What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Micro-participation at ShropCamp

Continuing my current obsession with micro-participation, I ran a session on the subject at yesterday’s excellent ShropCamp.

Basically I chatted through what micro-participation is and what it tries to achieve, where it came from etc. Then I gave some examples of it in action, and after that asked for some ideas and thoughts from the floor.

Here are the slides:

I’m really taken with this idea, as you can probably tell, and am starting up a project space at microparticipation.com to explore it more fully.

We’re going to be developing the site to be a resource in terms of examples and case studies in micro-participation, discussions about the potential and the issues involved, but also try and get people’s ideas for both online and offline micro-participation.

I’d also really like to find a way of making some of those things happen, by finding organisations to work with.

So if you’re interested in taking this forward, do sign up for updates from the new site!

More on micro-participation

There was an interesting response to my post on micro-participation, in a number of spaces – which goes to show the value in seeding your content on sites other than your own!

The most active conversation was on GovLoop where the concept of micro-participation seemed to strike a chord with many people. Even better, it uncovered the work of Jennifer Cowley at Ohio University, who has been working on micro-participation for a little while.

Here’s a slidedeck from Jennifer about using micro-participation in planning.

Here’s a video of Jennifer talking about micro-participation:

Some examples of micro-participation were also shared:

Not all these examples fit exactly with what I had in mind for micro-participation. Several fall into the reporting category – a bit like FixMyStreet. This is important, but I was thinking about getting people involved in democratic and government processes at a slightly more engaged level.

In other words, this should be more than just pot holes.

Over on the Communities of Practice (sign in required), some real-life concerns and issues were shared.

Adrian Short shared the example of Speak out Sutton, and also challenged me to come up with some concrete proposals. Fair enough, though I try to avoid specifics on this blog 😉

Dawn Iverson provides some great pointers to increase participation and overcoming barriers:

1) Make a specific, small call to action. Start with asking people to do something very small like a litter picking day at the local park or distributing leaflets locally. Maybe provide tea and biscuits afterwards.

2) Make the call to action in a number of ways. Knock on peoples doors during daylight hours, deliver leaflets, contact the local PCSO and either ask them to come along when knocking on doors to allay fears, or ask if they can send out your ‘call to action’ in their community email messages. Put information on the local council website, the Parish council website, the local Volunteer Centre website.

3) Have a small number of people who can be the face of community involvement. This will make those newly involved feel like they have a connection. Those who knock on doors / have their photos on the leaflets should be the people there to welcome new volunteers when they do respond to your call for action.

4) Once a volunteer feels connected to the community, give them more responsibility and ensure that their ideas are taken further.

5) Local councils / NHS services could identify plenty of people who would be fantastic involving themselves with local services. These are the people who send frequent complaints, the people who send thank you notes, the people who have made big changes in their lives, those who are lonely and don’t know anybody in their community.

There also need to be some ‘calls to action’ that can involve those with busy family lives. This could be asking someone to proofread a webpage, take and upload pictures of their local community, referee at a local under 13s football match, organise a fundraising event for mums and daughters. There’s a lot that could be done, but unfortunately it does need someone to coordinate this type of thing. Hopefully the new Community Organisers will be that person 🙂

Finally, going back to the GovLoop discussion, some attempts were made to define what is meant by micro-participation. Mine was “Providing a means for citizens to interact with democratic and government processes at a time, in a place and in an medium that suits them.”

I think I prefer Jennifer’s much simpler: “participation at the convenience of participants.”

Anyway, I’m pleased this has sparked interest in a few folk. I’m going to plug away developing some ideas and see where it ends up.

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.

More on e-petitions

Excellent stuff from Fraser Henderson who has published a summary of some research done into the use of e-petition facilities in councils.

I’ve embedded the presentation below:

Fraser also links to some interesting evaluation of the europetition project, which is well worth a read.

Council e-petitions

Just after Christmas I wrote a quick post about the prospect of e-petitions for Parliament.

Of course, local councils are also supposed to have their own e-petitions systems and processes.

My own local council, South Holland, has a system in place (the MySociety one) but sadly it doesn’t look like anybody has created a petition on it just yet. We must be a very content lot in south Lincs!

On the Communities of Practice, there’s a dedicated group for e-petitions, ably facilitated by Fraser Henderson. In a recent blog post (sign in required), Fraser notes that quite a few authorities don’t provide an e-petition facility on their website, despite encouragement from central government (it’s no longer a mandated requirement).

He also notes that there is an independent study going on to assess how e-petitioning is being used – it will be interesting to see the results.

In the meantime, Team DavePress (ie me and @davebriggswife) are quickly scanning the web for e-petitioning activity. We’re collating what we are finding in this Google spreadsheet.

At the time of writing, there’s not much data in there yet. However, it’s apparent that e-petitioning hasn’t exactly set the local democracy world alight just yet. Many councils have apparently not had a single petition submitted!

