….if I hadn’t got stuck in Sussex owing to #uksnow

Firstly – apologies to anyone who was actually looking forward to me speaking – I always feel a bit of a whuss cancelling because of bad weather but it really was rather slippery out there…anyway here are the slides that I was going to use but you may find them a bit cryptic without the accompanying commentary so here are some thoughts:

I wanted to make a few different points the first being that if we value our democracy then we need to be putting the same amount of energy into redesigning it to be fit for purpose in a world which is digital, networked, open and agile as we do with every other part of Government. The second point is that while we all hope that politicians will take responsibility for making change happen (this is perhaps a different discussion) we know that the continuity and commitment to following any change through and really making it happen will fall to Officers and in this case it should fall to Democratic and Member Services.

At Councillor Camp last week one Member said that their challenge as elected representatives is evolve or die (I think in the way of the dinosaurs rather than literally) and Officers who are supporting the democratic process should in my view be taking the same position. With a growing democratic deficit we have to look at ways to reconnect Citizens to our democratic decision making – and we need to do it on a shoestring.

Digital technologies can help us do this but only if we actually change what we are doing and redesign the service to fit this new environment and a public who want a more direct and collaborative relationship with politicians and the process of decision making – not by simply adding digital as another job to do.

We have been working with Democratic and Members Services officers for a long time now (11 years!!) and when we started out it was a revolutionary thing to webcast a council meeting – so many of our clients were and are pioneers. However its probably no longer enough and we need to be offering the public the chance to interact with the content as well as simply viewing it.

This is a small example but there is a bigger strategic picture as well. I recently wrote some guidance on Digital Democracy for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners which really opened my mind with respect to the possibilities that are there if we remove the restrictions of our current systems which is in many cases rooted in the past. In the report you’ll see I have set out a different models of communicative, collaborative and co-productive politicians with examples but in all cases these involve making more extensive use of digital technology than is the norm in most Local Authorities.

So – with those comments in mind here is the presentation:

I expect that I would have been challenged on a great deal of this so please feel free to do so here!

Stay warm

So – this is going to be a fairly quick one (for me) but here are some links and thoughts from a brilliant day yesterday at Councillor Camp.  Firstly – a massive well done to the FutureGov team and in particular Jon Foster for a really well run event with great speakers (hopefully the presentations will be found on the #cllrcamp hashtag) – and more than that fantastic participants.  8 hours in the company of a diverse group of politicians all of whom ‘get’ the need for Local Government and Local Politics to really start to use digital properly is an energising thing.  FutureGov create and curate this kind of thing brilliantly and I am very grateful that they do as I think its vital that we gather like minded people together to move the debate along.

I just wanted to capture my three points from the session at the end as my learning from the event and also to follow up on promises I made to provide links to various things.  The learning points / observations for me are:

  • Skills:  We do not have enough of the relevant skills to make the behavioural as well as channel shift to digital either within the member population or the officer population.  We either need to start widening our recruitment or thinking very hard about the kind of offer we are making to people – and perhaps both.
  • Training and Support:  We need to kick it up a gear.  Half hearted sessions on how to use Twitter are not enough – we need to completely overhaul member support
  • We cannot just create a fantastic collaborative and vibrant online conversation with the public in the way that many of the active Councillors were demonstrating and not think seriously about how we change the process of policy and decision making.  We need democratic service redesign.
  • We will not be able to really use social media as a democratic tool without breaking it out of the contextual confinement of being treated simply as another communication channel

Yes – there is a great start but there is a long way to go to turn our democratic use of social media from early adopter to mainstream status.

One final thought:  I had a really interesting debate with an extremely eloquent and experienced Councillor who felt strongly that it was wrong to set an expectation that all Members should be active online.  I thought about it on the way home and I think I have to (respectfully) disagree.  I believe we have to clearly set an expectation for members and officers that they will be fluent in not only the technology but the underlying culture of the online world because increasingly this reflects the offline world.  We will not get there immediately but I don’t think that should stop us setting the standard.  I’d be interested to hear whether or not people agree with me on this.

And now – here are various links to resources from the sessions I suggested (I have not put anything up from the webcasting one but most of the examples I mentioned can be tracked down on the Public-i Website)

Evidence!

First up was a session on the evidence behind the digital channel shift.  Most of this can be found referenced from this page I put together in 2011 – it needs updating (in particular with last years Hansard audit) but it has links to all the main stuff.  The Oxford Internet Institute report is talked about here and the digital inclusion data (including links to the Helsper stuff which is hugely helpful) is all here.

