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.

I’ve been mentally hibernating for the last couple of weeks after some rather robust feedback from my supervisor on the latest draft of my thesis which means that I have some large rewrites to do – this post is an action research note reflecting on some of these rewrites. As I have been thinking about the implications of this work, as often happens, a couple of the things I have been doing this week have come together to help me answer the question. The first of these was taking part on “a curated conversation” organised by Fred Garnett and held at BIS – talking about social innovation and the network society. The second was a research workshop with a group of Inspectors and others at Susssex Police which was intended to help shape the next phase of the virtual policing work which I will write up properly next week (I hope).

With both of these my interest was focused on how you manage the points of tension and connection between new networked and agile behvaiours and traditional hierarchial and more process driven organisations. Within the thesis I have been perhaps too focused on showing that there is no real point of connection between new digital civic spaces and the representative democratic function. My belief in this lack of connection has made me rather didactic on the subject and has stopped me looking at where there is the potential for the blurring and shifting of these boundaries and has also meant that I have not really engaged with the wider debate about some of these issues (am fairly sure my supervisor thinks I write like a rampant egomanic). So humble pie digested and redraft underway but I wanted to capture some of these connections and tensions here as a response to the weeks activity – and yes it is still a bit of a polemic but I promise its cleaned up before it goes in the thesis…..

I have an underlying belief, and often unstated, belief that there is need to look at how we transition large organisations within the public sector towards a more networked state and that this transition does need happen in the form of positive distuption within these organisations as much as in the form of of external pressure to change. This involve compromise and an evolution towards a goal rather than a ‘big bang’ solution.

One of the reasons why I argue for greater use of both Agile and Experimental methods (as discussed by Gerry Stoker) to explore new policies and process as well as to build technology is that these allow us to describe our destination without having to also define the whole journey plan. The Virtual Policing work is a good example of this – we know that we want to see social media embedded in a useful operational role within neighbourhood policing teams but we are open with respect to exactly what ‘useful’ means in this context and it is one of the objectives of the next phase of the project to try and describe this usefulness with respect to the current processes within the teams. These will almost certainly need to evolve these processes to accomodate the effects of wider engagement using the social web but its clearly impossible to consider greater operational use of social media in operational policing without referencing the processes and outcomes that form the core of neighbourhood policing today. We will use disruptive change where necessary but experiment based policy making is also a valid way of moving forward.

The work with the Police, but also the curated conversation at BIS, is partly about trying to address the difficulty of reconciling the idea of hierarchy with the network society. Networks don’t have hierarchies (though they do have power) and the behaviors that are rewarded are different from the behaviours which we currently associate with authority. Leaders in hierarchial organisations are going to hang on to those sources of power and if we want to make systemic change then we perhaps need to start exploring with senior staff how they become more networked themselves in order to help them encourage that behaviour in their own organisations.

Emphasising the role of mavericks and disruptors is useful but only if they can set up a creative rather than distructive tension with the current power structures – because lets face it as this point no government organisations is in a state which means it will be overwhelmed by a networked change – the State is still too rooted in hierarchy and we are not yet in a place of such disatisfaction as a society that we have the will to overwhelm it. However I am consistently and increasingly coming across individuals within the Public Sector who are discovering the power that is latent within their networks and deciding to exploit this rather than relying on the usual decision making process – but we don’t yet know how to make this systemic as opposed to exceptional behaviour.

Part of this discussion is practical – we just don’t understand how we can deliberately create large projects in a networked way – how we both create a singular vision and also deliver this vision in a networked when we know that this vision has been created outside of the network. This links very much to the thoughts on networked leadership and the need for a persistent conversatation around vision that I posted here.

I am a pragmatist and looking at changing the process by which we manage these projects – with adopting agile or experimental approaches – is one way in which we can start to address this need to create and manage more networked projects and learn about creating projects which can flourish within a network without losing their coherence.

We also need to appreciate that there is the difference between the social web and the network society and start to discuss behaviours and not technologies. I am all for trying out Yammer but lets start to examine the friction it creates with traditional structures within a large organisation and start to learn from this.

