epetitions


Given that I am on the way to the opening sessions of the much anticipated CityCamp London this is a sprint roundup on PDF Europe first – all the conference details are here so that I can get on and enjoy the next event.

Europetitions – yes its petitions – for Europe

One of the reasons I went to the conference was to run a panel on the Europetitions Service (www.europetition.eu) so I feel obliged to get a plug in here for that – and if you are really interested you can view the slides.  Europetitions has a few ambitions:

  • Making it easy to connect petitions from different member states to join up and petition the European Parliament
  • Combining this with petitioning at a local level so that the citizen has access to multiple tiers of government from the same place
  • Provide a good democratic experience to anyone signing or creating a petition

One of the excellent things about EU funded projects is the emphasis on proper evaluation and we will be publishing formal results of what has been a very successful project at the end of the year.

I participated via twitter in a debate about the ECI which is fairly related to the Europetitions work – would recommend you read about this here – and this helped me articulate a bit further how I feel about the ECI:  its potentially a very powerful democratic instrument but if we want to unleash it we need to make it happen ourselves as there is no-one in Brussels who seems to be getting on with it properly at present.

Meeting some unusual suspects

But the other reason I went (apart from the natural lure of Barcelona which is just lovely) was as a chance to meet a completely different network of people interested in civic uses of technology and the PDF folks certainly delivered on that as it was a completely different perspective on the space we work in – turns out this was both a good and a bad thing….star turns first:

I have to insist that you all read this fantastic post (which he based his session on) from John Tolva who works on data modelling and decision making for smart cities – a proper thoughtful and sophisticated look at how we can effectively use data to help make decisions.  Stand out quote for me is “Data alone is not sufficient for problem-solving, but an involved community informed with data just might be. “ though who could not love “Cities have always been proto-internets of connection and communication.”.

I also enjoyed a short piece from Jenni Wolfson – MD of http://witness.org/ – which gave a really nuances view of how user generated content and sharing needs to be considered in the context of human rights – lots to learn here.

And I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Jimmy Leach Head of Digital Engagement, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK – speak as it was an opportunity to hear about social media being used as part of a properly integrated strategy with humour and authenticity – really great.

I can’t improve on a comment from @allisonhornery “Absolutely transfixed by Marko Rakar from Croatia at #pdfeu – humble, humourous and a genuine agent of change”.  Marko is a democracy campaigner in his native Croatia and has an amazing biography.  For all of us worried about democracy in the UK we should put it into context as his first and major issue was the fact that his country has more voters than citizens.

Democracy ought to be better

I also always enjoy hearing Paul Johnston from Cisco speak as he is another thoughtful, balanced presenter who spent some time pointing out that we really need to look at changing our policy making processes if we want to avoid the poor civil servants being overwhelmed with a mass of poorly though out ideas.  I rather agree that it might be useful to spend more time on this part of the process rather than the constant focus on getting more ideas in the first place.  Its not usually ideas which are lacking – its thought out, thorough and achievable ideas and this is what a proper deliberative policy making process should bring.

This thought about building policy was balanced by an engaging presentation by Jeremy Heimans of http://www.purpose.com/ who has been part of the creation of a number of campaigning movements.  I have some concerns with the fragmentary nature of a purely campaigning rather than community response to engagement but Jeremy’s work is clearly effective and usually well targeted – the question for me is how we establish a relationship between this and democratic deliberation and decision making.

Which is why I also enjoyed spending time with Anthony from The Democratic Society (quite apart from his expertise on good eating places in Barcelona).  I am a governor of DemSoc because I think there is a need to spend more time focusing on how social change effects democracy – will blog properly about this soon.

