Local e-petitions

Headstar reported the other day about the progress of the piece of legislation that will mandate local authorities to set up systems allowing residents to create e-petitions, and to respond to such petitions.

Under the ‘Local democracy, economic development and construction Bill’ (http://bit.ly/1nEC4Z), councils will be obliged to provide an e-petition facility and publish schemes for both electronic and traditional petitions, to acknowledge any petition to its organiser, and to offer a response, all of which should be published online.

I’ve got quite a bit of interest in e-petitions, not least as a result of spending time helping moderate them for Number 10 during my time there. I’ve seen how these things can work, and how they can be frustrating.

Learning Pool have been keeping an eye on the development of the need for e-petitioning by councils, and already have an e-petitions platform in development which we will soon be looking to engage local authorities in testing. As always with Learning Pool’s stuff, it will be based on open source technology and will be easy to use and very cost effective. If you’re interested, please do get in touch.

In a related development, Andy Gibson is going to be working with Dominic and Fraser to develop a data standard for e-petitions.

From next year, it’s probable that all local councils will be required to provide electronic petitioning tools to their citizens, and we want to make sure they all do it the right way, and in a form that means they can all talk to each other.

I’ve put my name down to get involved, and will ensure that Learning Pool’s e-petitions system fits in with any agreed open standards.

Technologies for participation

I had the pleasure of bumping into Fraser Henderson at the recent Digital Inclusion Conference, where he mentioned an event he was helping to organise with the Consultation Institute, called Technologies for participation. It’s on 21st May at the Holiday Inn near Kings Cross.

Sadly I can’t attend as I will be taking a much needed break up in Edinburgh. However it looks like a really interesting day:

This seminar offers both IT specialists and those responsible for public engagement the opportunity to consider what’s possible , what’s new, and what’s best. Hear from solution suppliers as well as experienced analysts, and consider how to overcome some of the known barriers to their successful implementation.

The Local Democracy Bill will require councils to offer ePetition systems ‐ and other public bodies will follow suit. Social Networking applications are also having a major impact upon our ways of interfacing with citizens.

The event will be suitable for staff from all public service agencies – central and local; it may also be of interest to elected members committed to innovative engagement methods.

Visit the event site to find out more and book yourself a place!

Making Council meetings social

Council meeting room
Image credit: tricky

Tidying up a few bits on the IDeA Performance site, and seeing Steven Tuck’s comment on my previous post about it, I thought about how these techniques could be used in different situations within local government.

After all, here is a way of making a face to face event more accessible for people that can’t attend, and as a way of drawing together all manner of online resources for people to share and use.

How about using this kind of online social interaction in council meetings? I’m thinking it could probably be best applied to Overview and Scrutiny meetings, perhaps, but any kind of meeting where taking in views and submissions from people with an interest would work well.

What do people think? Could this work?

And does anyone out there fancy trying it out?!

ICELE eDemocracy Guides

Alastair Smith at Newcastle City Council today brought my attention to the fact that the ICELE eDemocracy guides were no longer available. Effectively, the link to the page where they were distributed via the Lulu website no longer works.

Luckily for Alastair, and perhaps others, I saved the downloadable PDFs of the guides a while ago, and so now am happy to make them available here on DavePress for folk that want them:

I think I have them all, although four doesn’t seem that many. If you have any others I have missed, do let me know.

Rebooting America

The Personal Democracy Forum has published a free eBook called Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy for the Internet Age. It’s full of great little essays by such luminaries as David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold and Jeff Jarvis.

Well worth downloading and having a read. I’m going to be looking to see what we in the UK can learn from it. My guess? A lot.

Update: Tom Watson blogs about it here.

ICELE Press Release

It’s a bit like picking a scab, this – kinda painful but at the same time irresistable. Anyway, seeing as this blog has become semi-official place for ICELE-related news, I thought it only reasonable to provide the latest in the saga – this time in the form of a  press release from ICELE:

Cllr Matthew Ellis, Chairman of the International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy, said:”Whilst it has been made clear that Lichfield DC would not be seeking to take ICELE forwards in the future, we have been calling for a formal decision to be made by the Minister for some time. It takes considerable time and money to create a trusted and recognised brand, which ICELE has now become, not just in the UK, but in Europe. It would be unfortunate if the Centre was closed down before a useful and sustainable home for both its products and its brand can be secured.”

