We’ve been having a look at the results from the Police and Crime Commissioner elections – not uniquely I add and I would recommend the analysis on the Guardian Data Blog as well as Sam Chapman’s writing over at http://topofthecops.com/.

The success of the independent candidates is perhaps the most interesting outcome once we look past the turnout figures.

We all know the top line figure:  39% of the new PCCs are Conservative, 32% are Labour and 29% are Independent.  If we look at who they won against those second place candidates breakdown 39% Conservative, 42% Labour, 17% Independent and 2% English Democrat.  However when we look at all of the areas we can see that 55% of the final results were between Conservative and Labour and 45% saw the mainstream party being beaten into third place and an independent being in the running.

Sam Chapman has an excellent post here about what this might mean with respect to the Conservative vote and makes the very valid point that many of these ‘independents’ were in fact local conservative candidates who failed in a seemingly flawed process for choosing local candidates.  However it shows a very different picture to anything we would experience at a General or Local election at this point – this is the first time we have seen anything like this level of success for independent candidates.

The intriguing question is what, if any, effect will this influx of independent politicians have on Local politics and how much more difficult will this make it to integrate PCCs into the National democratic conversation which relies on party politics to function?

Part of the answer to this question lies in how effective the new PCCs are at creating effective relationships not only with the Chief Constable and partner organisations but also with the public.  I wrote last week about the urgency with which the PCCs needs to address their relationship with the public and for independent candidates this is going to be even more important as they have to expect that the mainstream parties will take these elections far more seriously next time.

It’s possible to link the number of Independents with the low level of voter turnout – the lack of even name, let alone policy, recognition being a reason why people didn’t vote – and to suggest that this is a one-off result which will not be repeated once the PCC position has a higher profile with the public. It’s also possible to link it to a general protest against the post itself or a protest from people who wanted to show their dissatisfaction with mainstream parties.  We can finally link it to the fact that many people truly believe that politics has no place in Policing.

However, the fact remains that having a large group of independent politicians represented in the ‘tribe’ of Police and Crime Commissioners reinforces the opportunity that PCCs offer to do politics in a different way.  If we want our politicians to be open, digital, networked and agile then perhaps Independents who are not hindered by having to update a party machine will be able bring these principles to bear quickly.  The political party structure brings with it support, expertise and resources – but it also brings with it the negative connotations of ‘traditional’ politics.  It will be interesting to see how these tensions play out over the next few months – and whether we see any related impact at the next Local Elections in May 2013.

Even without the final results it’s not too early to say that the turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioners has been horribly horribly low. Just a few examples: 16:09% in Nottinghamshire, 19.58% in Avon & Somerset, 19:48% in Humberside but these levels also mask areas of even lower engagement in some places: 11% in Coventry, 10.3% in Epping, 15.65% in Hull, 15% in North Devon. The list does and will go on.

The Electoral Reform Society predicted levels like this earlier in the year but could not sway the Government with respect to either their funding of information or timing of the election – a decision which I personally think shows very little respect for our democratic process.

I’ll be interested to hear whether the Lancashire or South Yorkshire numbers are better given the real commitment of both these Police Authority teams made to get the vote out but in turnout terms no-one can be happy with the degree of voter engagement.

The reasons for this will be complex. Overall we are seeing a general decline in democratic participation and engagement with politics. More acutely for this election the public clearly feel uninformed about both the post and the candidate choices. The mainstream media have been more preoccupied with the US election than this one. Local media has shrunk in many places to the point of irrelevance, which has not helped raise the level of debate about the electoral process. Online the discussion is still fragmented and no candidate ran a really strong social media campaign – though many at least made good efforts. I think there has been a real rejection of party politics and a desire to see independent candidates (making the setting of the deposit at £5000 rather than £500 perverse at best). There is another factor I think in play here which is that the little that people have heard about this election over time has been concentrated on resistance to the post from the Police themselves – who would you rather trust a Policeman or a Politician?

People have been asked to vote for something they didn’t want and for people who they don’t know – can we really be surprised at the turnout? The question is what are we going to do about?

Our choices: We can do an old style political party based post game chat amongst the traditional media – perhaps with some braying in the House of Commons – or we can try and use this as an opportunity to really address the issue.

I believe that if we are going to ‘fix’ politics then we need to start to build a radically different relationship between Citizen and State; one which is more open, networked, agile and digital. Not direct democracy but direct representation – where we can feel a connection to the people representing us and as a result take more responsibility for what happens in our communities.

Police and Crime Commissioners need to make their first priority in post the creation of a meaningful democratic relationship with their constituents. Not one which is mediated through consultation, engagement and PR but one which transforms these functions into something that makes them and this post real to the public.

