to support this has been tried and found to be more cumbersome in many respects when compared to the traditional methods.  It may be that this is going to be a non-issue until we have a more coherent response to online identity management and yes – ID cards.

However if we want more people to participate in the minutiae of actual decision making – ie if there is a real move towards more direct democracy through mechanisms such as Participatory Budgeting then we already know that this increased participation will need to be led digitally because the ease of use and the costs of transactions.  We will therefore at some point need the strengthen this process of identification to make it possible to be sure that someone is in fact who they say they are and have the legal right to influence a decision.  Without this we can never be certain that our decisions are representative – it may be more difficult but its important to get this right.

Do you always want the state to know who you are?

The fact is that we have already addressed this issue within some areas of government – government gateway manages the process of your online tax return very competently.  The question is whether it is appropriate to connect your transactional relationship with the state with your democratic relationship – or indeed if it is possible to consider these as being separate?

There are many many reasons why the identification of the individual to the state may inhibit your democratic interactions with that state – fear of intimidation, lack of self-efficacy or just a lack of trust in an unbiased outcome within your transactional interactions with government if you were to show a negative view.  There is also the need to make it possible for civil servants to voice views that may differ from their political leaders and the need to separate their personal from their professional lives in order to ensure that they are not disenfranchised.

The fact remains that we are after all just one person – whatever web based sophistry we employ to extend this and perhaps we should therefore consider other solutions to these democratic barriers rather than an artificial construct of democracy.

How many people are we anyway?

Ultimately I do not see any alternative to connecting these identities together into one – the freedom that the social web has to date given us to experiment with different personas will, if we start to move more of the business of government online need to be reconciled at some point because the openness and transparency of the online world will not allow for anything else.  It will be possible but extremely cumbersome to keep up multiple coherent identities and my prediction is that people just will not bother.  The shifting norms of online behaviours will slide towards a single identity because we are after all just one person.

Aren’t we?

Or do we in fact want to present different personas in different contexts?  Isn’t the reality of the self-reflexive creation of identity the fact that we undergo a constant evolution of self and the risk with the digital element of this is that we hold on to past versions of ourselves beyond the point at which they are relevant to your identity today?  Life transitions such as a new school or a new job, or a new country or even a new relationship used to let us jettison past behaviours and start afresh – now we carry this narrative baggage with us in a digital world.

In the context of democratic debate this really means that we will need to adjust to the idea that people change – and that this is a legitimate behaviour even with politicians.  However we also need to adjust to the fact that we hold multiple personas as we deal differently with different elements of our lives and to force us to have just one public face may not actually best reflect the reality of how we live.

Think about Facebook and the way it forces you to bring everything together – I am not sure this reflects how I want to present myself and though I see the drift in this direction I can’t help but feel that what I really want is the ability to have just one identity but to be able to present it in different ways in different contexts.

Accountability does not need to be transparent

I was very struck by a comment from Jimmy Leach about digital diplomacy – he said the foreign office are not unnecessarily secretive but they are professionally discrete – I thought this was a really important distinction.  It is possible to have accountability without making your identity transparent – you can be discrete about who you really are.  Screen names are common place online and serve a valuable function in allowing people to participate in instances where they actively seek to conceal who they are in ‘real life’ – have a look at Michelle Ide Smith‘s research findings for more on this.  As long as we have some processes that validates these screen names against a legal real world identity then all forms of identification could be accommodated within this model and individuals would have the freedom to participate without the risks of connecting all elements of their online and offline identities together in an externally transparent way.

Is this discretion or obfuscation?

There is an inherent tension here for me – the scenario I propose above is a reaction to the fact that at the moment social norms in the political sphere do not accommodate a modern view of identity where the individual naturally and rightly changes their mind over the course of time and where the public does not have have trust in the political system (quite apart from issues of trust in the governments ability to run the technology which is quite another issue).

Ultimately this is for me another area, like online civic architecture, where I believe that government needs to start actively thinking and shaping the technological outcome – we need an active debate about citizenship that digs into our identity as citizens and starts to draw out how closely we want to associate this with the other kinds of self that we find online.  The big philosophical question here (which you will be pleased to know I’m not addressing) is whether multiple online identities is exactly what is needed in order to make the ongoing self-reflexive project of identity ‘work’ in a digital world and whether it is counter productive to try and reconcile our digital selves back into an analogue state.  In the meantime we need a practical solution.