I wrote a paper for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners which brings some of this together and might also be of interest as it talks about designing a democratic office for the 21st Century as well as connecting Internet use with demographics (Digital Democracy).

Digital Civic Spaces

This whole blog is really all about these so feel free to poke around but the 5 criteria are below:

  • Design Criteria 1: The purpose of a digital civic space to is to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making – it is a Public and open space that is available to any interested Citizen.
  • Design Criteria 2: The space should facilitate a co-productive relationship between Citizen and Government. This should extend to the content curation and management of the space
  • Design Criteria 3: The geographical reach of the space should be self-defined by users with administrative boundaries being subordinate to ‘natural place’ described by the Civic Creators.
  • Design Criteria 4: The space should support the principles of open government with respect to data, process and transparency
  • Design Criteria 5: The space should be able to authenticate the identity of participants to a standard which makes their contribution available to consultation and policy making processes.

I found the session really interesting and the two things which I took away to properly think about were:

  • The importance of having a clear view of the governance arrangements for the space and the role of the Members in the process
  • The need to re-engineer decision making processes to accommodate this more agile and fluid civic debate or public sphere (the point about creating opportunities for the public to set the agenda was part of this

I’m going to (hopefully!) do a session on this at #ukgc13 next week so will blog more on this then

Supporting Councillors

Great discussion about how to support councillors better and there was a general receptiveness to the idea that we need to have better quality information and analysis about social media available as well as a more sophitsicated discussion about digital footprints and identity.  A few resources were mentioned which are here:

 

Please shout if I promised you information and haven’t delivered!!

 

 

 

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.

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.

One of the items we have put in our proposal for Creative Councils is the suggestion that we host an Action Research network looking at the emergent changes in the way in which officers and members are interacting with citizens.  Following a fascinating meeting with some local community engagement experts and councillors last week I wanted to let more people know what we are up to as there are lots of opportunities to collaborate – I hope!

The exploration of new forms of engagement is a strand of work which has been emerging from the We Live Here project, and to be honest a number of other things I have been working on. Its obvious that if we your ambition is to try to reinvigorate civic participation – or at least give it the environment it needs to flourish in the 21st century – then you also need to work with engagement officers and volunteers to look at how their professional practice needs to adjust to this change. We want to make sure that we are doing robust research into the effects – planned and unplanned – that we are having at the same time as ensuring that we don’t get focused on evaluation rather than progress and we believe that an action research approach will help achieve this.

Action research is a method of actively participating in change projects at the same time as conducting research. The ambition with We Live Here, and perhaps further projects, is to embed research practices into the project process so that we can capture the learning that emerges. By making this a wider project than just We Live Here we can draw on wider expertise and draw wider conclusions about the work that we are doing.

I feel really strongly that research and practice need to come together to support innovation in any kind of service design. This means that the academics need to get out of their universities and the participants need to build research techniques into their practice. With our project, which is all about building capacity on all sides for more co-productive working then the participants are not just the professionals – we want the community to actively participate in the research as well.

Using a research orientated structure for the project also starts to address the question of systematic evaluation. Its difficult to evaluate innovative projects where many of the benefits may be unexpected and where the form of the project may change many times within the project frame. However in combination with the agile approach and a strong vision for the outcome we are aiming for I think its possible to embed a research strand within the project which will support the agile project working and also help ensure that we are changing with meaning.

The basic outline of this will be fairly simple as we can’t risk over balancing the work with too much focus on research outcomes but I imagine the following:

  • Design and embed data collection within the project – both in the technology and also in the way we manage offline interviews and meetings
  • Systematic action research blogging from as many participants as possible
  • Regular write up and reflection from the research team on the data which is gathered

A lot of this is about how we set the project up for the next phase as we have the intention of supporting the work with research then this should be achievable.

I also think that the action research approach dovetails neatly with the agile project management approach. You can read more about agile here but one of the essential elements of agile software development is the inclusion of unit and regression testing. Adopting research practices within the project framework does something parallel to this testing within the the social as opposed to the purely technical environment.

I will do a more detailed post on the proposed design of the process (when we know how much money if any we have to spend on it!) but as we have continuation money and support from the Council anyway we will be able to implement this in some form. I also hope to be able to find some people at Brighton and Sussex universities who want to collaborate on this as well as connecting with the other projects going on in the City.