I have met many of the PCC candidates and Officers who will be supporting them over the last year and there is a huge appetite amongst them to serve their communities in the best possible way. However it will take real courage to seize the opportunity to break with the political pattern and go back to their electorate and really introduce themselves. Arranged marriages can and do work – but it takes effort, respect and patience on both sides. I really hope the new PCCs prioritise this relationship building and start by owning and acknowledging the low turnout and the signal that the public has sent them.

The alternative is that we continue as we are and as @demsoc says we miss the opportunity for democratic reform for the next 10 years. Do we really think we can or should wait that long to fix this?

I have had a fascinating week – firstly at the LGA Annual Conference and then at an APCC event to brief Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates (other briefings included Sir Hugh Orde and the heads of both SOCA and the new NCA so it was an excellent day to be part of).  In both these environments I found myself asking whether or not my belief in the need for a high level of knowledge about the digital agenda is reasonable – my conclusion is that its essential if we want to evolve the relationship between citizen and state.

PCCs have the potential to provide a seismic shift in power at the local level however moving from one event to the other you could feel the pull back towards Local Government as we know it now – not surprising given that the new Police and Crime Panels and many of the candidates that I have met come from this background. However even where all participants in the process are minded to keep the model as close to the current status quo as possible there will be an erosion of current systems as a new balance is found not just between the PCC and the Force they are responsible for but also between the various agencies and partnerships who are part of the wider ‘and Crime’ element of this agenda. My view is that however one feels about the concept of Police and Crime Commissioners its undeniably the biggest democratic experiment we have seen for hundreds of years – so lets not waste it.

My session at the briefing on Friday focused on the democratic potential of this experiment and the need to design a democratic environment which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century. I believe that this does not mean recreating the current Police Authority in a new form and but it does mean embracing digital and networked technologies – if for no other reason than to stay in sync with the excellent work that Forces across the country are doing in this area. I’ve written more about what I mean by this here and my presentation from friday is here on prezi.

Apart from the PCC content which I followed at the LGA Annual Conference I had a few other observations which I’d be interested to know if other people who were in Birmingham would share:

  • We needed more space / time for debate and discussion – perhaps its time to change the balance in the agenda towards a more interactive format for some sessions.
  • Clearly the next CSR is moving towards us and its going to be tough – however there seems still to be a lot of questions as to where the focus of this will fall and there is every chance that the impact on local government will be more insidious than a direct cut (though there will be those as well) with other aspects of the welfare budget being looked at.
  • Though people mention it there is not clear plan for work with Local Government on the economic growth agenda – this seems short sighted in the extreme
  • With respect to both of these agendas there is a growing commitment to the need for more radical redesign within Local Government – the Creative Councils Innovation session was packed for example – but I am not sure that people are yet clear on what this really means or are ready to take the risks that are inherent in this approach.
  • There is still an alarming lack of strategic IT knowledge at a senior level in Local Government

My final observation may be very much skewed by the fact that I was at both of these events in order to talk about ‘digital’ in one way or another and also by the fact that this an area I know a lot about. However, in trying to calibrate my expectations of Leaders, Chief Executives and now PCC candidates around the digital agenda I am looking for an awareness of the key issues, such as open data for example, but more importantly an awareness that digital is a driver of social and behavioural change and not just a passive tool for mechanisation of process. Its for this reasons that the role of IT, and digital as a channel, should be a major element of any strategy to address the big themes which were being talked about at conference – is goes beyond efficiencies and should be a transformational tool. Everyone I spoke to would agree with this statement – but I am not sure that there is enough sector wide access to the skills which are needed in order to translate this need into the strategic planning process.  In my session with the PCC candidates I said I didn’t think you should stand as a candidate if you couldn’t figure out how to use twitter – there was a quiet intake of breath in the room – but I would stand by this statement.

We need to ask more of our communities – there is a growing consensus about the need to change the relationship between citizen and state both in a positive way through the localism agenda and a more negative sense through the withdrawal of unaffordable services.  In asking more I believe we will need to make more central use of technology as more that just another channel – it needs to signal this change in the relationship and respond to the power that technology has offered participants in other realms.  We need government to allow itself to experience the transformative effects that the media has undergone as a result of the ability for anyone active online to directly publish their own content.

We ran one of the few technology focused sessions at the conference and we attracted a group that described itself as a significant minority of Members who want to know more about social media not just in terms of how to use it but in terms of the more philosophical aspects of identity and community which are central to the social impact of new technologies. This is an agenda that I would like to the see the LGA, the political parties as well as SOLACE take up more seriously in the future as we need our senior teams to take a central role in exploring and shaping what happens when we become ‘digital by default’ as a result of both financial pressures and social change.

Huge thanks to the folks who joined me for the session on elected Police and Crime Commissioners – including @demsoc, @Nickkeane, @SashaTayler and a some others who I don’t yet know on twitter.