Why might this be?

One reason is that even when councils are providing an e-petitions facility, they aren’t exactly promoting it that heavily. In a number of cases, the e-petitions page is hidden in the website navigation. So people aren’t using the facility because they don’t know it’s there, or they can’t find it.

I suspect though that the bigger issue is that petitions, e- or otherwise, are not not that great a way to do local democracy. It’s a fairly blunt instrument, and of course they tend to identify and problem and provide a solution in one go. What if you agree there’s an issue, but think the proposed idea in a petition sucks?

I’d have thought something a bit more deliberative would be of more use. E-petitions strike me as a bit shouty, and as we all know, the web is all conversational these days.

Participation, and participating

Recently I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the ‘participation deficit’ – the fact that too few people are contributing too much to society. It’s what informed my post about my view that we need more councillors.

No even half baked views or ideas yet, I’m afraid, though I’m mulling over whether to have a discussion session about this on Saturday’s GovCamp.

In discussion on Twitter about this, though, Anthony pointed me to an excellent (if lengthy!) slidedeck he has put together which includes stacks of interesting research.

Also relevant is his paper on how better engagement can save money for councils:

Democracy Pays White Paper
It strikes me, collecting these online resources and chatting online with people about issues, that we lack a decent platform to really discuss and collaborate on ideas like this. A sort of mixture between a research tool and a discussion platform.

What does it need?

  • The ability to clip, store and share articles, posts and documents like Evernote
  • The ability to easily share thoughts ideas and arguments blog-style
  • The ability to draw in discussions on other platforms, whether twitter, external blogs etc
  • To be able to comment on any of the above
  • A neat way of browsing through content and examine how it all relates to each other, similar to a mind map or Google’s wonder wheel

Does this already exist? Am not sure it does!

The net delusion

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov looks like it will be useful and interesting reading for those interested in the internet and its effects on politics and democracy, providing something of an alternative (thanks to Dom for the wording advice) view.

From The Observer‘s review:

Morozov, a young Belarusian-born writer and researcher now based in the US, doesn’t mince his words. But The Net Delusion is considerably more than an assault on political rhetoric; for, it argues, behind many of the fine words recently spoken in praise of technology lies a combination of utopianism and ignorance that grossly misrepresents the internet’s political role and potentials. Unless we are very careful, he suggests, the democratising power of new media will in fact bring not democracy and freedom, but the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes.

I’ve ordered the book for my Kindle and will report back once I get round to reading it.

What is also very tempting is that Morozov will be speaking at the RSA on the 20th January, on the topic of ‘The Future of WikiLeaks’ (thanks to Catherine Howe for the tip off).

Here’s the blurb:

Morozov believes that WikiLeaks currently stands at a crossroads: one route ahead would see a radical global network systematically challenging those in power – governments and companies alike – just for the sake of undermining “the system”. The current quest for transparency could soon become an exercise in anger, one leak at a time.

Alternatively, WikiLeaks could continue moving in the more sensible direction that, in some ways, it is already on: collaborating with traditional media, redacting sensitive files, and offering those in a position to know about potential victims of releases the chance to vet the data.

It is a choice between WikiLeaks becoming a new Red Brigade, or a new Transparency International. And, argues Morozov, forcing Mr Assange to go down the former route would have far more disastrous implications for American interests than anything revealed by “cable-gate”.

I’d love to attend and hopefully my schedule will allow it!

Parliamentary online petitions

So, online petitions for Parliament?

In an attempt to reduce what is seen as a disconnection between the public and parliament, ministers will ensure that the most popular petition on the government website Direct.gov.uk will be drafted as a bill. It is also planning to guarantee that petitions which reach a fixed level of support – most likely 100,000 signatures – will be guaranteed a Commons debate.

I haven’t read much online that is particularly in favour of this idea. I suspect it’s one that can be filed in the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ cupboard.

Glen Newey on the LRB blog is particularly scathing:

Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.

This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.

Paul Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary élan.

I’ve noticed that a few councils are now starting to go live with their own online petitioning systems, including my local council, South Holland District, with what looks like the MySociety system.

Not sure if any readers have experience of either using or administering such a system, and are keen to share them?

I spent many an unhappy hour moderating petitions on the Number 10 system, which was a generally very depressing experience, with the petitions submitted bearing a very direct correlation with the headline in the dailies Mail or Express that morning.

Councillors! Here’s how not to do Twitter

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Twitter is a great tool for local politicians to use to connect with their electorate.

It’s also a brilliant channel for espousing your views on the stoning of women, as Gareth Compton, a councillor in Birmingham demonstrates:

Twitter fail

The golden rule of Twitter (and indeed life generally), is of course “don’t be a dick”. This is what happens when you ignore that advice.

Update: The Guardian has picked up the story, and Cllr Compton has apologised for what he describes as an “ill-conceived attempt at humour” – and deleted the offending tweet.