So – what are we going to do about it?

While it will be interesting to sit about and ponder what might happen that’s a more old school way of doing things – I prefer to react in a more agile way and to move start to move towards an objective in stages from now on.

So what’s the objective?

We need to be able to identify people online to the extent that we are confident that they are citizens and able to participate in decision making.

In doing this we don’t want to add to the confusion of identities and the self-reflexive sense of self and so will need to allow for the use of screen names rather than insisting on real names.  We are enabling people to create a democratic identity for each of their citizenships where they are building a composite picture of their democratic engagement with a democratic body such as a council that can be used both by the citizen, their fellow citizens and by the state.  And there is some detail:

  • Beyond this we also need to be realistic in the way that people already choose to identify themselves and interact with systems such as Facebook, Twitter and Google where people choose to make this their democratic persona.
  • The key question in all of this is therefore – how do you prove you are a citizen?  At a national level our proof of citizenship is our passport, at a local level we are really looking at the rather weaker test of the electoral role.  So – to do this thoroughly we would need:
  • An ID management system that authenticates against the electoral role and perhaps passport records
  • Within this a way of managing multiple personas so that you can have different screen names within different contexts (though I would assume only one with each democratic body you are interacting with)
  • The ability to authenticate social media content against this ID so that you can either attribute for example Facebook content to your democratic ID or vice versa

In real terms this is an issue that will continue to be fudged for some time – at least until there is real pressure on the online decision making process and we are forced to examine exactly how representative some of the feedback is.  In which case item (1) more than likely becomes the ability to store answers to democratic ‘gateway’ questions such as your postcode so that you can infer residency.  The rest of this is fairly simple to achieve.

Conclusion

The existence of a digital footprint effects our identity by making our actions, and views, public and audit able.  It gives us the opportunity to create multiple identities online which are democratically rootless unless we start to reconcile them back to the legal fact of citizenship.

We have to move past the point where we are grateful for any participation in the conversation with the state and start to ask what happens when we really have mass participation because we risk achieving this.  If we don’t have a way to ensure that these responses are representative then we are undermining the democratic processes that we are trying to promote.

I always feel like a special kind of social media arse when I talk about online spaces rather than websites but I nonetheless believe it is a meaningful distinction (or I really am that social media arse – you judge). I wrote this piece on the website / webspace terminology dilemma and I would still stand by it. In particular I believe the evolution to the language of space rather than talking about websites reflects the fact that we are creating online environments that are more than just the HTML furniture and that a lot of the reason for this is the fact that the participants write them into being – this social, human elements means these are spaces and not sites. And once again my favourite Massey quote:

Multiplicity is fundamental….Space is more than distance. It is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities. Given that, the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by ‘the communications revolution’ and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations.” (For Space, P.91).

As soon as you talk about space then you talk about the design of that space – because design matters. The attributes of any environment contribute to the way that people treat it and the way that they interact with it and with each other.

My concern therefore is about online civic spaces – and how we build the spaces where we will ‘do democracy’ in a networked society. This links into an earlier post on hyperlocal sites and I don’t intend to repeat myself (if I can avoid it). However – just for context – I am building on the ideas that were expressed there around a definition of ‘hyperlocal’ – by which I am talking about user defined spaces which are focused on a narrow geographical area. The post is (as ever) fairly long but my conclusion is:

In deepening our understanding of this phenomena it is therefore important to note that the term hyperlocal then has a richer meaning that the practitioner use might initially give it. It refers to Massey’s multiplicity with the narrative of place and the intrinsic involvement of the community relationships which it holds. However its unbounded nature, in common with any space, brings with it conflicts of competing interests and competing definitions of local that will at some point need to be reconciled if we are to be able to managed to co-existence of many hyperlocal communities living alongside each other.

What I am trying to do here is to move this forward to talk about the Civic Space that allows us to join multiple communities together into a decision making unit and interact accordingly. But before I do that I need to point out that one of the issues I have just not addressed so far is the existence of other types of communities within decision making units. So this is really a marker for a future piece that starts to describe the eco-system of communities that can be found within any larger organisation. My brief breakdown of these includes:

I have not expanded the list to look at other bits of government in an area because I am trying to keep the scope tight – but arguably I should be adding in the Police, Health and sundry other decision making bodies at this point. However – lets imagine I have already gone to the trouble of describing the last of these as I want to look at how we bring them together.