I used the session to test and expand some work I have been doing on this which you can read about here.  Put simply I am proposing 4 principles for the PCC:

  1. The Office should own the Democracy
  2. Be open by default
  3. Create a space where the politician can listen to the relevant debate and connect with the public
  4. Use really good consultation tools to ensure that decisions are fact rather than media based

I pitched the session because of my increasing concern that there seems to be no conversation happening about the kind of democratic opportunity that the creation of the new PCCs will bring.  Now – I am fairly sure that someone in the Home Office is thinking about this – but not sure enough not to want to poke it with a big stick to try and get some wider debate happening.  I am going to redouble efforts to find the person who is doing this so please say if you know!  Without this wider debate I think the risk is that we end up with a mild adjustment to the current (failing) system rather than looking at this as the chance to create a democratic structure that is going to be relevant and effective for the next 20 years.

My observations from the Police Authorities and Forces that I have been speaking to is that we have all been so certain it wouldn’t happen that we have failed to really engage with what it means.  However – thanks to the intervention of the folks in South Yorkshire I started to think about this and the session at GovCamp was a chance to test my thinking out on a group of informed and interested folks who as is always the case with the GovCamp crowd had some really useful observations:

  • Perhaps the biggest issue is not the structure but the fact that the public don’t understand what the role is and are not likely to turnout in great numbers to select the person.  The question of the validity of the mandate they will get is a very real one
  • There is an opportunity to reengage the public with the task of priority setting – its not all bad!
  • The Police and Crome Panels should be able to hold the democratic accountability but the risk is that they will be weak in the same was as the Police Authorities have often been perceived
  • I really need to read up about the US models which have influenced this approach and find out more about how they work
  • The boundaries of some of the forces are extremely unwieldily (the example used being Thames Valley) and this is not going to help the public feel as if this is a ‘local’ policing solution
  • There is a real question as to where the community engagement role will sit between the Force and the PCC – this is going to need to be faced head on
  • We need to remember that they have responsibility for Crime and not Just for Policing – and try and unpick what this means

So, I’m going to keep trying to find the person who (I hope) is thinking about this and I’m also going to follow up on some of the really useful suggestions that were made in the session with respect to people to speak to.  I’ll update here when we get a meeting sorted with somePolice Authorities (looks like March) and if I find that someone else has got this all in hand then I will also let you know…in the meantime will sharpen the big stick and keep poking this

I have been dithering about this post and this issue for a while now but thanks to a brilliantly interesting meeting with the team at the South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat (thank you folks) and also a couple of conversations with other Police Authority clients its time to get something out in the world I think.

In November 2012 we will be electing 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who will be the custodian of strategic direction and scrutiny for our Police Forces. These individuals will, with a reasonable voter turnout, have a larger direct mandate than any other elected individual in the UK with the exception of the Mayor of London. This is an incredible democratic opportunity and I think we need to consider what kind of democratic process we want in place to support them.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Elected PCCs but I think at this point we need to look at the possibilities that this opportunity offers to shape the kind of democratic relationship that will work in the 21st Century in a networked society. It’s a chance to design something new which is not shaped by the 19th Century infrastructure which holds back other parts of government.

A new democratic relationship?

Before we describe what it could be a good starting point would be to examine what it shouldn’t be. What stops people participating in democracy at the moment? The evidence suggests 3 things:

  • Time / Convenience / laziness (depending on your point of view)

The process of participation does not fit easily into most of our lives. 14% of us (at best) for example are willing localists who would participate if we had the opportunity (Hansard) and this means designing processes that fit in with contemporary lifestyles if we want to increase participation. These are practical not philosophical issues and can be addressed with better use of technology to make remote participation easy, more agile agenda setting so that you meet to discuss items that genuinely need debate and better facilitation.

  • Lack of interest or even dislike of politics.

The public don’t like politicians and they don’t like politics. They are interested in their local community but as soon as the think the conversation has become political they are turned off. The evidence on this point has been growing and hopefully the Political Parties are ready to listen. It we want elected PCCs to work as part of local politics then they may need to distance themselves from party politics. This means we cannot see these posts as a training ground for future prime ministers and party leaders – we need people who are committed to the local area and want to serve. This is going to be difficult – the party political system is deeply embedded in the way in which we do politics despite the fact that the public and increasingly unlikely to participate.

  • Lack of Self-Efficacy

Many people have little confidence in the system and a lack of belief in their ability to change it. Lack of participation can just mean that you are very happy with the status quo – or it might mean that you are unconvinced you could have an effect. Either way we need to help people understand the purpose and effect of their participation. We know the things that make a difference – transparency, openness and accountability – we have to make sure that they are systematically embedded in this new system which should be open by default and be design.

