This post is a Dave Briggs appreciation post for two reasons – one is that I promised him I would read and blog about this book and I am a woman of my word and the other is that its thanks to him that I read it on my shiny new Kindle. I am a self-confessed gadget fiend but was hesitating about the Kindle as I am hoping Father Christmas brings me an iPad and having both seemed profligate even for the most techno lust driven individual. However Dave was quite right when he told me that the two things hold different places in your life and that the Kindle is brilliant for the kind of ‘deep reading’ the PHD is requiring where I am trying not to be distracted by the myriad possibilities of the internet. After 2 years using the Sony eReader the best thing is the excellence of the notes and highlights feature as well as the software interface – though the ease of purchase with the Amazon integration has meant this is in the same category as eBay and twitter in terms of best avoided after a couple of glasses of wine (this was valuable learning after I nearly ended up owning a canoe – but that’s another story). So – Dave – right as ever – thank you – and does anyone want a second hand Sony eReader??

But back to the book – The Myth of Digital Democracy by Mathew Hindman – published in 2008.

The myth in question which is central to idea of the internet as a tool for democratic renewal:

“Most talk about Internet-fueled democratization has been quite specific about the political changes that the Internet ostensibly promotes. In these accounts, the Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites. This second definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of ordinary citizens.”

Hindman is looking to examine this underpinning belief that the internet is of necessity a democratising force in the world. He goes on to talk about the fact that this belief is also connected to an evolution of our democracy from a representative to a deliberative one.

“Political philosophers have also worked in recent years to expand the notion of political voice, with a torrent of scholarship on what has come to be called deliberative democracy. Much of the initial credit for refocusing scholarly attention goes to Jurgen Habermas (1981, 1996); yet what John Dryzek (2(X)2) terms the “deliberative turn” in political thought now includes numerous prominent scholars (Rawls 1995; Cohen 1989; Nino 1998)”

Going on to say:

“Despite their differences, these deliberative democrats all agree that democracy should be more than just a process for bargaining and the aggregation of preferences. All suggest that true participation requires citizens to engage in direct discussion with other citizens. The Internet’s political impacts have often been viewed through the lens that deliberative democrats have provided. The hope has been that the Internet would expand the public sphere, broadening both the range of ideas discussed and the number of citizens allowed to participate.”

So the specific claim here is that the Internet is increasing the volume of citizens talking to each other – which is a vital democratic activity (particularly if they are talking to the people they disagree with). However the myth busting starts here with the thought that:

“Using longitudinal data, M. Kent Jennings and Vicki Zeitner (2003) found that Internet use had little effect on civic engagement. Pippa Norris argued that the Internet “probably has had the least impact on changing the motivational basis for political activism” (2(x)1, 22). Markus Prior (2007) found divergent effects depending on one’s political engagement: Internet use increased political knowledge among citizens already interested in politics, but had the opposite effect among the previously apathetic. Bruce Bimber similarly concludes that despite some organizational innovations, “it does not appear, at least so far, that new technology leads to higher aggregate levels of political participation” (2003a, 5)”

However this was all a bit of a smokescreen as what Hindman really wants to pursue is not whether the internet is achieving a new form of democratic utopia but whether it is competing effectively with pre-existing media forms. And this is where I first disagree with him – I think this is an attempt to find a solid place to stand in a constantly shifting environment – which is fair enough – but I don’t think you can talk about the media without also talking about the pressures that the network society puts upon the media – for example look at Castells analysis of media ownership and the effect on political discourse.

“But as Yochai Benkler observes, “We need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated the public sphere in all modern democracies” (2006, 260)”

And this is where Hindman gets to the meat of his argument which is an examination of how political activists, in particular bloggers, interact online through a thorough examination of the links and influence of these people – and his conclusion is that the internet is an amplifying rather than expansive environment and that “The link topology of the Web suggests that the online public sphere is less open than many have hoped or feared.” – he is talking about the emergence of a new elite.

“For political scientists, the demographics of Web users have seemed consistent with a familiar and disturbing pattern. In Voice and Equality, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) argue that differences in political resources result in a systematic distortion in the perceived preferences of the public, and that this distortion favors traditionally privileged groups and those with conservative views. If the Internet is itself an important political resource-a powerful tool for political organizing, fund-raising, and information gathering-placing the new medium disproportionately in the hands of advantaged groups might perpetuate or even exacerbate a conservative bias in U.S. politics. Yet survey data seem to tell dominate the audience for politics online.”