I was at a meeting discussing this last week and there was some blurring of terms between action learning and action research. I think this very clearly needs to be considered action research. Action learning would imply that we know what these new skills and techniques are going to be and we don’t – we have some ideas about what is needed but until we test and develop this we won’t be able to produce the evidence or systematically reproduce this in learning.

The kind of skills and attitudes we see emerging are varied; we need to build facilitation and convening skills. We need to understand how networked power works online and offline and we need to find ways to involve the people who don’t need us but can help us rather than the ones most lacking skills.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that is needed is for professional participants to work towards their own redundancy. There is a seductive quality to being needed by communities which needs to be overcome if we genuinely want them to be more self-reliant but that not a new problem – we just can’t afford not to solve it. More than that, if we consider the idea that we are moving towards a radically smaller state (which the finances point towards whatever your political views on the subject) then we also need to give these people a self-belief and skills which mean that they have a personal confidence that there will be something else to do when this community no longer needs them. This is going to be hard.

We are only scratching the surface of what this means and we are in common with many other projects who are looking at how the relationship between citizens and state might change in all kinds of ways. Within Brighton there is a developing use of Participatory Budgeting as well as the planned Neighbourhood Councils pilots which are being considered at the next Cabinet meeting. Within Creative Councils Cornwall and York are also looking at different forms of citizen participation and in its widest form most of the Creative Councils projects are looking at this issue of the renegotiation of the Citizen / State relationship.  However – I feel that if we don’t start to join up some of these experiences systematically then we miss the chance to draw wider conclusions.  I have been combining project work and research for a few years now and though by no means an expert I think the combination of these two mindsets can be powerful.

So, the ambition is to create an action research group based in Brighton which will support this process. Rather than trying to formalise it from the start we will just get on with it within the We Live Here project and make it as open as possible to other interested parties – either researchers, practitioners or just the generally interested. I hope that by doing it this way we can attract the expertise we need as well as progressing past the planning stage that so many ideas get stuck in.

I’ll be blogging progress here so let me know if you want to get involved.

Rather than a huge piece that might take me a while to mull over here (with HT to Dan Slee for the suggestion) are my 20 observations from CityCamp this weekend:

  1. We all owe Anthony and Susie huge thanks for their work in the organisation.  I helped – but not much.  Will do better next year guys!
  2. It is brilliant to see the continuity of the event start to emerge – I spoke to loads of people who plan to come next year.  Its really powerful doing something on this scale for a second time – I want to see it grow next year.
  3. Part of the pleasure in this was seeing ideas which started last year now being up and running – with or without the prize fund.
  4. Digital inclusion is a large and layered problem;  we need to think about access and we also need to think about motivation.  Once people have a reason to participate then the other problems can be solve.
  5. It was great to see more voluntary sector participation – I think this was a combination of the way the prize fund was structured this year as well as the pre-CityCamp event that we held.  The combination of these two things I think made it feel more accessible – but would like to ask some of the participants their views
  6. If we want to help the voluntary and community sector transform in order to meet the huge challenges that it faces then we have to help them get the best out of technology. In a City as digitally able as Brighton we should be able to help them far more effectively than we are right now.
  7. I am not sure it works as well to separate the prize process from the event.  People who don’t participate in the event don’t get the benefit of the expertise and energy and I think the projects will be poorer for it.  yes its a big time commitment but one that is worth it.  On the other hand – it felt better to be handing out more smaller awards – will be interesting to track progress on these.
  8. We should definitely send out an email and get some feedback.
  9. Yet again I felt grumpy in advance about giving up my weekend and yet again I was oh so pleased that I did.  I wish I could convey this to the people who didn’t make it for the weekend.
  10. Emma Daniel is awesome and I will join with her to make the perfect duvet cover putting-on device anytime.
  11. We get a huge contribution from the ‘out of towers’ who participate – thanks guys.
  12. If we use the AMEX stadium again (which was great) then I will definitely bring my own sandwiches
  13. Next year I will make sure that we have at least as many women speaking as men on the Friday – I am cross with myself for not getting this sorted this year and won’t let it happen again.
  14. Jo Ivens is fantastic at live tweeting – wish I were half as pithy…
  15. Always test the projector with more than 15 minutes to go before the presentation – and if possible try and have a screwdriver with you
  16. One of the things I enjoyed most both this year and last year was to see people from such different contexts and backgrounds working together – and to have the opportunity to meet so many different perspectives myself.  Even the most eclectic of us will tend to meet more people like us than those who are different and it is just so good to have your own assumptions and status quo challenged.
  17. This last point is perhaps deserving a little more thought but one of the things that I felt was lacking was a shared sense of narrative for the City as a whole.  I spent most time working on the Digital Inclusion project and I was struck by the lack of substance that is currently behind the ‘Digital City’ strap line.  If we want to bring this alive then we need a much more public and inclusive debate about what this actually means.
  18. We could probably do more with an event like this if we were to pull out some of the themes and structure the project pitches slightly.  I am wary of messing with the unconference format but there was a fair amount of repetition and slightly competing ideas that we might have been able to ease a bit and as a result create more useful projects.
  19. I want to spend a lot more time looking at the intersections of offline and online networks and spaces.
  20. Where were the Councillors?