Much of the difficulty of creating a public service that is fit for purpose in the network society is actually deep rooted in some of the underlying design assumptions that live within public service. Perhaps the most important one of these to address is, in my view, the need to create a default position of ‘open’ within all organisations at the same time as creating an appetitie for evidence based decision making that demands a higher standard of information and scrutiny than is currently the case. How many of us have worked on pilots which become policy just because we need to bank a ‘success’ rather than learn from evidence?

Greater openness and ‘publicness’ is a natural state for the network society which is as Castell’s describes it a ‘space of flows’ where information is the currency that creates and binds networks. Boyd’s depiction of ‘networked publics’ describes an arena of open public discourse. We can expect nothing less I believe from our public services in a networked world than a default state of openness.

However, there is one other area where the need to consider openness and publicity and one other important design assumption for public service. We design our public services to be open and accountable to the democratic process – whether we achieve this is entirely another story but this is the aspiration. This is a different kind of openness.

With respect to the architecture and infrastructure on which the network society is manifest we are currently building our online world on a largely unregulated and propriatory infrastructure – if code is law as Lessig suggests then our current law makers are the mamagement of companies such as Facebook and Google.

If the social web is the manifestation and delivery mechanism for the network society then the fact we are building it on closed systems at the mercy of what is surely a flawed financial system is a disgrace which will continue to stunt the potential of a systemic change away from a failing post-industrial environment.

There is a conflict here with the nature of public service which deserves to be highlighted and discussed and not just swept away with our understandable frustration with the public sectors glacial movement with respect to technological change – this is about principle not just code.

There are good as well as bad reasons as to why there is institutional resistence to using something like Facebook even if this is not well or even accurately articulated and if we are trying to help the State wrestle with this then we have to acknowledge and not rubbish the valid concern.

Social change doesn’t happens instantly – we really do need to address tranisiton as well as dreaming about the future.

This is a brief post giving a quick overview of online or virtual community as I realised I need a few paragraphs as I was putting my thesis together – might add to it at some point.  Online community is such an established idea for anyone who works with the social web but as ever with the academic stuff its not enough to take it at face value.

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”(Howard Rhiengold, The Virtual Community; Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier)

 

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This post is focused on exploring the differences between civic and democratic behaviours and was drawn into focus by some really interesting conversations I have had this week while doing a short but perfectly formed trip to Yorkshire for various projects.

One of the major elements of the model which I am trying to develop is the drawing of a distinction between formal and informal modes of behaviour. This is something that I am drawing from Social Capital nomenclature (Wallace, 2007, “Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe”). However I am then making the further distinction to say that informal behaviours can be characterised as social or civic and that formal behaviours can be civic or democratic. I have defined civic as follows:

“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.”

However this is old news and you can read the proper post on this here.

But my conversations this week have really made me think about the distinction that I have been making between civic and democratic behaviours really fails to take into account politics – the idea that you might have an overarching ideology which informs some of your choices and your context – and that this means it fails to really deal with the role of the elected representatives. The role of the representative is often the elephant in the room when you talk of changing the way we interact with the public and I realised that I have been dodging the issue as well.

When I first started to develop my model I used the term “Formal Consultation” rather than “Formal Civic” because I wanted to draw a distinction between what I saw as two separate interactions between Councils and Citizens – information gathering in the form of consultations and the decisions in the form of democratic process. However I moved away from this for two reasons:

  • I am describing the ‘bottom’ up activity of the public acting upon the decision making process – one way of looking at this is describing it as the pressure that informal civic behaviour puts on current formal processes. Formal consultation is initiated and driven from the formal body running the process not from the citizens and I wanted to reflect this ‘citizen pressure’ in the model
  • Consultation is not the only formal way for the public to get a hearing from the council outside of the formal democratic decision making process so my description was limited

This latter observation means that I need to spend some time looking at those formal routes into councils and I will write this up here when I have it.

When I talk about consultation I’m not talking about some of the ‘place-shaping’ market research type data that we need to get back from our communities in order to understand them on a macro level (though I think we could probably do this an awful lot better than we do right now this is a different post of even research project!). I’m talking of the wider scale consultations on particular policy areas or particular plans which often amount to showing the public a range of bounded choices rather than offering them – or even a thinly veiled communication exercise that attempts to herd public opinion is a specific direction.