He takes this link analysis and comes up with the fabulously named theory of ‘googlearchy’

“Taken together, the insights in this chapter add up to a new theory that my collaborators and I call Googlearchy: the rule of the most heavily linked. Building on previous research and the data referenced above, this theory offers several claims. First, Googlearchy suggests that the number of links pointing to a site is the most important determinant of site visibility. Sites with lots of inbound links should be easy to find; sites with few inlinks should require more time and more skill to discover. All else being equal, sites with more links should receive more traffic. Second, Googlearchy indicates that niche dominance should be a general rule of online life. For every clearly defined group of Web sites, a small portion of the group should receive most of the links and most of the traffic. Communities, subcommunities, and sub-subcommunities may differ in their levels of concentration; yet overall, online communities should display a Russian-nesting-doll structure, dominated at every level by winners-take-all patterns. Third, Googlearchy suggests that this dependence on links should make niche dominance self-perpetuating. Heavily linked sites should continue to attract more links, more eyeballs, and more resources with which to improve the site content, while sites with few links remain ignored.”

He really sums this up by saying:

“Yes, almost anyone can put up a political Web site, but this fact matters little if few political sites receive many visitors. In the areas this chapter examines, putting up a political Web site is usually equivalent to hosting a talk show on public access television at 3:30 in the morning.”

Now I have some concerns with the idea that link analysis gives a good analysis of influence – but that’s another matter. The real issue is that once again he is embedded in the idea that the potential of the internet is its potential to challenge traditional media – he is putting an old world analysis on the new world order. And here is more of it:

“Discussions of the online public sphere have imagined that political blogs, advocacy organizations, and other noncommercial outlets would challenge the monopoly that commercial media have had on public discourse. Judging by traffic, this challenge does not seem to be especially strong. News and media sites still receive thirty times as many visits as political Web sites do. That level of readership is large by the standards of traditional opinion journals, such as the Nation, the New Republic, or the National Review, all of which are minor print publications. Yet political sites remain a small niche amid the larger Web.”

My fundamental objection to what he is putting forward is his narrow definition of political and the lack of inclusion of civic participation – the kind of hyperlocal activism which happens below the radar of the mainstream media in many cases but has the potential to have far greater impact on our political landscape – his is an analysis which is really describing the conditions of democratic defict – which is useful – but does not look beyond a political analysis to bring a social analysis to bear.

However its extremely useful to look at his analysis in terms of the digital divide and where new forms of activisim are rubbing up against the old elites:

“Yet perhaps the most striking characteristic of this group is its educational attainment. Of the top ten blogs, eight are run by people who have attended an elite institution of higher education-either an Ivy League school, or a school of similar caliber like Caltech, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Seven of the top ten are run by someone with a JD or a PhD-and one of the exceptions, Cox, did graduate work at Berkeley and worked as an editor at the Chronicle of’Higher Education. At least three of the ten bloggers-Marshall, Reynolds, and Drum-are the children of academics. All of this raises the question, How different are bloggers from what many bloggers derisively term the “elite media””

“The culture of blogging may somewhat ameliorate the elitism inherent in having blog readership focused on a few bloggers who are unrepresentative of the general public. Still, there are limits to what the openness of blogging culture can accomplish. The top bloggers may read more blogs than the average citizen, but their reading habits are likely also skewed toward popular blogs. It is one thing if the top ten bloggers, who serve as filters for the rest of the blogosphere, come from relatively elite backgrounds. But what of the second- and third-tier bloggers? If we are to take seriously the trickle up theory of online debate, we need to know who these ideas are trickling up from. We need systematic knowledge about a broader swath of the blogging community.”

And this is pithy reminder of Virginia Woolf’s point about a room of ones own:

“In the blogosphere, as in the Athenian agora, those who devote themselves to public debates are those with social autonomy.”

and he is spot on when he says:

“These findings raise the question of what, exactly, the phrase elite media means. These top bloggers have educational backgrounds that exceed those of professional columnists. The readership of the top blogs rivals the nation’s top op-ed pages. Moreover, the blogosphere has succeeded in re-creating some of the traditional punditocracy’s most worrisome elitist characteristics. One of these is a dearth of gender and ethnic diversity.”

