Going Deeper into Crowd-sourcing and eDemocracy with Bristol Council

Update 10am, 19th July: Check out the number 10 website for a live stream of David Cameron’s speech in liverpool launching The Big Society in the north.

Yesterday morning I decided that it would be a good idea to write a brief post about our experience working with Bristol Council on a bid to create a truly engaging platform for Neighbourhood Consultation (called N-Gauge). To that end I thought that it might be sensible to eschew my usual ‘lash it out’ approach to blog writing and follow Dave’s lead and do some in depth background research.

The journey from then until now (nearly 24 hours later) has been filled with a range of emotions from optimism to cynicism through downright hilarity.

My starting point was to look at what’s out there at the moment and the basis for HMG’s interest in Crowd-sourcing in the first place. The answer lies in a Speech made by David Cameron [1] at the end of March this year, just prior to the election campaign, and its name is The Big Society [2]. But what is The Big Society? A picture paints a thousand words, or in the case of this Wordle [3] graphic, 125 words generated from the Big Society Document [4] from the Cabinet Office:

“We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.

  1. Give communities more powers
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data”

If you’d like to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world of Big Society, there’s a paper.li page [5] dedicated to the #bigsociety hashtag on twitter. Paper.li is a handy tool that presents the content of tweets in the form of a newspaper, very easy to read!

A quick glance at the Wordle graphic alone is enough to give the viewer a sense of why Crowd-sourcing would appeal – the prominent words are ‘local’, ‘social’, ‘communities’, ‘responsibility’, Big Society seems to be about empowerment of the individual as well as the state – It is no surprise, then, that within weeks of coming into power the coalition government had launched two sites, one from the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and one from the Chancellor, George Osbourne, at the Treasury:

Both of which have attracted criticism from a variety of sources, from the establishment:

to the not-so-establishment:

In both of these articles there are important points raised about the usefulness and more importantly the appropriateness of using Crowd-sourcing techniques to inform government policy-making. Key points being made that:

“Brain storming works best when people don’t talk to each other because people inhibit each other. But then what happens when you’ve got the ideas? You could have 30,000 ideas on what laws to repeal.” – Perry Walker, head of participation at the New Economics Foundation [10]

“Many entries [into the Spending Challenge] have little bearing on government doing ‘more for less’ and instead reflect personal hobby-horses, like the ubiquitous ‘Bring Back Capital Punishment [11]’.” – Clifford Singer, Leftwing Conspiracy [12]

“So far reality hasn’t caught up with the promise – and good strategic policy making involves deliberation, which the existing crowd-sourcing models aren’t suitable for.” – Geoff Mulgan, commentator and director of thinktank the Young Foundation [13]

I’ve talked previously [14] about the mechanisms we use to drive and maximise engagement so I won’t linger on them again here. Instead I’d like to talk about what became apparent very quickly through our conversations with Bristol Council, something that’s supported by the comments above, and that is that generating a ton of ideas is only the start.

Not only that, but what is currently considered a ton of ideas isn’t even remotely democratically representative. Hence the prominence of ideas like the one that calls for sterilising single mothers under the age of 21 [15], an idea that I’d like to hope hasn’t become the prevalent view in our society.

There are also issues relating to Identity online that have only become apparent with the advent of Social Networks and the associated personal investment into identity that we have all made into them, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Linked In or any number of other sites. It’s now clear to me at least that I would be uncomfortable about behaving in a way online that would damage the reputation of identities that I have invested time and effort in and that my real-world friends, acquaintances, colleagues and collaborators will use to form opinions about me.

So there are three points:

  • Idea generation is only the start of a deeper process
  • We need to reach democratically relevant participation levels to be taken seriously
  • Identity is vital to accountability and therefore to a constructive debate

This was the starting point for our proposal, which is essentially to break the process down into four stages with the aim of effectively addressing these points:

  1. Idea Generation (community-led)
  2. Analysis (government/local authority-led)
  3. Discussion (community-led)
  4. Conclusion/Actions (government/local authority-led)

The first phase, Idea Generation, is something that we’ve already got a great handle on through our work on Beermat Challenge [16] and Election 2010 Challenge [17], and you can read all about that elsewhere [18] on this blog. The important point being that this phase should generate not only ideas, but very large numbers of participants that will continue to participate in the next phases.

The second and subsequent phases are about Feedback, Depth and Accountability respectively and are all about fostering the deliberation that is key to good policy-making. At each stage, however, it’s vital that we remember that people want to interact in different ways:

“Some people are amazing at bold ideation, while others are better at refining and iterating something previously suggested. Some simply want to vote or rank what they find appealing, and others; well they just like to hang out to see what’s up.” – Clinton Bonner, Chaordix [19]

It is critical to link the individual’s participation to an online identity that they value, with the objective of encouraging them to behave in socially responsible ways. Most people would not walk into a room full of strangers and shout abuse at them, but yet this kind of behaviour is common online.

If the issue of online identity and behaviour can be solved we would create an environment in which people would feel confident to express their genuinely held views without fear of harassment – talking to friends is much less daunting than talking to strangers.

So if we are to enable David Cameron’s vision of The Big Society then these problems must each be solved and the democracy that we live in will be much the better for it. In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most popular ideas in our own Election 2010 Challenge [17]:

“e-voting open to all UK residents on all laws, statutes,motions & other parliamentary business. Bring parliament to people OPEN DEMOCRACY!”

[1] http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2010/03/David_Cameron_Our_Big_Society_plan.aspx
[2] http://www.thebigsociety.net/
[3] http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/2230435/Big_Society
[4] http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/407789/building-big-society.pdf
[5] http://paper.li/tag/bigsociety
[6] http://yourfreedom.hmg.gov.uk/
[7] http://spendingchallenge.hm-treasury.gov.uk
[8] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8788780.stm
[9] http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/07/14/governments-spending-challenge-website-now-offers-you-comedy-gold
[10] http://www.neweconomics.org
[11] http://spendingchallenge.hm-treasury.gov.uk/how-can-we-rethink-public-services-to-deliver-more-for-less/bring-back-capital-punishment
[12] http://liberalconspiracy.org
[13] http://www.youngfoundation.org/
[14] http://blog.evansfinch.co.uk/2010/06/30/thoughts-on-crowdsourcing-and-edemocracy-in-bristol/
[15] http://spendingchallenge.hm-treasury.gov.uk/how-can-we-rethink-public-services-to-deliver-more-for-less/welfare-reform-changing-mindset
[16] http://www.beermatchallenge.co.uk
[17] http://www.election2010challenge.co.uk
[18] http://www.chaordix.com

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