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Different with Digital: Opportunities and Challenges for Local Democracy

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Different with Digital, 31st March 2015, live stream #PSA15Guest blog by Sonia Bussu

On Tuesday 28th March 2015, the Local Politics standing group (part of the British Political Studies Association) hosted a innovative panel at the PSA general conference in Sheffield. The panel was called “Different with Digital” and was true to its title. It went digital all the way, in terms of content and delivery.

In terms of content it had three great papers on how digital and social media are impacting local democracy; in terms of delivery, for the first time in the history of the PSA (I think!), the panel was webcast and people not attending the conference could take part in the Q&A via Twitter. I was particularly pleased with these digital developments, since, after convening the panel, I was unable to attend in person in the end. The Local Democracy Bytes crowd was great at taking over and delivered an excellent panel.

You can find out more about the PSA panel at:
How will digital change local politics?
How will digital change local politics? – Storify

When I convened the panel, I saw it as a spin-off of an event I organised in London a few months ago for Involve. There we explored how local representatives are using social media and how that’s affecting their relationship with the local community. At the time, we concluded that as a tool of party politics social media might actually expose politicians and make them vulnerable to virtual attacks and naïve mistakes. The great potential for social media seems to lie instead in engaging and mobilising residents and activists around local issues and local needs, offering spaces where citizens can put forward and discuss ideas, away from party politics.

You can find out more about the Involve event and our conclusions at:
Social media and local political representation: a game changer or all hype? Watch the video
Social media and local representation: the end of a love affair?

The Local Politics panel had a broader scope and looked at local democracy beyond just local representatives. Listening to the panellists and the comments from the real and virtual audience, I thought of Marshall McLuhan’s words: “We shape our tools, and then they shape us.”

The three presentations (on the role e-petitions can play at the local level; evolving digital models for councils and councillors; and Twitter use among Bristol’s councillors) clearly showed that we’re undergoing an adjustment period in terms of changing communication styles and modes of interactions between institutions and citizens.

Some (institutions and / or individuals) are adjusting faster than others, in a wide spectrum that goes from denial or lip service; to transfer online of existing offline practice; to sanctioning or at least prescribing strict rules on the use of social media to (artificially and ineffectively, I’d say) control potential backlashes; and finally toleration and experimentation. Overall, under the pressure of social media the relationship between policy makers and citizens seems to be becoming more immediate, direct, and informal. But is it more meaningful?

I’ve recently come across a very interesting article by Tim O’Reilly (#SocialCivics and the architecture of participation), who encourages policy makers to rethink civic participation as standardised parts and the unit size for participation. What does it mean? Put it simply, the larger the unit of participation, the harder it is for people to take part. To me that means sharing accessible political content online that can talk to and engage with different audiences in different ways and through different platforms (e.g. Twitter users behave differently from Facebook users for a start). But also breaking down big issues into local issues, so as to make them relevant to people’s lives, and using social media more effectively to listen to and take in people’s input in a two-way dialogue, which at the local level can be more immediate and tangible.

In this respect, as one panellist put it, social media has the potential to make politics and democracy more local.

There are a number of challenges though.

A big one is the issue of institutional capacity to feed public input (which is generally of a qualitative nature) into policy making (which traditionally relies on more quantitative evidence). This is an aspect where (local and national) policy makers should really experiment with, with a bit more courage (through trialling and prototyping).

As an expert in deliberative democracy, I feel social media pose a big challenge to high quality debating and risk fostering greater polarisation. This might be particularly relevant in the case of e-petitions, which are growing in popularity and could play a big role in local democracy.

E-petitions show systematic bias in the selection of relevant information and fail to consider counter-arguments. We might then want to consider how to offset these risks by combining online and offline deliberative tools. One example that springs to mind is the Citizens’ Initiative Review, which started in Oregon in 2010 and is becoming very popular in many Western states in the US.

24 voters are selected through stratified sampling, so as to be broadly representative of the demographics of the state. They have 5 days to deliberate, after listening to opposing arguments and expert views on the issue. The final statement they produce goes into the official voter’s pamphlet. This method has proved to increase public knowledge and understanding of the issue. Voters would seem to trust these peer statements more than official ones, also included in the voter pamphlet.

There is a lot of innovation out there, which is inevitably altering the relationship between traditional institutions and modern societies. How and if these transformations will alter the balance of power between representatives and citizens and translate into meaningful democratic change is hard to predict. But local councils and councillors shouldn’t miss this opportunity to revitalise their democratic role in the community.


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