I use this analogy a lot – so apologies – but consultation is so often about asking people if they want apples or oranges and never gives voice to the people who really fancy a banana (or – as someone pointed out last time I used this an egg sandwich – showing that I was already limiting people to fruit choices in my own thinking!!!)

Part of the reason for me evolving my thinking about this is the reading and learning I am doing around data collection and social research methods – its making me focus more academically and as a result look far more vigorously at some these processes when I come across them. Good research will do its very best to make sure that the context of the researcher has no place in the data collection – and this I think is the issue here.

By the time we get to the point of running a consultation the context is already set and we are not explaining this to the public – they don’t understand the policy cycle and as a result grow frustrated when they can’t affect the context. The issue is that the context is partly political and because we have tried to sanitise the consultation process from all political opinions we are not able to be honest with the public.

There are many good or at least understandable reasons as to why we have ended up here but I do think it would be an awful lot healthier – and a lot more open – if we were to put the issue of politics front and centre in the discussion and stop thinking that deliberations around decision making can be ideology free.

Of course the other issue is just the policy making cycle – at the moment we put deliberation in the mix before we carry out consultation – ie we consult of a fixed set of plans – but I think this needs to be turned around. For me decision making has four stages:

  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.

I also believe that you need to view this as an iterative loop or spiral which allows you to check the agenda and context have not shifted during the deliberative process. This owes a lot to Rapid Application Development (RAD) or Rapid Prototyping methodologies which I think suit out network society. I was also very fond on the Boehm Spiral but that’s another post altogether.

So my formal civic behaviour is defined as the point at which civic society tells the state something by using an agreed channel. In terms of my decision making process this is really points 1 and 2. This means that Formal Civic behaviour relates to agenda and context setting and that Formal democratic behaviour is about deliberation and actual decision making processes.

This idea of “civic society telling the state” is an important point for me as there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how we could use semantic analysis or even sentiment analysis tools to feed into the decision making process and I think this is flawed. The public sphere needs to be healthy and vibrant – but there also needs to be a point at which it is fed into government in order to instigate action and this should be a conscious decision from the community – otherwise we are just imposing process on them again and the public are not taking responsibility for their inputs. The other flaw in the idea of passively harvesting public opinion is the fact that once again we are keeping the public out of the actual decision making process.

Deliberation is going to be political – its carried out in the main part by the politicians and they all have (or should have!) an ideological position on the issue at hand. We have created many barriers between the political and representative roles of the politicians in order to stop abuses of power – but which are being eroded by a more informationally demanding public and the authenticity and accountability that an online life affords people. These barriers inhibit local politicians embracing new channels such as social media. We have to accept the fact that our representatives have political views and that we either have to trust them to represent the people who do not share their views or we need to make the whole process more participatory and more open. We haven’t managed the first approach – we don’t trust them – so lets try and the second and create new standards that will allow us to deal with abuse.

The issue for me with consultation is that the deliberation will have already started and so the context is largely fixed in place but not necessarily communicated as consultation processes are not currently allowed to be political. To some extent this is inevitable – there is no such thing as a clean slate – but if we are looking to reform the relationship with the public and respond to the pressure that the informal civic space is putting on the formal sphere then we need to explore ways to include the ideological facts in the context setting process so that these can be understood by the public – after all they did cast the votes that put those ideologies there.

But the big question for me, for two reasons, is how we can involve the public in the deliberative process:

  • We already have representative who are there to represent the public in that process and involving the public risks undermining this
  • Most deliberation is, by my observation, largely informal or carried out in closed (for public participation) meetings such as cabinet

On the first point – I think there is strong evidence in terms of demonstrable democratic deficit that says that in many ways our politicians, especially at a local level, have a technical mandate through the voting process but no ‘real’ mandate because of low levels of voter turnout – Part of the thesis writing will be to evidence and back this belief up in more detail but it tends to get a big nod when you discuss it with practitioners. I believe that this disconnection means that we need to find a new ways to mediate this relationship. And yes – I believe that a lot of this new mediation will need to be online for many reasons.