Thanks to everyone who was there – looking forward to seeing you next year!

This post is partially a write up of the identity session I curated at #UKGovCamp and partially a framing piece to help take forwards our discussions about how we handle the question of identity within the We Live Here Project and Citizenscape development more generally.

Huge thanks to everyone who participated in the session. The UKGovCamp covered a lot of ground and was fascinating for me – not the least because it challenged one of my working assumptions which had been that the closer we get to actual decision making the more likely it is that we need to know – authoritatively – who is participating. The discussion focused on a discussion of identity in the context of deliberative processes rather than more transactional processes such as voting or ePetitions and really looked at the importance of quality as a measure over quantity. I must note however that I am not making an attempt to define what ‘quality’ means in this context – that is for another day!

Before we talk about democratic debate there are some practical considerations with respect to online debate or community of any kind that we need to surface. The first point is that identity nearly always improves the quality of the debate – you get more considered views when there is some kind of social capital or standing involved in how these views will be received and people undoubtedly behave differently when they are anonymous. At the same time this has to be balanced with the fact that registration / identity creation is a barrier to participation and so you may get fewer people involved. Put crudely it’s a quality vs quantity question.

These are not ‘democratic’ findings but represent the experience of online community designers and practitioners over time – imagine how much harder this stuff might be when the content focus is democratic.

Identity clearly matters however, given that most people who work around engagement and democracy are concerned about how little people do participate, we have to ask if we are we making things unnecessarily hard for ourselves by saying we need to know who people are.

The immediate anxiety about not wanting to create barriers aside, when we consider democratic values rather than the practical problem of how to make it most likely that people will participate there is a need to distinguish between bystanders, stakeholders and citizens at some point because some decisions are made at the ballot box where authenticated identity is an intrinsic element of the experience. The question under debate is what that point is. The UKGC12 discussion explored whether or not we should be interested in the validity of the individual or the quality of the debate – which is more significant? These are not mutually exclusive objectives but as we are designing the user experience there is a need to understand their relative merits and importance.

One of the points that emerged was the importance of making a distinction between a discussion and a deliberative discussion – the latter have greater requirement for understanding of identity that the former. I think it’s interesting to ponder as to how often people know which of these they are participating in.

Identity as social
We discussed whether or not you could examine social and informational signals from content in order to create a level of confidence around the fact that you have the ‘right’ people in the discussion. The general consensus was that this was possible – if you participate in these kinds of discussions in physical meeting then you do develop a sense as to whether or not people are genuinely stakeholders and citizens.

This becomes a very different set of skills online and this fact, combined with the fact that it easier to collect identity information online that in a physical meeting (who brings their gas bill to the village hall??) and the fact that the practical barriers to participation are lower (you don’t need a babysitter and can ‘attend’ from a great distance) means that we perhaps put higher priority and focus on digital identity management compared to the way in which we consider this in offline processes.

One question that designers of these online spaces need to consider is the level of online social sophistication that we assume of our users. Appropriate behaviour for one group may be outlandish to others.  Commercial platforms have the luxury of focusing on the early adopters which is not always open to civic platforms.

In some ways deliberation works better offline than online – the sense of coming together to focus on a debate is easier to achieve in a physical space. Offline debates – formal and informal – are happening all the time even if they are not accessible to a wider audience. However, many people find the meeting setting intimidating and it’s a format which favours experience and confidence. Offline debates break down more barriers that just those of time and place.

