This is one of those posts that my PHD supervisor charmingly refers to as throat clearing – its the piece you have to write before you can write the piece you want to write.

I have been doing a lot of internal mulling about the nature of collaboration and leadership in networked organisations. This is all mixed in with more thinking around how we create open practice in our organisation. I have written a bit about this here.

I think at the centre of these threads is a discussion about what data you should share about your organisation when the shareholders are private individuals rather than taxpayers and where accountability is delivered via the board room not the ballot box.

“Should” – as ever there is a mix here of moral imperative and practical necessity. As I’ve said before I know that my own belief in the importance of open practice is partly an ethical one but I also think that its the way in which we will make business fit for purpose as we start to operate in a more digital and networked environment.

I am impatient for the open data discussion to start addressing the cultural effects of a more open environment as I think that only by looking at this are we going to unlock the really transformative potential of open data and also how we will put more pressure on corporates to open up the data which will form an important part of the overall picture and ultimately the business case.

However there is something in this discussion of information sharing which also relates to how you go about working in a more networked and collaborative way.

At Public-i we are starting to properly work in networked collaboration with a couple of other organisations (more on that later) and this is working because we have a lot of trust, respect and openness with each other. We are all small organisations and so it is possible to form working relationships throughout all three organisations to make sure that this works. Its really exciting actually doing this networked organisation thing and not just talking about it.

Open data should be the basis on which Government organisations are able to collaborate more effectively but if we want this to extend this to more effective collaboration with the private sector (ad I think we do) then there needs to be some reciprocity in this openness.

The elephant in the room here may be a conversation about acceptable levels of value exchange and profit but I will keep my mind open on this point. Wrapped within this is the a need for an increase in levels of balance sheet literacy in the audience in the same way that participatory budgeting requires an increase in budget literacy. We know from the debacle of so many outsourcing arrangements that if you get this wrong you get terrible services and terrible value – a more open conversation and agreement of what’s acceptable may help avoid this in the future.

At this stage I am just trying to form good questions to help find good answers. I think the questions I need to ask are around understanding the levels of reciprocity in terms of openness that is needed to effect strong working relationships between the public and private sector – and how do we make these robust enough to create organisational rather than individual trust. I’ll be asking these questions of some of our clients and discussing it internally – as well as with collaborators – and I will also need to talk to shareholders about this as its important not to forget that they are a vital part of this discussion. As ever though I would really value comments here as well – so let me know what you think if you have time.

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

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

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

A new democratic relationship?

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

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

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

  • Lack of interest or even dislike of politics.

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

  • Lack of Self-Efficacy

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

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

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

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

So – whats the proposal here?

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

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

The office owns the democracy

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

Be open by default

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping up

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is by way of a short overview of the session I ran at CityCamp Brighton on Saturday proper post on the whole event to follow. Being chair of the judging panel meant that I could’t pitch it so I am hoping that the write up at least will be of use.

The basic premise is the fact that people do not live in postcodes or wards and they definitely don’t live in lower supra-output areas. Neither do they live in Neighbourhood Policing areas or even in Parishes a lot of the time. People live in communities and the reach and geography of these are defined by the people – not by the data. This is an essentially narrative led view of the world that requires us to view community as a living thing as opposed to a post hoc measurement.

The suggestion is that we enable people to draw the shape of their community on a map and that we then serve data back to them on the basis of where they say they live – rather than where we put them for administrative purposes.

We were lucky enough to have people in the group from the Council, Police, Community groups and actual residents so we had a productive session.

Before we go any further – this session was very much focused around communities of place not communities of interest. Though we all fully accept the fact that not all communities are geographical this was our interest for the 80 mins we had together.

Data? What data?
We started by taking a view as to what data actually exists that can be matched by whatever means to longitude and latitude so that it could be treated in this freehand way. The list was legion:

  • Neighbourhood policing data – this is organised by neighbourhood policing areas
  • Snap points – the Police assign incidents to common points so as not to identify specific locations
  • Point data generally – anything that does have a longitude / latitude
  • Ward – smallest electoral unit
  • Lower Supra-Output areas and Output areas – have a look at the ONS definitions for these
  • Logical operational boundaries – these are the areas that make sense for specific service delivery tasks – for example waste collection routes
  • Postcode – this is where the postman thinks you live….
  • Property Gazette – and this is actually where your house is….

So – the good news is that all this data is there – the question for the #opendata folks is how actually useable it all is but let’s not dwell on that problem right now……

The devil is of course in the detail
The big issue is that many of these data sets do not, and probably should not, connect to specific points and so its gathered and managed into larger sets which are not going to be congruent with the areas that people actually draw on the map – in fact this is the essence of the problem.

Our proposed solution is that we display the map areas that data sets relate to surrounding the area that has been created by the user and that they can decide the relevance for themselves. That way we are being clear about how the data works and also allowing people to choose the information that makes most sense to them.

How would it actually work?
The user would draw – either with the mouse or touch screen – the area on the map that they were interested in and then have the opportunity to save the drawing. This would then be used to query the data – basically using the map in place of the usual postcode search. Simples.

Where point data exists we will simply display this, however aggregated data will need to be returned as a whole set as you can’t necessarily break this down further.

Rather than try and recalculate statistics based on your chosen geography the tool would return all of the relevant data as an overlay to your map and you would be able to choose which ones you felt were useful. Imagine a honeycomb with your drawing a blob in the middle….

Interpreting the data
We were trying to keep a tight scope for the project and so declared data interpretation and further exploration tools out of scope – partly because we felt that a tool like this could support a lot of other tools. However we did have two immediate thoughts:

  • It would be great to have traffic lights or something that would establish relvance of the data. Relevance is something of a moving target but in this case we are thinking of a measure which shows how good the fit is between the returned data set and your chosen area – ie the degree to which any stats returned fit the group you are interested in.
  • We also wanted to be able to show national and regional norms against your point data. This may become statistically problematic – but not impossible.

Crowdsourcing the world
The starting point for this is a desire to show relevant data to people but our vision was that you capture these maps and use them to start to redraw the map bringing service delivery together with real communities – breaking down barriers between different parts of public sector as they all have the opportunity to view the same crowdsourced view of the world rather than their traditional boundaries.

Individuals might save multiple maps to reflect where they live, work, commute or have family which also gives us the opportunity to understand more of the narrative of people’s lives.

Does it already exist?
We don’t think so but no good idea exists in isolation so thanks to Dom Campbell for sending us these links:

What needs building?
All of it! But in an attempt to entice a little open source collborative coding this is my view of the discrete bits:

  • Really nice front end for the map drawing
  • Code to store the (multiple) maps against individuals and plug this into different identity management systems so that this is portable
  • Code to check new maps against stored drawings and suggest a best fit
  • Code that can return point data and display within the drawn maps
  • Code that returns data sets as on/off layers alongside the drawn maps – which can then be saved against the map record as well

And then all of this would need to be implemented against various open / opening data sets from around the city.

If we get this far….then we would then like people to be able to raise queries / corrections against the data as well as add personal stories that can give a richer local feel but let’s not run before we can walk….

There are all kinds on interesting things you could do with GPRS for a mobile app – for example letting people walk their boundaries instead of drawing the or even letting them know which community they are in (lots to consider on that one). However in the interest of simplicity this is at the moment a browser based project.

What next?
Well – I don’t have a huge amount of time to do anything on this but I will share this and get some wider comments on it.  We may of course decide to build it at public-i – we’ll be thinking about it at least.

If the interest is there then I’ll pop along to the brighton open data group and see if anyone is interested in having a go… let me know what you think.