He continued: “The Centre now has partners across the UK and Europe, having been successful in securing, with others, future funding for specific areas of work. We believe it would be unfortunate if ICELE, as a focal point for sharing information and best practice, and some of the projects were simply abandoned. I’m hopeful that the talks we are now having with CLG will ensure that a thorough review is undertaken to find a sustainable future for areas of potentially ongoing work.”

Although ICELE will cease operations at the end of June, with the interim funding recently agreed with CLG it could provide resources for work to be undertaken to secure a future for VOICE and other aspects of the Centre’s work.

I’m not sure what to say, really, which makes a change. I am, however, started to put things in place for a community driven way forward on this stuff. If you’re interested, email me or leave a comment.

Digital government and not being boring

I spent a most enjoyable time at the Department for Communities and Local Government today as a guest of Simon Berry, along with a rogue’s gallery of other bloggers and online networkers. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and new acquaintances, as well as take part in some really interesting exercises, put together in partnership with Simon by David Wilcox, who was, as always, an excellent facilitator and conversation starter.

At one stage of the workshop, the group split into two smaller ones: one team of mainly civil servants and local authority types; another of mostly techies. I fell into the latter grouping, and we discussed the ways in which we felt emerging technology could help government – at both a local and a national level – get closer to those it governs.

Being in a group of people which contained – amongst others – Dan McQuillan, Steve Bridger, Paul Bradshaw and Tim Davies, the ideas were soon flowing – helped by the relaxed atmosphere which meant there were plenty of jokes and laughs too. Some of the issues we came up with included:

  • Listening before talking – government needs to now what is being said by whom before it can start engaging with them
  • Figure out which communication medium best suits the people you want to talk to – for example, just because blogs are on the internet doesn’t mean young people are interested. They’re not – they are on Polyvore instead.
  • Local government should be concentrating at least as much as central government is on opening up data and information it holds.
  • The word empowerment is a bit dodgy in this context – why should people need to be empowered by government? Isn’t it already in our power to organise ourselves and get things done?
  • The relationship between government and people – whether on an individual basis or within groups, should be informalised. Government has a role to play in civil society, but how much of a role should be determined not by them but by the communities themselves – for instance, they might just want a room to meet in, or maybe some advice on funding.
  • Local government shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating what is happening in their areas – but shouldn’t feel the need to claim any credit. Likewise, too often there is a financial focus to such good news stories. When something good happens, who cares who did it, or who paid for it?
  • It’s not just government talking to groups or individuals – there are other players in the civic space who need to be involved. The networked journalism that Charlie Beckett and Paul Bradshaw write about has a role to play, as do charities and other third sector groups, schools, hospitals, churches. The web can help bring some sense to this civic soup of different interests and organisations, to aggregate it and break it down in different, more meaningful ways.

Dan McQuillan pointed out at one stage that the problem with trying to get people to be, say, a school governor, is that being a school governor is actually a pretty dull thing to do. This is true of a lot of things, though – if someone asked you to engage with your local authority, it might not necessarily be something that would have you widdly with excitement. However, if you were asked about an issue that particularly interested you, like environmental issues, or public transport, or education, then you might be more likely to take part.

The issue is one of boringness, then, and the important thing for government to try and do is to avoid being boring. People interests are atomised, and tend to focus around single or narrowly related issues, rather than everything that concerns a single organisation.

Another example of boringness is in the way that local issues are reported on. For example, more people read about council issues in their local paper than in the leaflets sent out by the council itself. That’s because the council leaflet is probably more boring than the paper’s coverage. That said, more people moan about their bin collections, or pot holes in their street, in the pub with their mates than read about them in the local paper. Again, chatting in the pub is more fun.

So for government at all levels to get their messages across, and to engage better with people, they need to ensure they aren’t boring the people they want to talk to. How can they do this?

One way would be by identifying the issues people and groups are interested in, and providing information on, and inviting comment on, those topics. Something like Hear From Your MP at a local level just wouldn’t work – even I would be bored stupid if I had to read everything my Councillors had to say. But if that could be tailored to Hear About Stuff You Are Interested In From Everybody, that might just work.

Aggregate stuff from government, communities, charities, media organisations, church groups and anyone else along subject lines based on a local area. This might be very hard to do, and indeed might be impossible without some serious collaboration between various parties in terms of the way they produce content. But if it were to be achieved, then I think getting people involved would be much easier.