I think my concern is that his argument is skewed towards the idea that politcal blogs are the point of entry for greater democratic participation online and I just don’t think this is the case – I think people are becoming civically engaged before they are becoming politically engaged and that that’s the big change here – hence my desire to catagorise and measure this in the PHD. Hindman talking about a ‘missing middle’ of the public sphere – I think that can be found in hyperlocal or campaign focused civic activism.

But he does highlight one big danger of political activism online being dominated by the highly articulate and educated bloggers:

“But if online debate has not achieved “true” deliberation, it has given new urgency to the fears of deliberative democracy’s skeptics. Lynn Sanders argues that deliberative democracy fails because “some citizens are better than others at articulating their views in rational, reasonable terms”, those whose voices go unheard “are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people” (1997; 348, 349) Peter Berkowitz (1996) concludes that deliberation empowers an even narrower set of citizens: Since it shifts power from the people to the best deliberators among them, deliberative democracy… appears to be in effect an aristocracy of intellectuals. In practice, power is likely to flow to the deans and directors, the professors and pundits, and all those who, by virtue of advanced education, quickness of thought, and fluency of speech can persuade others of their prowess in the high deliberative arts. Something very much like Berkowitz’s vision has already taken hold online. The online public sphere is already a de facto aristocracy dominated by those skilled in the high deliberative arts.”

Conclusion

This is a really useful piece of work in that its a serious examination of one important element of political engagement online and it has some really useful facts on the dangers of elitism and a strengthening of the problems and weaknesses of our current democratic environment – the one that has delivered us a massive democratic deficit.

However – by failing to expand the scope to look at other forms of participation beyond blogging and by keeping such a narrow definition of political activism to exclude campaigning and civic involvement the book ultimately falls down for me in its analysis of the potential of digital democracy.

Before getting started here – large thanks to Anthony Zacharzewski from DemSoc for putting me right on a number of things – all mistakes still existing are clearly my own….

One of the things I like most about working through the blog is that a piece can start off as one thing and become something quite different. I thought this post was going to be something fairly straightforward documenting decision making processes in Local Government. Through writing it I realised that there is not a lot to write in terms of formal processes – we elect people and they make decisions. What makes this complex is the Political manoeuvring both from politicians and (with a small P) officers in order to get to the point of making decisions. With this in mind its hardly surprising that the public don’t feel part of the process.

So it turns out that this is all really an extension of the post I did on co-production last week and is really an outline one for a series of interviews I now want to do over the next couple of months with decision makers of all kinds in order to describe the special balance that exists between politicians and officers in most councils. Its an attempt to fill in the detail of what I mean when I talk about wanting to connect the informal civic participation of the social web with ‘formal democratic decision making processes’. This is really picking up on the detail of the ‘formal democratic’ from my catagorisation model as well as responding to some of the issues that will arise from the virtual town hall pilot at Kirklees (Decision Making 2.0) as we actually start to combine political and consultative processes.

These interviews should help describe the requirements for a decision making space from the point of view of officers and members with the work I am doing at the pilot site describing similar views from citizens.

Its also interesting to reflect on these issues as someone who has spent much of the last 8 years trying to get decisions out of councils (I deliberately don’t talk about positive decisions – after 6 years of talking to one Council we just wanted any decision at that point!!!). Because of the democratic impact of the decision to webcast council meetings over at Public-i we have spent a lot of time bouncing with greater or lesser degrees of productiveness between the bureaucratic and political decision making processes of local government and it gives an insight into how a decision that is often perceived as both political and risky is managed (or avoided) through the system.

But in the grand theory of everything this of course links to what I was writing about last week – how do we manage power and how does that power manifest itself into a decision. I don’t want to go over old ground and talk about the relationship between officers and politicians as I am still happy with my post on formal civic behaviours but I do want to return to one passage in that post:

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

The essence of this is the fact that we need to embrace the fact that decision making within Councils is political – and there is no point in trying to sanitise this out of the process.