Now for the PHD I’m not even going to start looking at how to change this – I’m going to stay focused on building civic spaces and looking at processes which could involve representatives – its someone else’s problem to see what we can do to ensure that representatives have the skills to participate.

However its an urgent problem because – lets face it – on many levels isn’t consultation as we use it now really about officers wanting or needing to bypass the representative in order to find out what people actually want? Or about members wanting the right questions asked to give them the answers they want (how often are survey questions vetted by members who know nothing about formal data collection and introduce inherent bias?) And is that not the reason that it is so often so limited?

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.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar (J.S. Mill)

This is a proper essay I am afraid – I wanted to write up my notes so that I have them to drop into my literature review.  I have to say that Cass Sunstein Republic 2.0 was a pleasure to read – great thinking written with an excellent style – would that all academics could string such a sentence together – the literature review would be much easier!

Short disclaimer – I finished this late and have not proofed it – please be kind and point out any howlers – thank you

Key points from the book for me are:

  • The enormous danger of the “Daily Me” where we only see content that we already agree with
  • The idea of “Group Polarisation” and the fact that groups will tend towards the more extreme version of themselves so that it is essential to expose people to a range of ideas to support deliberative democracy
  • The fact that we have the accept the idea that we are consumers AND citizens and look for ways where we can culturally and legislatively balance these two fairly different positions
  • Ideas around what public spaces need in order to support deliberation
  • The BBC is a marvellous thing

There are lots of good quotes in here but this really struck me:

“Many people are fully prepared to develop an interest in topics that they have not selected and in fact know nothing about. To work well, a deliberative democracy had better have many such people.”

If this has wetted the appetite then read on here: (more…)

We (that’s the Public-i ‘we’ not a royal one) have recently put our ePetitions software into an open source repository (full details on this can be found here). I know this is a little off topic for this blog but I wanted to comment on it as I get asked why we did this fairly often (both from clients and from shareholders!) and I thought it would be useful (for me at least) to answer that question. I also thought it would be good to see the benefits from the suppliers point of view as so often the question of open source is addressed from the point of view of the user.

But first – I have to say with no word of a lie (or modesty) that it is an excellent piece of code – we have worked with a number of sites to refine it and I do believe it is the Rolls Royce of petitioning products. Arguably we have got a little obsessed – but that’s what pet projects are for I think. You can read more about my love affair with petitions as a democratic instrument here.

The thing is – having built something so lovely – what on earth as we doing giving it away?

But before we get to that, let’s be clear – Open Source is not ‘Free’. All the implementation and management costs that are implicit in a proprietary licensed product are still there and will be incurred at some point. Sorry to state the obvious but I still find that people don’t think of total cost of ownership – they just get excited when they don’t have to pay the licence (in some ways I do think this is like the effect that ‘buy one, get one free’ offers work – have you ever tried to refuse one of these? The expression on the cashier’s face is priceless if you try and explain that making it free doesn’t make it necessarily desirable – you still need to think about the implications of having that extra bag of something rotting in the salad drawer….but anyway). The difference that open source can make in your running costs is entirely down to how you are resourced and skilled internally – but the advantage to the user is that you have this as a choice and you are not locked into a single supplier situation.

Open Source means that the developer of the code has decided – for whatever reason – that they will be better off if people can use the code widely rather than recovering the cost of development (and more) through a licence fee. There are some fairly high level motivations:

  • Philosophy – in the same way as some people claimed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the census people can have strong feelings about open source that go beyond the commercial. Personally I don’t think this is a bad philosophy
  • Paying back – we all use A LOT of excellent free code – at some point it is a good thing to balance things out and give something back to the open source community that we all depend on
  • Fairness – people who can afford it should help other people by making the outputs of their work freely available

And some more practical ones:

  • Supporting code is a huge hassle and if you licence it you are obliged to look after it – set it free and let it look after itself
  • Integration – sometimes making one thing available freely can make a whole lot of other things a lot simpler to do.
  • Market expectations – with such a lot of talk about open source in the government community it makes sense for anyone who is working in this area to look at it seriously

And of course some that look a little more commercial:

  • Income – the supplier thinks they can generate more from selling services and updates than from a licence fee
  • Reach – you can get your code to more people if you distribute it in this way
  • PR – people like it – ergo they feel more kindly towards you (one hopes)

And then there are the more social motivations:

Can you really build democratic processes on propitiatory code? If you think that design assumptions matter then isn’t this the biggest design assumption of all? Openness needs to be embedded in our democracy in every way possible – and this is one of the ways.