And now back to the matter in hand…civic space….and how we build it.

The publicity of the social web

Firstly – any civic space is going to be public and not private. Publicity is something which sociologists spend quite a lot of time thinking about – because it is by the existance of public interaction that much of our society becomes auditable. I am not attempting a full discussion of this idea here but I do lean heavily on Habermas’ thinking on this because as I originally wrote here:

The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government .  There are many ways to criticise this idea of the public sphere but the idea that we require a sphere of interaction where we talk about the public issues of the day is a compelling one.

However when we think of this idea of publicity in the context of the network society we need to also acknowledge the difference that the interconnectedness of our world brings. Danah Boyd has done a lot of work describing something she calls ‘networked publics’. In doing so she is extending the idea of ‘publicity’ and examining it in the context of the network society. In her paper Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications she talks about networked publics as follows:

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. While networked publics share much in common with other types of publics, the ways in which technology structures them introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments. The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation.

In many ways I could leave it there – its an excellent definition of this shared space especially as she goes on to talk about the importance of design and provenance in the creation of these spaces:

Both William Mitchell (1995, p. 111) and Lawrence Lessig (2006, pp. 1-8) have argued that “code is law” because code regulates the structures that emerge. James Grimmelmann argues that Lessig’s use of this phrase is “shorthand for the subtler idea that code does the work of law, but does it in an architectural way” (Grimmelmann, 2004, p. 1721). In looking at how code configures digital environments, both Mitchell and Lessig highlight the ways in which digital architectures are structural forces

or put more simply:

Networked publics’ affordances do not dictate participants’ behavior, but they do configure the environment in a way that shapes participants’ engagement. In essence, the architecture of a particular environment matters and the architecture of networked publics is shaped by their affordances

(BTW – an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action)

So – architecture matters even if it is bits and not atoms

And if we accept this idea that the design and purpose of a place effects it function and behaviours of participants then it is not unreasonable to start considering what the affordances of a civic space might be. Once again Doreen Massey has something helpful to say:

“For instituting democratic public spaces (and indeed the spaces of places more generally) necessitates operating with a concept of spatiality which keeps always under scrutiny the play of the social relations which constructs them” (For Space, Massey; P.153)

So we therefore have to consider is that makes the space democratic are the relationships that are contained within it as well the design assumptions that have been built into the architecture.  Its not enough for this to be a networked public – it needs to be a democratic networked public – an online civic space.

So what is an online civic space?

Getting back to the point then – my online civic space is in some ways a networked public in that it brings together public content from a variety of locations into a single space. The shared narrative of that space is the story of the physical space that it corresponds to the problems and challenges that it faces. Because those social relationships are crucial to its functioning its a space where identity matters and where people interact as citizens or that space and not as unconnected or anonymous individuals.  Building on other posts again it is a co-productive space where all participant’s are able to speak on equal terms though there is an acknowledgement of different roles and responsibilities.

In more practical terms the civic space is aggregating the civic content from the decision making unit not in terms of data but in terms of establishing and reflecting the social networks which facilitate the creation of content. But in order to meet the fundamental condition of democracy that identity does matter the space also asks for participant’s demonstrate that they are citizens with the rights and responsibilities that flow from this.  There is no moderation in the civic space but there is a process of curation in order to find and refresh the contributing networks and individuals – the process and governance of this is something I will pick up in another post.

What are its attributes?

So – the attributes – or affordances if we want to get a bit more picky – are going to be:

  • 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

But perhaps the most important thing has to be the agreed purpose of the space – which I am suggesting is as follows:

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

This participation could range from just having access and contact with your representative to actively participating in the true co-production of outcomes – the space needs to support the full range of democratic engagement.  This is all very close to Stephen Coleman’s Civic Commons in Cyberspace (Coleman, Blumler 2001)

Our proposal for a civic commons in cyberspace aims to create an enduring structure which could realise more fully the democratic potential of the new interactive media. This would involve the establishment of an entirely new kind of public agency, designed to forge fresh links between communication and politics and to connect the voice of the people more meaningfully to the daily activities of democratic institutions. The organisation would be publicly funded but be independent from government. It would be responsible for eliciting, gathering, and coordinating citizens’ deliberations upon and reactions to problems faced and proposals issued by public bodies (ranging from local councils to parliaments and government departments), which would then be expected to react formally to whatever emerges from the public discussion. This should encourage politicians and officials to view the stimulation of increased participation not as mere `citizens’ playgrounds’ but as forums in which they must play a serious part.