Taking this into account what would a fit for purpose democratic office look like today?

We know that the public will lose interest as soon as they feel that the posts are being wrestled out between the Political Parties – the public don’t want to be involved in the kind of politics that they associate with Westminster and to a lesser extent Local Government. Let’s not take the problems we have with the current democratic institutions forward to this new office. There is not a lot we can do about this at this point – campaign funding being what it is we are likely to get either party candidates or rich independents – but we can and should be making sure that the public are aware of the opportunity that this new election brings to create a different kind of democratic institution.

Of course we can also take a more positive view and look at what people do like – openness, transparency and a sense of connection with the person who is representing them. There is no evidence that people want direct democracy – there is evidence that they want more direct representation. Stephen Coleman suggests that direct representation would assume a constant dialogue between the public and their representative – not just the binary voting opportunity of the full term election.

So – whats the proposal here?

I have 4 broad principles that I suggest need to be considered here:

  1. The Office of the PCC needs to ‘own’ the democratic process
  2. The PCC should be “open by default and by design”
  3. We should create effective places to curate and listen to the debate
  4. We should ensure access to fast but robust opinion sampling tools which support decisions being information based
More explanation on this below:

The office owns the democracy

At present the nature of the Office supporting the PCC is not clear – different models seem to be emerging in different areas. I would like to suggest one principal for this and that is that the office owns the democracy – not the politician. We want to ensure that the Office of the PCC has a clear and non-political responsibility to ensuring that the Public have the best democratic experience possible when dealing with the PCC. We want to make sure that this new form of democracy is strongly managed and scrutinised. This means the Office needs to have independence in this matter from the Commissioner and have a clear mandate to run the decision-making process.

Be open by default

We want our politicians to be open and transparent – what does this mean practically? Firstly we need to know what they do and who they see, we want to know what they are working on and we want to see the discussions they are having to as great an extent that is possible. We want to be able to connect promises to actions and we want to be able to see the effect that they have. This means that we need to assume that meetings are public meetings unless there is an explicit reason why not. This kind of openness is relatively simple online and there us no reason why it can’t be delivered as part of this role.

Collect the conversation and visibly listen
Effective democracies are supported by active public debate. politicians need to be able to sample and connect to public opinion in order to understand how the public feel about issues. We cannot rely on old media – newspapers – to do this as they are severely depleted at the local level and as know that regional TV coverage is patchy at best. New media can help however – we know that the public are active online and that they are talking about local issues via social media or hyperlocal websites. I am suggesting we need to support the PCC by providing access to this public conversation in a civic space which is both open and transparent in terms of what is being said.

This civic space would enable the representative to listening to priorities and concerns from the public and where necessary ask questions and gain clarification. The public would know where the conversation was happening and would be confident that views aired there would be noted.

The civic space also gives the opportunity for the PCC to interact directly with the public in a coherent way which also doesn’t mean that they need to leave the places they are already using – this is a ‘network of networks’ that connects the relevant sites and content together without having to force people to participate in places they are not using anyway.

Sample opinion quickly and accurately
You can’t make decisions based on this kind of conversational space especially since we can be certain that at least in the short term the participants won’t be representative of whole electorate. Consultation tools can be used to get a representative sample of the views of the public using online and offline methods. This needs to not be cumbersome – this is more like the sampling methods of YouGov and Ipsos Mori than the full blown Place Survey with associated wrangling about questions.

Wrapping up

One of the things that shows the divergence between democratic practice and the network society is the way in which the public react to issues that reach a flashpoint of concern. Any new democratic system needs to be ready for the wildfire effect of online campaigning and be ready to respond swiftly and meaningfully to public concerns. These should surface within the civic space described above but should have an active and positive response from the office of the PCC.

I feel very uneasy with the idea of policing being controlled by a political process. I think an independent police force and judiciary are key elements of a liberal democracy. However, we are where we are as they say and that means that on 15th November 2012 we will be going to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners and on 16th November 2012 they will have control of the strategic direction of 41 Police Forces.

I imagine that in practical terms it will take a little bit longer than that to sort out.

We know how the public behave when they are concerned about something. We know how people campaign today and it is not with leaflets and posters. There is no excuse for creating an Office of the PCC which doesn’t meet the needs of contemporary society and which shapes a new form of democratic relationship.

What this relationship might be is still very open to debate. I have made some suggestions here but as no plan survives contact with the enemy there is a lot of practical thinking and exploration needed to refine how this will work.

We have had some initial conversations with Police Authorities and where some are thinking about this with excitement others are still too immersed in the details of asset transfers and staff structures to consider the democratic implications about this change. We will be spending the new few months trying to encourage Police Authorities to start to consider what kind of relationship and infrastructure will be in place on November 16th 2012. If you want to be involved in this conversation then let me know.