In terms of the decision making process I work from a fairly simple decision making model which doesn’t reference the political context:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

This is initially in parallel with models that have been defined within the eParticipation literature and I would particularly reference Ann MacIntosh’s work in “Characterizing E-Participation in Policy-Making” which uses the following:

  1. Agenda setting: establishing the need for a policy or a change in policy and defining what the problem to be addressed is.
  2. Analysis: defining the challenges and opportunities associated with an agenda item more clearly in order to produce a draft policy document. This can include: gathering evidence and knowledge from a range of sources including citizens and civil society organizations; understanding the context, including the political context for the agenda item; developing a range of options.
  3. Creating the policy: ensuring a good workable policy document. This involves a variety of mechanisms which can include: formal consultation, risk analysis, undertaking pilot studies, and designing the implementation plan.
  4. Implementing the policy: this can involve the development of legislation, regulation, guidance, and a delivery plan.
  5. Monitoring the policy: this can involve evaluation and review of the policy in action, research evidence and views of users. Here there is the possibility to loop back to stage one.

However as you can see I diverge after the analysis phase where I suggest a deliberative process rather than the creation of a policy. My criticism of MacIntosh’s model here is that it does not include the formative act of taking a decision – instead if moves from creation of the policy to its implementation without that decision making point. This is the basis of a larger criticism of much of the e Participation literature in that it supports the comfortable lie that consultation and engagement can happen in parallel with the political process and as having meaning in and of themselves rather than being characterised as a support function to political decision making.

What do I mean by decision?

In this instance I am talking about making a judgement on an action or path which will require the use of Council resources to implement or the creation of a policy which will subsequently affect future actions.  As I am talking about decisions being made by ‘The Council’ then this relates to decisions that are devolved to Local Government rather than being subject to national legislation.

Local Government – what exactly are you talking about?

Local Government – Councils – describes the tier of government that is elected regionally rather than nationally and which is responsible for running much of the infrastructure of the Country as well as delivering services such as social support, housing and education. Council’s can take one of 4 formats; County, District, Metropolitan or Unitary – with the Greater London Authority being something else entirely as is the City of London. Below this there is also a network of Parish Council’s with very limited and localised powers which I will pick up on later.

The important thing to remember is that it is the Council that has the power – but often that power is used to delegate the power to a committee – thus making it in many case powerless – make sense yet?

But the complexity is actually in the relationship between the Council and the Leader / Cabinet as following the Local Government Act 2000 the Committee system was abolished and Council’s required to follow one of these forms of executive process:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Alternative arrangement

There was a fourth format, Mayor and council manager executive, which was repealed by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. With the exception of a few specified ‘alternative arrangements’ most Councils’ run either a Mayor or Leader system alongside their Cabinet. The Local Government Act 2006 (which Councils’ are in process of transitioning to) amended “Leader and Cabinet” to “Executive Leader and Cabinet” which further changed the balance here as executive functions are defined in law and given to the leader as an individual rather than being delegated. This splits the Council’s powers with the idea of providing more leadership and the potential for balance as the Full Council and Leader are not able to exercise each others powers. This might all change again soon as the Government has proposed bringing the old committee system back which once again has the Full Council delegating to committees but we shall have to wait and see on this.

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

But what about community governance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consult, engage or decide?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Democratic decisions are taken when the decision makers are transparently representative of the citizens who the decision effects. This power of representation may be ceded to other groups but unless it is formally and legally passed on then the responsibility lies with the representatives. There are strong arguments for improving this democratic function at a neighbourhood level (if we can meet Quality Parish standards!!) and going beyond the budget setting process to more formal governance and representation however this is not yet happening on a wide spread basis no matter what the Big Society rhetoric of the current government might say. This further devolution would sit well with the hyperlocal activity that we see online and reflect the fact that this micro units are possible in a network society.

Ultimately decisions are taken where the power is – for democracy the problem comes when there is a lack of strong political leadership and where what leadership we have has a weak mandate from the public in terms of low voter turnout. We have a crisis of political leadership at a local level in the UK in that we struggle to find people to stand – let alone have the opportunity to have a competitive race for the post in many areas. The Councillor Census 2008 showed:

  • Only 30.8% of Councillors are women (and that’s an increase!)
  • 96.6% of councillors are white
  • The average age of councillors has increased from 55 years in 1997 to 59 years in 2008, and the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4% to 13.1% over the same period.