I think there is an additional consideration with respect to local democratic participation which is the fact that it is far more difficult to keep your online and offline personas separate when compared to participation at a national level – and this means that most people will be ‘known’ within the debate. The result of this might be that in the medium we term we do need to be more stringent about identity because not doing so would create a lot more distrust in the system with absence of identity being the exception and in no way a norm.

I the many
Identity is more complex online, particularly when it collides with your offline existence. We deliberatively manage multiple, sometimes contradictory, personas and the social norms are shifting with respect to separation between our public and private selves. However with respect to debate this is not a question isolated to the individual. Where we are asking people to participate we also need to understand what the individual needs to know about other participants in order to be comfortable and able to participate.

Discussion is a social experience not a transactional one and that means we need a degree of reciprocity and social sharing to support it. Online we perhaps need to think more actively about the architecture and experience we build in order to support ‘quality’ discussions. With respect to identity, we may not need to know who the person is but we probably do need to know that they really are a persona and also that they have a legitimate voice in the discussion.

To a great extent this debate is happening around government – Google and Facebook are facing off with respect to becoming your primary online identity and so at present we are drifting towards using the dominant model by default rather than actually thinking about the specific needs of democratic discussion and connection.

Who needs to know?
It’s the changing nature of participation and the potential for mass participation which means we need to be more robust about identity that we are in the offline world. In unpicking this subject it is clear that different actors have different needs with respect to identity. As an individual I need to have control over my identity, as a participant I need to feel confident that the other participants are authentic, as an officer I need to be confident that I am seeing an accurate evidence base, but as a politician actually all I need is to feel that my opinion is being usefully informed.

Tom Steinburg nicely described identity with respect to three tiers of authentication; totally invalidated, slightly validated with claims, completely validated. At present we manage no more that the second tier within government (though interestingly there are South American projects which got 3rd tier authentication active in a democratic context).

Officers have the concern about creating an evidence base and for some the debate about identity is actually about asking whether or not it is possible to create a robust set of observations that cannot be rejected by politicians. Officers who are more familiar with the social web might be more comfortable with the second tier of authentication however with respect to deliberation Government perhaps has a greater need for identity management than politicians do.

Conclusion and on-going questions
The final analysis focused on the priority actually being the creation of the opportunity for good quality debate – not just a numbers focus of getting ‘more participation’. In doing this it was actually felt that information makes a bigger impact than identity – both in terms of legitimising an individual’s contribution but also with respect to the overall quality.

My research centres around civic space online and I am still of the view that a digital civic space needs some particular qualities:

  • 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 – 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

The session at UKGC12 added some nuance to this in terms of the exact nature of identity and has made me reflect more seriously about the information we glean from social signalling online in these shared spaces.

With respect to Citizenscape and the We Live Here sites however we are left with some choices still to make. As we start to establish these civic spaces they are not intended to be destinations for the community conversation – instead they are intended to network the networks and provide a window onto the whole community conversation which means that participants better connected. The distinction between discussion and deliberation is important as we would expect some kind of deliberation to take place in the shared space where supporting discussion would perhaps take place in the supporting network spaces. This leaves us with some dilemmas:

  • We are not trying to create social networks in the sense of Facebook – but we do want to create a social experience.
  • We want to capture identity for deliberative debate but we don’t want this to be a barrier to participation
  • Do we want to facilitate people contributing anonymously at any stage or do we always want to design for tier two with some level of confidence that we know who people are?

We will take these questions forward and start to discuss them with participants over the next few weeks – no doubt I will have more to say about it then!

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

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.

Interesting day today spent at a conference in Kent for Elected Members. We spent the day talking about, as the title says, making localism a reality. My slides from my session are below:

As ever my focus was on giving members a reason to go online rather than trying to teach them how to use the tools – once you have achieved the first then the second is fairly straightforward I think.

Couple of things struck me from the conversation that I wanted to note. Firstly, there is a huge amount of energy invested in the current structures and one of the main reasons for getting better community involvement is to provide the new impetus that is needed in order to start dismantling some of these structures. Secondly, if we want localism in a network society to work then we need to stop trying to bend it to find out current democratic processes and structures – we need to observe community where it emerges and then figure out how to make the decision making process democratic. This demands greater agility, responsiveness and a fundamental restructure of our democratic process. Democracy is precocious – precious enough to make it worth reforming rather than letting it become irrelevant.

Thanks to all that listened today – and an extra thanks for not thinking I was going mad with the Star Trek TNG reference – Engage!!!