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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Citizens

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

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

Consultation is not democracy

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

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

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

A sliding scale of identification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many people are we anyway?

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

Aren’t we?

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

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

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

Accountability does not need to be transparent

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

Is this discretion or obfuscation?

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

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

So – what are we going to do about it?

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

So what’s the objective?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The publicity of the social web

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

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

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

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

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

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

or put more simply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is an online civic space?

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

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

What are its attributes?

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

  • Publicity- you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why bother?

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

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

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

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

Where can I get one??

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

I have been working on my literature review – this post is focused on Manuel Castells who is a Sociologist / Communications academic and a major commentator on the Information Society. You can find out more about him here.

Lots of things interest me about Castells; the scope of his work is vast and he is comfortable (and credible) in his attempt to create a unified view on the effect that the internet and the network society is having on our culture. Its also really interesting to read an academic who is properly bi-lingual (English / Spanish) and to realise how different a perspective you have when you are truly multi-cultural.

His analysis of the relationship between the media and politics is compelling and he manages to narrate this against a backdrop of the impact of the internet on both of these strands of society.

More than that he is very good at teasing out the newness of what a networked society means as well as putting this into a global perspective. He also write beautifully – and passionately – which as you know always pleases me.

I also agree with the way that despite seeing many flaws in our political and democratic systems he also sees them as a starting place to make things work better in our new context:

“ Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing”

Anyway – you get the picture – but that’s probably enough for anyone not doing a literature review. If you want to read more then please feel free.

(more…)

Some time ago I wrote on my noticeboard the question “What is new technology good at?” – I thought I should probably have a stab at answering it (rest assured that this doesn’t mean that future posts will be on other topics from the notice board such as how to take clematis cuttings or a reminder to buy flea treatment for the dog).

When I wrote the question I was thinking around what differentiates online democracy and engagement from the offline kind. I am a natural enthusiast for new technologies but am also very way of the ‘silver bullet‘ risk of pinning too much on a single solution.  Part of the confusion and excitement around social media is that fact that we get seduced by its speed, reach and general shinyness before we look at its substance. And because we are all caught on the dazzle we give way to the marketeers who are trying to us it to sell stuff to us – but that’s another post. However I think we can start to identify a couple of areas where social media is moving us beyond the offline world into new areas – moving us beyond just taking offline behaviours online. As an aside – I think that one of the methods you can use to identify the genuinely new is looking at the legal position – if we know how to legislate it well then its probably been around for a while.

So – this post is exploring where I think social media does take us into new areas and I am going to highlight 3 areas:

  • Transparency and the digital footprint
  • Aggregation and the public sphere
  • Identity and the link to accountability

There are also various facets of social media that need to be taken into account – such as speed and reach – but I see these as by-products almost rather than defining features. I almost added globalism to this list – but I think at this point you are straying beyond social media into communications generally and though there is obviously huge crossover one has to draw the line somewhere to avoid the worst of the scope creep…..

Some of these areas show behaviours which were present but not auditable (or audible perhaps) offline – in others these take us somewhere new.

Transparency and the digital footprint
One of the favourite undergraduate philosophy questions is that whole “how do you know if a tree falls in the forest if there is no-one there to hear”. Online you can always hear the tree fall. The fact that this makes your online life auditable changes things – it means that you need to plan for openness and transparency and you need to think more carefully about the consuqences of what this means. We are in a transition with this fact right now but you can see the ‘digitally native’ teens and early 20’s adjusting this (very good Danah Boyd interview on this) as they become more tolerant of mistakes, less private and generally more aware of the consequences of self-publishing than many older people. I would argue that this kind of transparency does make a difference to our behaviour and given the need for trust in a political context I think this is another reason to look to the social web to help us re-engage people – as long as we also align out attitudes to be closer to those digital natives and start to allow public figures to be actual people rather than media soundbites.

Aggregation and the public sphere
I have written in previous posts about the public sphere – the public conversation about issues and ideas that Habermas identified as supporting the democratic process – and so its not news that I see the social web as having the potential to re-knit the public sphere which has been so damaged by broadcast media. But the way in which social media does this is through aggregation – the ability to connect large groups of conversations together and, through semantic analysis and the like, start to draw meta-conclusions about what the whole group is saying. This kind of broadband listening is new – and its something we need to think about how to make the best of as its an amazing opportunity to make our decision making far more responsive without adding a huge overhead of consultation and debate.

Identity and the link to accountability
Identity is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I am fascinated by the malleability of identity online – but aware that this needs to be able to accommodate the democratic imperative for accountability. However, once we sort out this little blip with a more sophisticated view of online indentity management (I can’t believe we won’t get there) then we will be able to allow people to have the ability to both conceal their identity while remaining accountable. Is this a good thing – I am really not sure – but its definitely new I believe.  Will be posting more about this as this is just a note really – lots more thinking to be done obviously.

So, transparency, aggregation and identity – all vital to democracy and all embedded in the social web. All good reasons to keep wrestling the social web off the marketing folks and put it to work in a more democratic way…..

Bit of a hiatus on the blogging – mainly down to the fact that I have a new job. Still at Public-i but have been appointed as Chief Exec (press release here if you want to the proof!). Its a huge privilege as we have an exciting year ahead – but its been a busy start to the year.

The other reason for general busy-ness however is the launch of the Virtual Town Hall pilot sites. The first of these are now live – but we are still sorting out the data migration and will be publishing the URLs as soon as this is done. I will of course blog when this happens but they are really starting to come together.

But this post is one I have meant to write for ages as I wanted to start a thread about co-production – something that I don’t think we have yet spent enough time on as part of the pilot projects (this is just the phase of the project I think but I want to start the thinking).