This does not reflect well on a representative democracy. The crisis in democratic participation means that the critical question about devolving democratic powers to a more local level may not be whether this is more democratic but whether or it will allow us to recruit more participants. Currently most people who exercise their democratic rights at a local level tend to do this in direct response to National politics – who else is expecting the Liberal Democrats to get a liberal kicking at the next Local Government elections that has nothing to do with their performance within local government? Democracy functions through participation – we may pontificate about the problems with devolving responsibility to the Parish (or equivalent) level but if this is where we can get people to participate then this may answer our most pressing issue.

However I don’t believe that this devolution is enough – what may then be needed are new forms of representation – for example using specialists or mixed length terms in order to reflect the flexibility and fluidity of the community at the same time as looking to strengthen representation at a neighbourhood level where the burden of time needed to fulfil a role will be much less and where the act of representing your community will have a more direct impact than in representing a larger group of people. We also need more iterative decision making processes that allow for the ongoing negotiation and context and proposal against the initial agenda setting process so that people can have an actual impact within the event horizon of their more flexible participation.

Understanding how we make decisions is also part of this – showing people where they can have an effect and then inviting them to participate in that process in a way that makes sense to them.

This post is an attempt to come up with a robust definition of what we mean when we use the term hyperlocal – I realise that other people may have different definitions so would appreciate comments on this.

When I try and describe my research area I tend to say that I am looking at both describing and then measuring informal civic behaviours within hyperlocal communities and then more specifically looking at what the online civic spaces will look like if we want to connect them to formal democratic processes. Assuming the poor soul hasn’t shuffled off towards the buffet table in the hopes of never meeting me again I then tend to get one of three types of reaction (I don’t count the ones who just think I’m mad for trying to do a PHD….):

  1. I don’t really use this social networking stuff (i.e. I am secretly hoping it will all go away)
  2. Surely not enough communities are online to make this viable – and anyway – we already have a representative democracy
  3. Why do we need the formal democratic processes when shiny new online ones will do this all much better

I think all three of these reactions deserve a proper response but that’s not what this post is about. Its about the fourth type of reaction – the academic reaction – which is basically a huge shout to Frame The Question. What do I mean by hyperlocal? What do I mean by informal civic behaviour and am I sure I have a good definition of formal democratic process? I have looked at these last two in a previous post so now on to try and describe hyperlocal….

Now – anyone who is using this term on a regular basis may find this a little tedious – but tight definitions is what the academic stuff is about – without those you can’t form the watertight questions that you need before you can even start to get some answers….and anyway I did marry a pedant.

Practitioner uses of the term hyperlocal

Hyperlocal is passing into practitioner use in the UK fairly seamlessly with groups such as Talk about Local, Podnosh and Networked Neighbourhoods using it to describe grassroot communities which organise online while being focused on a defined geographically area. The key points are community and the link to an actual place as well as the underlying sense of civic purpose. The ‘hyper’ in the local comes from the fact that these communities tend to be formed around areas which are considerably smaller than any democratic decision making unit – the exception being the parish level. There is no technological commonality across these sites. They use different tools and different platforms and vary between bulletin boards, to blogs to sites using more social tools. There are even people who are still hand coding their HTML and loving it. The unifying themes are location and the idea of civic purpose and community.

The excellent Openly Local site is starting to give you an overview of the hyperlocal activity which is springing up – as well as having the really useful ambition to pull together Local Government data as it is made open – worth keeping an eye on this one if you don’t already know about it has they are doing great stuff.

If we take practitioner to mean ‘people who make hyperlocal the focus of their work’ we are currently talking about 3 main groups of people.

  • Talk about Local describe their mission as “…..a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice.  We want to help people communicate and campaign more effectively to influence events in the places in which they live, work or play. “
  • The folks at Networked Neighbourhoods talk about their visions as being “……to foster digital society at the local level to increase neighbourhood social capital, grow democratic engagement and build the capacity of communities to work as more active agents in partnership with local councils.”
  • The Podnosh team want to “….change the way the public and the public sector talk to each other.” and they do this with a programme of social media surgeries which you can can find out more about here.