There were many ideas produced at the meeting, like mine above, and we are going to be working together to develop the better ones and see how they grow. A good place to monitor what is going on will be to tune in to Simon’s Web24Gov site.

Better Browsers update

A little while ago I posted about a little survey I had set up using Google Docs, which aimed to find out about what browsers public sector folk are using, and what problems they have been running into as a result, especially where web 2.0 bits are concered.

I’m pleased to say that there have been quite a few responses, and probably would have had were it not for the fact that quite a few government folk are blocked from using Google Docs with their work machines. I don’t know how to get WordPress to do an eye-rolling smilie, but if I did, it would be here.

Indeed this sparked quite a bit of discussion on the UK & Ireland eDemocracy mailing list, with various horror stories being shared. Some of it is quite frightening, including this message sent out by a local authority IT department:

An increasing number of PCs and laptops have been found with internet browser toolbars such as Yahoo or Google installed. These toolbars should never be installed on [our] computers as they are not required for business purposes, can significantly reduce the performance of your machine and can stop the remote distribution of critical software and security updates.

Still, I am compiling all the results as they come in, and will have a think about what to do with it all. If anyone has any ideas, let me know. Almost all of those who have responded would like to be a part of a campaign of some description, which gives further fuel for thought. I’ve started tagging these posts with ‘govgetfirefox’ so if anyone else is writing or bookmarking related stuff, it might be cool to start collecting it together that way.

If you haven’t already taken the survey, please do.

In the meantime, as I started typing this, Google Reader spat this post from Read/WriteWeb at me:

ComputerWorld is reporting that Firefox is set to hit 20% market share next month according to metrics firm Net Applications. In some communities, Firefox is already well beyond the 20% mark. W3Counter’s global web stats, for example, puts Firefox usage at closer to 29% and over 50% of ReadWriteWeb readers use Firefox.

And Firefox isn’t resting on their laurels. The Mozilla Foundation is planning a major release push for Firefox 3, which is expected to drop this month. Firefox is gearing up to set a world download record by encouraging all 175 million users of the browser to upgrade in a single day. They’re actually encouraging users to host download day parties, with nearly 200 planned already even without a firm release date.

I’d really like to know the reasons – the real reasons – why, bearing all this in mind, FireFox isn’t at least available as an alternative to Internet Explorer. FireFox is quicker, more secure, more useful. It’s better. Why can’t we have it?!

Further ICELE debate

Steven Clift rightly points folk to the discussions going on at the UK & Ireland eDemocracy exchange about the demise of ICELE, in the comments to my previous post on the topic.

Here’s a sample of what folk are saying – the archive is public if you want to see more.

Ella Taylor-Smith:

I think there is room for an organisation to -like ICELE – to be a central contact/info point for e-democracy in the UK (I’ve widened it there from local). Where they’ve collected data and case studies on a specific topic (like e-petitions) I’ve found it useful.

Paul Canning:

This just highlights for me the absence of any national central point of reference for egov. It’s splintered all over the place, so no one actually working in the area has ‘heard of’ most of the worthy stuff…

It just pains me that the Australian state of Victoria and other governments like Hong Kong and New Zealand have managed ‘one stop shop’ portals to egov for practitioners but all Downing St has led with is endless, endless different initiatives with different websites whilst at the same time preaching to the rest of us about ‘just’ directgov and businesslink.

Andy Williamson:

Our role now as advocates for eDemocracy is not to reduce the pressure but to increase it and argue strongly for a centralised, properly resourced and commissioned eDemocracy agency.

Mick Pythian:

I think perhaps first of all we need to know what the great British public expect of e-Democracy or even Democracy and attempt to champion that…

Rather than assumptions, I’d like to see more evidence from this country (cultures and systems vary, along with connectivity). This includes more ‘measured’ pilots.

Now, if I were to try and draw folk together to provide a post-ICELE way forward, these are all people who I would insist have to be involved – people who have a genuine interest in making things better, who have a clear idea of what eDemocracy might mean. To this dream team, I’d add others, like Shane McCracken, Steve Dale, Ingrid Koehler, Steve Hilton and Dominic Campbell.

It would be fascinating to see what could be achieved just by bringing people together, dispensing with titles and the other paraphernalia of traditional government working groups, and non-organising our way into Getting Something Done.