In this guest blog, Chris Naylor from the LGiU reflects on some of the thought-provoking highlights from #notwestminster 2015 and picks his three key areas for digital democracy…
Where next with the opportunities that digital offers local government? How do we focus down from the range of possibilities on offer, down to what to prioritise now? How do we sift through the enthusiasm, the fresh thinking, the practical evidence – and indeed the occasional snake-oil salesman – to make sense of it all?
At the end of the impressive #notwestminster digital democracy day (‘Local Democracy for Everyone – We’re not in Westminster any more’), I came away thinking not so much that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, more that I couldn’t see the forest for the woods.
Carl Whistlecraft and the #notwestminster team organized an excellent programme, a full house on a Saturday with participants from across the UK (LGiU helped publicise – and contributed a workshop on The Council of 2045). The event cracked on at great pace and crackled with energy: lightning talks, the ideas bazaar, workshops titled Ballot for Bondi Beach, Doing devolution without permission, Digital democracy: a panacea for youth disengagement? and many more.
Dr Andy Mycock (University of Huddersfield) who served on the Youth Citizenship Commission spoke about the steady decline in democratic engagement, particularly amongst the young, and the great opportunity to reach young people through social media. Online voting could help too. Digital access offers much more than improved influence over politicians – it offers the chance to do democracy differently. It could create new forms of citizen engagement, enrich representation, and enhance policy making and scrutiny.
More about Andy and Simon’s workshop
Cllr David Harrington (Stockton on Tees) focused in detail on one such innovation to help him work with residents: successfully offering his ward surgeries on Skype, which proved their popularity once people had overcome initial concerns.
More about David and Ken’s workshop
Edward Wood outlined the work of the Digital Democracy Commission whose recommendations [look out for the LGiU Policy Briefing] seemed to range from practical steps like getting parliamentarians to use tablets and setting up online voting, to facilitating Open Data as a whole.
Slides from Ed’s Lightning Talk
Carl Whistlecraft (Kirklees) in his workshop invited us to discuss how digital opportunities could facilitate public engagement around local elections – including on the day. We talked about party contacts, voter information, and opportunities to set the agenda.
More about Carl and James’s workshop
Phil Rumens (West Berkshire) encouraged us to consider how digital engagement could facilitate service design and delivery without recourse to elected members – perhaps leaving an accountability gap.
More about Phil’s workshop
Paul Hepburn (Liverpool University) advocated councils as guardians of public value, with quality of life as an objective rather than output or outcome targets. How might digital technologies facilitate opportunities for co-production, enhancing feelings of engagement and empowerment?
More about Paul’s workshop
John Heneghan (Kirklees) then introduced participants to the powerful new Comoodle concept – winner of a major Blomberg award. Comoodle looks to the simple innovation of Uber and AirBnB. It will offer a new platform to unlock and engage community capacity – people and assets – to address local needs and create opportunities. It’s part of the wider context of a sharing economy and of the changing relationship between citizen and state. Comoodle would be both a practical tool locally – and a movement with international potential.
Slides from John’s Lightning Talk
Carl Haggerty (Devon) talked about how digital has to be uncompromising in its challenge to existing cultures and ways of workin – how it can facilitate a focus on end-users and on place.
Slides from Carl’s Lightning Talk
Tim Davies (Practical Participation) asked whether democracy depends on openness, touching on values of freedom and inclusion and then exploring different definitions of open data – open as opposed to totalitarian; open to enable understanding and informed comment; open in order to shape and co-own, as in open source. The digital mantra used to be ‘rough consensus and running code’ – but was that inclusive enough in the context of democracy? Was it just helping the already connected, the already empowered?
Slides from Tim’s Lightning Talk
I still haven’t digested all of this, but in trying to work through the trees, woods and forests I wonder if it makes sense to focus in on three key areas for digital democracy:
- Most obvious is how digital can help make existing democratic systems work better – Skype for surgeries, online voting, shared ‘young person friendly’ platforms for manifestos, voter registration, candidate bios etc.
- Secondly, how digital can help with service design and delivery – better understanding of usage and uptake, new opportunities for consultation, more access to data and enhanced scrutiny.
- Thirdly, how digital can more radically change democracy – or indeed one might say deliver true democracy. Fully open data; genuine co-production facilitated through platforms like Comoodle; real opportunities for citizens to debate and agree priorities rather than our ‘leaders’ telling us what they’ve decided is in our best interests.
But first things first, getting more local politicians on hand-helds and tablets, and Skyping, would be a fine thing.