Open data – and then stand well back

Open data was another big theme for me – its a good topic for an international conference as its so clearly a global issue if you extend and look at in terms of needed a fundamentally free internet in order to really deliver free data. When you spend any time thinking about this stuff it becomes so clear that you really can’t base your data or your democracy on commercially closed systems like facebook and twitter and that democracy demands openness.  However – open data needs to show actual benefits to become part of the culture of government – and while we rely on volunteers to do this its a big ask to get real sustainable benefits from open data and so we need to think about how we support it.  At the same time we need to demand that politicians are ready to take consequences as well as benefits of technology and openness after election promises fade away and its there own data that we are talking about.

Some of the speakers in this area included an excellent Evgeny Morozov who delightfully and acerbically pointed out that Open data should start with laws – and that it’s a little more substantial than 140 character populism.  Jérémie Zimmermann was excellent on the reasons why we need an open internet – it was good to see reasoned arguemnet and passion rather than just a demand for stuff to be free.

Håkon Wium Lie – Chief Technology Officer, Opera Software, Norway – was another highlight.  As someone who worked on the internal working of the web from the start his view on the design priotiries around openness and the implications of making it happen showed how deeply embedded the idea of openness is into the web.  We need to take advantage of this now rather than working to design it out.

Facebook and World Peace

Now – anyone who has spoken to me since the conference will know exactly how amused I was by the presentation from Facebook on the subject or world peace and the idea that because people are ‘friending’ each other over cultural and conflict barriers we might be able to achieve world peace in 5 years…..and I have deliberately put this comment after the open data section just to add a little frisson of extra irony here.  Clearly – the stats and the ideas here were shaky at best and dangerous at worst and the perky ‘awesomeness’ of it made me feel extra English throughout the experience.  I thought the moderator made a good stab at gently pointing out that these people might be using ‘friend’ and ‘like’ because those are the only options and the Facebook rep did agree that more work could be done on the terms.  However – couple of actual points here:

  • Facebook is of a scale and impact now that we ought to be legislating for its data to be open in the same way as government is being pushed to be open – and we also need to enforce some privacy rules at the same time.  Good luck with that
  • Its great that the team at Facebook want to do projects on this scale but I would like some reassurance that they are talking to external experts rather than rather arrogantly relying on their internal expertise.  If they are the 3rd largest country then they need to start sending out diplomatic missions

All rather alarming to be honest.

Conclusion

In conclusion – really good conference and I will be keen to go again.  However, I have just highlighted from the programme and overall there was a preponderance of youngish blokes with GREAT ideas and I would like to see more balance in terms of gender and also in terms of depth of practitioner experience.  Too many platforms and not enough impact analysis.  The organisers took this feedback very gracefully of course and I will make an effort to suggest more names for next year.

One of the reasons for saying this is that it is not the tools that matter – it’s the communities around them and the speed that they can form that make the difference.  I want to see communities and impacts at the heart of this conversation rather than the technology that can make it happen.

Right – signing off and now concentrating on CityCamp – bring it on!

We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

I’ve been spending lots of time on petitions this week with a Consultation Institute round table on Thursday and a workshop for members in North Lincs. Both were really interesting with a lot of points raised. It does seem that with the Local Democracy Bill looking like it will get passed fairly soon people are starting to think about how to implement it.

What’s great about workshops is that you always learn something new from participants and this is what I wanted to capture here:

  • There are some great connections to be made between the duty to promote democracy and the petitioning. Promoting petitioning supports the duty and leveraging petitioning to encourage other democratic activities then furthers this. Given the fact that the duty to promote democracy will cause some headaches as to how to achieve it I think this is a good connection to make
  • We need to make sure members are aware that the signing or supporting of petitions is something that they need to declare – and it might be worth putting that in petitions guidance so that the petitioners are clear on what the Member can and can’t do
  • In terms of members – the petitioning could be seen as a tool for them to use alongside the councillor call to action. Call to action will tend to be far more complex but they are both good routes for backbenchers in particular to get a space on the agenda.

As I have said many times my interest in petitions is based around how they are a formal piece of democracy that acts in an informal way. I think I am also seeing how they can be used to emphasis the role of members in these online democratic processes which helps us to mitigate the distinct social web risk of direct democracy overwhelming the representative process.

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