One of the motivations behind the Virtual Town Hall work is not only the need to respond to the pressures and opportunities that the social web makes for democracy but also to respond pro-actively to the challenges that democracy faces when trying to raise levels of participation and engagement. This challenge becomes more acute as decision makers face the fact that the current and ongoing economic situation for local (and in fact all) government that they will need to make unpalatable choices that will require an actual mandate from the public – not the technical one with a low turnout election provides. To do this we need to think seriously about how we change the nature of the way that we all interact in the democratic process.

Co-production (or co-creation) – the idea of all stakeholders participating equally in the decision making process is one way in which we can re-imagine the relationship between citizens and government. There is a really good discussion paper from NESTA / NEF here.  There are a lot of questions to be answered with respect of the role of the elected representative (which I want to talk the folks at Kirkless about) but there is a lot of think about here.

Within the field of eParticipation the concept of co-creation or participatory design has a dual heritage:

  • The social web is driven by user generated content and the sharing of information and this content is networked together via the viral nature of the online environment. Eye witness reports become our first point of contact for breaking news and these are often un-mediated by the press. People flock to YouTube to watch other people’s home videos and deliberately created content. Political bloggers are gaining ground with the traditional media in terms of access and influence and mass collaboration online is being used by large corporations to support product research and development, by news organisations to create new content and by websites such as Wikipedia to create shared content outputs. Participatory design, whereby all users are involved in the design of a service, feature or outcome, is being used to improve products and services in all commercial fields and the increasing use of co-creation – of shared development of ideas across wide groups of people – online is endemic.
  • Methods of co-creation have been used within offline community engagement projects for some time. Co-creation is seen as an answer to the problem of how to engage citizens with the decision making process and is used with a wide range of citizen groups. Its main antecedent being the Arnstein ladder of engagement which describes different levels of citizen engagement in the deliberative process with a truly co-created discourse where citizens fully engage in deliberation and have power in the process at the top of that ladder and the overall objective of citizen engagement.

So there is a pressure from the social web which leads towards co-production – but as I said at the start I think the real pressure actually needs to be from the democratic process. Co-production reflects the participatory mood of much of the energy for democratic changes and also addresses government’s need to share the pain of difficult decisions.

But what is difficult to imagine is the path and process between where we are now – with an often paternalistic and consumer focused relationship between state and citizen – and a truly co-produced environment. The co-created nature of the social web makes this a good place to start, but as we are finding with the pilot process there are practical and cultural problems which Local Authorities need to overcome in order to build on this. Part of this is understanding and managing risks – both actual and perceived – and other parts is managing the new skills and processes that are needed to underpinned such a shift.

With the Virtual Town Hall we are taking it in steps – and the first one of these is to start listening to the social web conversations and actually interacting with them. We bring them into one place so that this can be done efficiently, so that we can see how people relate to each other and also so that we can establish identity – accountability being one of the biggest differences between social web and democratic decision making. Once this sense of shared space is established then the next step is to actually start connecting this space into the decision making process – but that’s for another post.

PS Much of this post was based on a paper I wrote for the eDem2009 conference in Vienna last year.

Spent the day in Chelmsford today meeting loads of people re: Virtual Town Hall.  This is by way of some observations and notes for me to remember for research purposes:

Meeting the districts:

  • We spent the morning with 3 districts who are considering getting involved and we had a very in-depth discussion about the concept of the VirtualTH as well as the specific project details.  Once again the basic proposition held up to scrutiny but there was a lot more concern about risk management than we have had in other meeting – this is perhaps because I have spent a lot of time talking to social web people who are more relaxed about the idea of content being unmoderated – but highlights the need to talk about risk when I start interviewing officers/members about their experiences of the project.
  • It was also clear that there is a considerable amount of additional complexity added by working in two tier areas.  Questions of where decision making will sit, relationships between the two sets of members and concerns about what might happen if two participating organisations found themselves in conflict over an issue where raised.  It will be interesting to see which (if any) of the districts decide to get actively involved and which decide to wait on the sidelines until it is clear how things are going (have put predictions in an envelope and we will see how accurate I am!!).
  • There were a couple of folks there from the LSP and they seemed very interested in the project.  LSP involvement could be really important in terms of connecting citizens to the right decision makers for specific issues so it was good to have their involvement
  • Overall it was a very useful morning with lots of good discussion – hopefully it will lead to some active involvement from districts – if not immediately then early next year

Getting the internal infrastructure working

The afternoon was spent with the Essex CC team discussing more operational issues such as:

  • Social web audit:  We have yet to really crack the social web audit as Essex and we spent some time discussing ideas of new places to look for activity.  Lots of new leads here which was very useful.  We also defined some more of the useful questions which we can apply to other sites.  it is increasingly clear that this is a process which will never be finished – we need to build it in as a regular maintenance task
  • Social web policy:  We discussed the process of getting this into place and also went through the key points for inclusion – next up I have to deliver a draft.  Part of this will be defining the commitment which is made to participants in the site and as part of this I am going to suggest a list of democratic activities which could be offered here – I will post this list later in the week hopefully.
  • Defining the democratic promise – we need to be very clear about what people can expect in terms of democratic outcomes from participation
  • Recruiting Community Ambassadors:  We had a good discussion about where to find the right kind of people and came up with some existing internal mechanisms which can be connected to

Conclusions

We made a lot of practical progress today and it was also very useful to talk through the project with the districts.  As I was driving home however I was thinking about the scale of what we are trying to do here – in terms of fundamentally addressing the nature of the relationship between council and citizens – and though it is clear to me in every way that this is an essential process if we want to use the social web to do democratic things – it may be as well to try and break this down into more understandable stages (as per the ladder of engagement) so that we can focus people on more immediate goals.  Will need to think about this.

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