Notice the difference between “influencing events” , “active agents in partnerships” and “change the way that public and private sector talk to each other” – these phrases show a different stance on the same activity.  I am not attempting to describe these differences as I don’t think there is enough separation to give this much meaning at this stage – though it will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on.  Whatever the vision as to why they are doing it what we do have is a growing number of people that believe it is a very good thing to give communities the tools they need to use new technologies to help themselves – and I must say that I am one of them. While I am actively not commenting on the Big Society concept (where to start!) it seems obvious to me that any attempt to strengthen local community civic engagement must to some extent make use of these new technologies – if nothing else in order to provide an infrastructure that the state can meaningfully interact with. But that is definitely different post altogether.

Before moving on – its worth noting that this usage of hyperlocal is specific to the UK – in the US hyperlocal refers to media coverage (as you can see from the wikipedia definition) which is perhaps a reflection of the very different media situations in the two countries. I have not looked into other usages but will be checking out Sweden and Spain at least and will update accordingly when I have done so.

But is there any research?

I have been hunting and the only substantive research project I can find around hyperlocal communities in the UK is the London’s Digital Neighbourhood’s study which is being run by Networked Neighbourhoods and funded by London Council’s (I’m on the steering group for it so that I can torment them with annoying questions). This is really a pilot study but is already starting to show some interesting results. I will post more when they publish findings but you can keep an eye on it from their website here.

Apart from the ‘teach a man to fish’ approaches that are described above there are a couple of other organised projects that I know of:

  • The study from De Montfort called “Amplified Leicester”which has now turned into a community website. This project is rather different and took a deeper look at what technology could do for a community rather than looking at ways in which the community uses technology to organise itself.
  • The work that the folks at Cambridgeshire County Council have been doing with the Fenland Social Media project which provides a different approach altogether which you can read about through Michelle Ide Smith‘s research.

Apart from these the focus has been on communities of interest or practice, perhaps based around specific groups like this one around virtual worlds which is closer in nature to some of Danah Boyd‘s work.  If anyone knows of other more relevant research then I would be very grateful to be pointed at it at this point….

Putting the local into Hyperlocal

But this all gives us a working practitioner definition of hyperlocal – I have described what it does rather than what it is. To do that we need to look a little deeper. Firstly lets deal with the hyper bit. To me this is really all in the usage in this context – its about drilling down below the local into the smallest area we can describe. It has a pleasingly techno feel as a word and I really think that’s about it though the sense of hyper as referring to many dimensions is also relevant when we get on to a more detailed description of place. However the relative newness of the term means that there is not a lot of complexity to its application and the real issue is in how we describe the term ‘local’.

But before talking about local I think I need to back track slightly and point out that one of my original starting points for the research was around the idea of online community. Online communities have been an area of interest of mine for around 15 years and I would still cite books like Howard Rheingold‘s “The Virtual Community:  Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” as being seminal in describing the reality and impact of those social spaces for people who did not necessarily ever meet each other in person. This work has developed into communities of practice or communities of interest and is still enormously relevant. Look at the ways that online communities are formed to support suffers of a particular condition or to connect carers together in ways that would have been impractical before. Look at the success and reach of Mumsnet.

However hyperlocal communities are different – they come together with a shared purpose initially rather than shared values (Castells) and are firmly rooted in the idea of place. It is the reality of space and the fact that is has this messy unbounded quality that means that these hyperlocal communities need to be considered as different to the often more cerebral online communities of interest.

Its impossible to talk about what local means without coming up with some thoughts about place and space. Local is as much a state of mind and of narrative as it a geographical descriptor. But before local come the ideas of space and place.

Space and Place

I have been reading the amazing “For Space” by Doreen Massey which is a meditation on the nature of space and what it means to define a specific place within it.

“In a context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonance.” (P.5).

The effect of modernity (as discussed by Giddens) means that space can no longer be the preserve of geographers and spatial descriptions of place – we need to also include temporal and narrative descriptions as well. As Massey says

“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.” (P.91).

You see – I said that vaguely sci-fi ‘hyper’ reference would make sense at some point.

“Space and place emerge through active material practices. Moreover, this movement of yours in not just spatial, it is also temporal.” (Massey).

Place is defined by the narrative of the space that is described over time – in Massey’s words ‘place’ is a ‘space’ which has been given meaning. This is easier to absorb if you accept that space, and therefore space, cannot be considered to be bounded – once you accept that the story and the relationship within a place are as essential to it as the geographical location then you can see that no place exists in isolation and we can absorb a much more holistic view of what a place actually is. This is going to make place based budgeting all the more difficult but makes a lot more sense than a visualisation of the world which is divided into neat little adjacent chunks.