I think that as a commercial supplier to government we would be foolish and short sighted not to be looking at open source models and trying to understand how this could work in the market. We at least need to understand what an open source business model looks like so that we can make a more educated decision about what we want to do – and then be able to communicate it clearly.

However – I think the market also needs to look carefully at what it is asking of suppliers. At the moment the risk of investing in big open source projects is very large. And without someone investing time and energy you are not going to get excellent and stable products – there is not huge community of developers waiting to build anything substantial – or if there is it is just not self organising. I also think it is far harder to charge realistically for services in the UK – something which is at odds with the fact that government seems to find it easy to spend huge sums of cash on consultancy from large firms.

Public-i were able to get the ePetitions code to the stage it is at now mainly because we got project funding from the EU and because we have had excellent project partners from Local Government who have worked with us to develop the code. This kind of funding is understandably scarce in the UK right now but what is also scarce is the idea that you could develop in partnership with a supplier. Democracy is not the only place where trust is currently lacking.

A lot of what I write about here is around co-production – and this is perhaps another form of it – a more honest coming together of commercial suppliers and government in order to build excellent products which are freely available – but which have the support of the market so that they can be developed and enhanced. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of building permanent online civic spaces I think we need to look at open source seriously – but as someone running a company and who is responsible for getting people paid each month I also need to think about how we are going to balance the books and make this work commercially so that the investment in development can be supported.

I don’t usually post from my work perspective (and perhaps I am only doing this to avoid my Research committee progress report which is imminent – eek) but I think this is an area where the two things come together. This is all still working round in my head and I would be really pleased to hear from some folks within Government as to how this feels to you.

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks – ever since I saw an excellent presentation on the work at Barnet at a session at the SOLACE annual conference.  the workshop was shared between Max Wilde (who in the Barnet lead for the project) and Nicola Millard (who is the excellently titled BT futurologist).  One of the striking things about this combination was the balance between commercial / public sector.  What also leapt out at me was the fact that much of the work at Barnet is highlighting the tension between residents as customers and residents as citizens.

The Local Democracy blog has a good post on this which is worth a read and they also quote at length from the latest Barnet report which you can find here. The folks at Barnet are obviously trying something fairly radical – and as part of that they really do seem to be trying to “create a new relationship with citizens.”  But I guess my interest here is whether they are trying to create ‘super-consumers’ who are individually engaged in creating the best services for them as individuals or whether they are able to transcend the customer relationship and start a conversation about community and about shared resources – are they actually engaging in democracy?

The Public Sector clearly has to innovate – radically  – in order both the save money but more importantly to stay relevant to people’s lives.  Local Authorities should be at the forefront of this because local government is the only kind that actually feels relevant to most people’s lives.  However, to connect these innovations entirely with an efficiency agenda is a very bleak prospect.  Sometimes, things we want for our community will cost money.  Community is not just about services – it’s about the connections between people which go beyond services.  If we only seek to innovate and to engage people in talking about these services then we are ignoring the fabric of the community which connects it all together.

There is so much in the work at Barnet that warrants watching and considering.  But I do go back to my underlying belief that design assumptions really matter – and that if you design a space and a process around the idea of cost efficiencies then this will be what you get.  No-one can deny that there is a need to do this – the process of government needs to be cost-effective – but if this your only design assumption then I think that you end up with something colder and less inclusive than the communities which many people want to live in.

I think its very easy to be decieved by the social web – it feels like a place where the individual creates the space and where intellectual freedom is paramount.  However for many people that is something of an illusion – many people really only experience the social web within spaces like Facebook which are entirely engineered in order to support the ad revenues which support the site’s existence.  Now – you can say that this is a fair exchange – free sites with a few adverts – but I really want something better for my democratic spaces.

Not really sure where this post is going – perhaps I read too much Howard Rheingold at a formative point – but I will carry on musing on it……