But the key difference is around how the space might be managed. Coleman describes the process as follows:

The proposed organisation would be charged with promoting, publicising, regulating, moderating, summarising, and evaluating the broadest and most inclusive range of online deliberation via various new media platforms, including the web, e-mail, newsgroups, and digital TV.

However my proposal an online civic space does not include agency moderation and I believe that the co-productive nature and the fact that I suggest it needs to be curated by participants rather than governed makes it a more fluid and more communal space than he was suggesting. The idea of building it from the ground up with the participation of unmoderated hyperlocal communities is another key difference. This last point is critical – these should not be spaces that are owned by government because this ownership indicates power and in the network society this power is shared and distributed rather than being vested solely in the state.

Why bother?

William Mitchell (City of Bits, 1996) puts it like this:

“The classical view of the territorial state finds architectiral expression in the govemnet assemly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support strucutures) that tradditionally have been ereted at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to repalce these spatial and architecutiral arrangements with electrornins and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible aruguments in favour of such a substitution”

Is this an over-engineered solution to a problem that people will solve for themselves? Can people just carry out democratic debate in any corner of the social web? To some extent yes – the network society provides many opportunities for public debate but my point here is that design matters, architecture matters and the spaces we choose to operate in have an effect on the actions we carry out there. If we want to conduct democratic debate we will do a better job of it if we do so in a space which is designed to support this. Facebook wants to sell advertising (see viagra of the first sentence) – its not really interested in whether or not we have local citizens debating local issues except as a by-product of that core function. Newspapers sites want to drive traffic and thrive on conflict not consensus. For an online civic space supporting constructive debate would be the core function.

People are already debating democratic and civic matters online – particularly at the hyperlocal level – but at some point I believe we will need to join the smaller communities which form online into something that reflects the rather unwieldy shape of the decision making units that we apportion resources to. If we don’t consider joining them up then we are consigning government – and in particular local government – to an ongoing role of mediator and negotiator carrying out shuttle diplomacy between the different conversations and this is not all that democratic if we have not found a way to embed the elected individual in the process in a meaningful way.  Aggregation of data and clever technology does not solve this – democracy is social – we need to build spaces where people not data come together.

Where can I get one??

Mmmm……nowhere as yet….but democratic activity online is growing and as the government moves ahead with open data plans it becomes even more important I think that this newly released information is examined and debated in a civic rather than commercial space. The crowdsourcing post from this morning shows another direction of travel and as you see all parts of the state starting to join the conversation online we will either start to understand the limits of commercial spaces for democratic debate or limit it by viewing it only through commercial design assumptions.  Our future democracy will almost certainly conduct itself largely online – all I am arguing for is for us to start building the right spaces to support us ‘doing democracy’ in that future.

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…..no definitive answer here…..because either power is only delegated to the Cabinet or the spilt between Executive and Full Council powers means that neither can take dramatic action without the support of the other. In other cases, for example Participatory Budgeting, power may be delegated to other groups – however the actual power continues to rest with the Full Council – ie all of the elected representatives. The impact of this is the fact that the political strength of the Leader / Cabinet, ie how well it can reflect or manage the will of the full council, dictates the scope of its decision making power. What it does do is emphasis the fact that these decisions are driven by politics.

But what about community governance?

But that of course is not the whole story as there are a number of neighbourhood level boards, committees and other gatherings that need to be taken into account. A 2008 paper from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called “Designing citizen-centred governance” provided an overview of the governance structures in Birmingham. The list below is a subset of the full list in the paper:

  • Birmingham City Council
  • 10 District committees
  • 40 Ward committees
  • 70 Birmingham neighbourhood forums
  • 20 Community networks
  • 2 New Deal for Communities

Other parts of government are in a similar position with Birmingham having:

  • 3 NHS primary care trusts
  • 10 District strategic partnerships
  • 2 NHS foundation trusts
  • West Midlands Police
  • Community safety partnership

and of course we also have the Birmingham Strategic Partnership. Birmingham is in no way untypical but with this volume of structures it is not surprising that decision making becomes opaque and the lack of trust that we see manifested in the democratic deficit starts to impact. And this is not the end of it – Anthony also points out, for example, the existence of shared NHS/Council bodies such as Joint Commissioning Boards, “which have even murkier arrangements because they are half responsible to health minister and half to councillors.” Decision making is as a result complex and one of your first difficulties is in finding out who is making the decision.