What’s more, the relationships and social morays of a community also become embedded in the description of a place, along with the history and temporal narrative and the coevalness of these elements is what Massey talks of when she describes what place means.

What about local? How do we describe a local place? In the absence of any meaningful bounding of space Massey really leaves the definition of local to the people who describe it. Therefore the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place.

Hyperlocal, with the unspoken assumption that there is an online element contains the possibility of people ‘opting in’ to a shared description of local which has hitherto eluded us. This makes it both an opportunity to define community at the same time as a potential battleground for different communities over the same geographical space – what do we do if two communities cite their locality claims over the space area? Its when we reach these kinds of questions that my interest in connecting these informal civic communities to the formal democratic processes becomes acute – our democratic process exists in order to manage and reconcile this kind of conflict.

This description of place as a multiplicity which intrinsically involves its participants and can co-exist with its virtual self is very different from the way in which the fairly sterile way in which many writers have described the overlay of technology over the way in which we live. It may be the more recent impacts of more social technologies or it may be the fact that so many network society thinkers are rather infected with an age of enlightenment view of the world as an inherently rational place but I find Massey’s writing far more compelling than the way in which William Mitchell, for example talking about a future of closed and gated communities facilitated by online networks or Negroponte’s techno-utopian views of a world where we have sanitised so many of our interactions through technological mediation.

Localism has to some extent started to gain ground back from the globalism which has overwhelmed us for some time with the dazzling prospect of seamless connection with any point of the globe at the same time as social relationships are regaining stature against a more commoditised set of relationships that we see when we look at the history of the dot.com boom and web 1.0.

I have for some time been trying to finish “The Production of Space” by Henri Lefebvre which is a different attempt to reconcile ideas of mental and physical space and having read the Massey I am going to take another stab at it. I believe the difference between the two approaches to essential the same issue is around the viserality that Massey is able to bring with her geographical background rather than Lefebvre’s more abstract approach. However they both address the philosophical question of the nature of space which needs to be talked about before you can drill down into ‘lace’ and then further to the idea of ‘local’.

What does this all mean then?

We have no idea at present whether the current growth of hyperlocal communities is a short term effect or something that will last into the long term. However the current political climate and the need for greater self-sufficiency from communities along with the compatibility of this kind of behaviour with internet culture means that it is sensible to speculate ongoing growth of hyperlocal communities could mean. We need to consider governance models, plans for sustainability, we need to think about policing these communities and we need to do all of this against a backdrop of the constant knowledge that state intervention in these social constructs may well do more harm than good.

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.

Scarily enough I am now starting to write up my thesis – the aim is a chapter a month – and I have been blogging a bit less as a result (though have a few posts queued up – its addictive you know.  Below is some of the ideas from the theoretical framework I have been building and I wanted to put them out in the world to see how people reacted…..

Part of the reason for wanting wider comment is the fact that I am increasingly inclined to think that the emphasis on civic space building is very obviously on the creation and sustainability of hyperlocal communities – with the role of the democratic body being to connect to and interact with these more social groupings.  This links into my interest in the nature of online civic spaces and whether or not it is possible to connect some of the informal behaviours that you see online with formal decision making processes.  This necessitates me actually defining what I mean by informal behaviours – this is my attempt at doing this as within the work I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

  • Informal Social
  • Informal Civic
  • Formal Civic
  • Formal Democratic

I’ve written about these before but the table describes my definitions of these four categories with respect to the intention of the participants as they participate online:

Stage Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

The distinction between informal and formal

Informal interactions do not require you to ‘join’ anything the connections between individuals are social in terms of being based on trust and compatibility. Further to this there is no requirement to identify yourself or become accountable for your opinions or ideas when you are operating informally though there is a strong correlation between trust and identity. However I am talking specifically with respect to democratic participation and I add an additional layer of meaning to informal in that these interactions are not necessarily part of the decision making process. These comments might be out there on the social web and they might be ‘public’ in the sense that Habermas talks of publicity but there is no mechanism for the elected representatives to take note of these thoughts and opinions. They do not have the legitimacy of the media though increasingly they are treated in a similar way as online campaigns and actions are being both reported on in the mainstream media and also responded to by politicians.

