The need for micro-participation

A theme I’ve been returning to on a regular basis in the talks I’ve been giving lately has been about the need for government to make participation easier.

I’ve blogged in my usual half-assed manner about the participation deficit before, and it strikes me that this is an important issue that is both not going away and also is probably going to get worse.

I tend to highlight myself as an example of the problem here, in that despite being one of the very few people in the world who actually find government interesting, I never actually engage myself. I’ve not been to a council meeting, responded to a survey or questionnaire, and never given feedback through another route.

Why is this? It’s not that I’m lazy (keep quiet at the back), nor that I don’t care. It’s mainly that the instruments of local democracy just don’t fit in with my lifestyle.

The most obvious culprit here is the meeting. It strikes me that the dominance of meetings pretty much means that anyone with a family and a job (or perhaps even just one of those) is excluded from the process.

Read the boy a story before bed time, or go to the town hall to talk about a planning application? Not a difficult choice, but the answer means that participation is always going to be low.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not fifty years ago.

After all, I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m sat in front of a computer almost all day, and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas, or identifying problems.

Even better, with a smartphone and a bit of geo-tagging, why not tell me how I can contribute from exactly where I am?

Getting involved and participating shouldn’t be a chore. As I mentioned in my post about councillors, we need more people doing less, rather than the situation we have now where only a few people do far too much.

I don’t think this needs massive upheaval, or some kind of revolution in local democracy (although that might be nice). A bit of tinkering around the edges would, I’m sure, go a long way.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

5 thoughts on “The need for micro-participation”

  1. Good point Dave … particularly since under the big society/austerity/do stuff for your self agenda, the nature of participation is going to change. That’s going to make a difference to the methods, too.
    For many years the aim of policy and practice has been to help power-holding, fund-holding organisations plan the way in which they engage citizens. Choose the level of engagement on the ladder, think about the stakeholders, choose the methods, plan the process. Here’s my take from some years back – I don’t think the basics have changed.
    However, we now have a situation where a lot of the things council used to consult on can’t be done without citizens as partners, or indeed forming groups and doing things for themselves.
    There will still be a need for micro-participation – but even more for micro-organising.
    Doing stuff together depends on relationships, trust – before significant action. Civic Facebook app? Hmmm.

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