But if we are talking about any group below the level of Full Council the question is what power do these neighbourhood groups really have? A Young Foundation report “Communities in the Big Society: shaping, managing,running” says:

“Parish councils are the only bodies operating at neighbourhood level that currently have statutory power to directly control and fund a range of basic community services. They are empowered to raise funds through local council tax precepts and to commission or provide a range of local services such as footpaths, streetlighting, bus shelters, playing fields, sports facilities, allotments and community buildings. In some cases they also support the delivery of other services such as village shops, ICT training, play services and social support for the elderly by providing partial funding, community buildings, or access to volunteers.”

This question of funds is a critical one as this gives Parish’s (or Town Council’s) a distinctly different profile when compared with other neighbourhood formats and could be a critical difference as we start to see decisions and responsibilities being devolved as part of a co-productive relationship between citizen and government.

New forms of governance and devolution have been experimented with, for example New Deal Communities or Neighbourhood Management Partnerships but neither of these have the statutory powers of the Parish Council – though they may have other advantages in terms of specific reach or access to particular funding streams. Again Anthony pointed out to me that Parish’s are now about to be created in urban areas with the alternative name neighbourhood or community council and that if they meet the Quality Parish standards they are able to exercise the “wellbeing power” which gives them some degree of latitude to act beyond the Parish’s normal remit “to secure the economic and social wellbeing of the area”. What makes up a quality Parish is probably up for debate – but some semblance of democracy rather than droit de seigneur seems to be the heart of the matter.

Consult, engage or decide?

But getting back to the original question of how Council’s take decisions – Its difficult to talk about how decisions are taken without also looking at the dynamic between consultation and decision making. The consultation function is ostensibly there to provide additional depth to the decision making process by ensuring that the decision makers have a clear understanding of the nature of the issue under debate and the views of those citizens most effected by the outcomes. In some cases additional consultation is mandated by Central Government and in other cases it is there as a decision support tool. My observation – and this is something that I want to qualify through the interviews I am running – is that consultation is often used to subvert the democratic process, either by officers who want to demonstrate the problems with the member’s strategy or by politicians who don’t have the political strength to get decisions through the process. The final reason for running consultation processes of course the need to persuade the public that a decision is the right one – communication dressed up as consultation.

But how does this effect decision making? Well – hardly at all – and that is a major issue for the public who have a not unreasonable expectation that having been asked their opinion it will be taken into account when a decision is made. Very little formative research – i.e. research that asks people to shape or create rather than critique ideas – is undertaken by Council’s with the focus being put on asking people to give specific feedback on specific issues. If you reflect on why this might be you may conclude that there is an expectation that formative work is carried out by the elected representatives. But this is not a sound conclusion when taken in conjunction with a democratic deficit which demonstrates at best a weak mandate for decision making by Members.

So what seems at the outset to be fairly simple with powers clearly resting with either Council or Leader/Cabinet is far more complex and inherently political in that what the public might perceive as a decision – for example “lets build a new shopping centre” – actually has to take a journey between different committees and functions as it moves through the decision making process. My decision making model looks hopelessly simplistic as the political debate might seek to shift both the context and the options before the Council actually takes that decision. Decision making is in fact iterative rather than linear and if we want to be more transparent in the decision making process then we need to consider what this means – and that’s another post I think.

And if this is not complex enough – one thing that is rarely taken into consideration is how the professional knowledge and personal inclinations of officers also impacts on this process – and the way in which Consultation has grown up as a parallel power base within many organisations demonstrates this. The question is how to return consultation to the decision support role and to embrace the fact that the decision making process is political. Co-production – equal sharing of power – requires this but we will still need decision support and this is potentially even more difficult when you are dealing with a wider group of people who are almost certainly less rather than more statistically literate and able to interpret the results of consultation processes. There is a link here to the effect of open data which I want to draw out in a different post – perhaps alongside something on transparency.

Conclusion

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.

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