Formal interactions, on the other hand, do require that the individual has either joined an organisations or made their identity known. They are auditable in some way and the participants can be held to account legally as a result. Formal consultation is one of the these contexts but others might be housing associations or PCT boards etc, justice of the peace and other formal but not necessarily representative roles. Formal decision making processes exist in order to manage situation where consensus may not exist and where competing interests need to be managed. Participation in a formal way shows an acceptance of the need to influence and interact with someone/thing outside of your direct sphere of influence – which is not necessary as part of the informal stage. In a representative democratic context formality also refers to the fact that you are not able to take a decision yourself and that you are rather trying to influence the actual decision makers.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

I consider 3 different types of behaviours that can be seen and measured online. I make these distinctions in order to be able to examine the transitions between these types of activities in order to describe how it might be possible to make a connection between virtual and non-virtual actions with respect to democratic participation.

Social interactions take place with anyone who we consider to be a friend or family member and only effect other people within the same social group – there is no external implication of these interactions. Dunbar describes these people who might fall within “anyone who you might want to say hello to if you bumped into them at 3am at Hong Kong airport”. This is a wide definition but can also be expressed as social interactions being those contacts with people who you are happy to see in many contexts – people who you transcend shared interests or purposes and connect to you as an individual.

Civic activities can be defined as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.

Democratic interactions are defined by the presence of a legal body and perhaps framework within which the interaction must take place. Society has applied rules to the process and the participants need to comply in order to contribute to the final outcome. Democratic interactions are distinct from civic ones in that there is no legal obligation for elected representatives to take opinions from the civic space into account (though there will be other pressures) where within democratic processes that legal redress is in place.

Four categories of behaviours

By using these categories above I am able to describe the four categories that I am using in order to describe the online interactions that I am examining during the course of this work and to describe them in more detail:

Stage Description
Informal social These actions are carried out in connection with your immediate social relationships and do not seek to engage with the community outside of your social circle
Informal Civic These actions can be described as those which take you outside of your immediate circle to connect with others in your community – for the purpose of discussing or even changing your community. For the purposes of this research the community I am referring to is the part of local government which you are resident in.
Formal Civic For these actions the actor is not only discussing local issues but doing so within either a formal association or perhaps as part of a formally run consultation process
Formal Democratic The actions are part of a legally described decision making process whereby the democratic body is in some way legally obliged to respond to any views or suggestions which have been raised.

Once you move out of the social realm into the civic and democratic one of the other necessary conditions is that you are seeking to involve and engage with people beyond your immediate social circle – you have decided to act as a member of a wider community. It is this decision to act more than anything which illustrates the civic and then democratic nature of the actions.

The formal representative (for example a local councillor) can be involved at any stage of the process beyond the informal social – however the degree to which there is a requirement for them to be involved increases as we move towards formal democratic decision making.

Something of a blog hiatus as I have had multiple laptop traumas – am actually looking forward to catching up with it – just shows this blogging business is addictive.  I need to add a post from the ministerial conference in Malmo, our Europetitions and also our Virtual Town Hall meeting in Chorley.

But more immediately – just had an excellent day at the Future eGov conference.  As promised here are my slides which have the stats in and also actually reference the Don Tapscott diagram properly:

Lots of really good content at the conference.  I really appreciated sharing the session with Hugh Flouch from Networked Neighbourhoods as a lot of my work is predicated on the existence of his – and he is able not only to engage a local community but also to articulate what he is doing.

I also enjoyed the final question time debate – and I am intrigued by the idea of a post-democratic society from Tom Harris – will have to read more in case this is just a really good sound bite….

Couple of general observations:

  • The issue of moderation of sites is really key – and less is more – we need to really adjust our thinking about risk and support the idea of self-moderation wherever possible – we have to trust the community
  • I really liked the phrase “online is a catalyst and not a cause” – can anyone remember who said it??

Another thought which is really a hangover from Malmo – I think we have to be careful about assuming that social capital results in social outcomes – there is no guarantee that a highly ‘capitalised’ community will behave in the way that we expect.

Good piece in the guradian about the Talk about Local unconference – you can read about it here.

Perhaps its my reaction to reading the Coleman book this weekend but I think this hyperlocalism is very important and very much the approach we are taking with the virtual town hall pilot.  You can read about the organisers here.