Local Democracy Notepad

Democratic perfectionism as a political method

Pushing policy instead of politics – and listening to the conversation.

without comments

The % of the population living with their parents as presented by London Profiler's use of Google Maps

The % of the population in Haringey living with their parents as presented by London Profiler's use of Google Maps

This US post is calling for the data that agencies use to be as available as their conclusions.

“Mindy Finn noted that politicians (typically leery of too much openness) can benefit from transparency in a self-protective “flood the zone” way — since people are coming to expect information about public figures to be available online, someone will meet that demand, and putting out the facts him- or herself lets a politician put it in context (i.e., spin it “appropriately”). It’s politics, baby — even in the most open system, spin is still going to be all-important. But with better data available, perhaps the bullshit will be more transparent, too.”

In the UK, Tom Harris MP has a beef with the Information Commissioner about what he sees as a crippling demand for transparency.

So, the Information Commissioner has ruled that ministers can’t have private meetings any more.

This is undoubtedly a cause of celebration for LibDem MPs who don’t expect ever to be in government anyway. But at the risk (and for “risk” read “certainty”) of being accused of being an anti-democratic control freak, there can sometimes be good reasons for holding private meetings where a record isn’t taken. The most successful negotiations, between ministers and his civil servants, between departments or between a department and an outside body, can very often start with an informal discussion that, technically, didn’t actually happen.

No more, apparently. Openness and transparency counts more than successful delivery of policy, I suppose.

I think that there is a middle way. There is certainly a case for government to seek out members of the public who aren’t members of pressure groups or partisan organisations, but that are interested in policy, and to push raw-ish data at them. Using a fashionable word, crowdsourcing interpretation of data may help politicians enjoy a more conversational politics. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it…

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

Mashups and point-of-view shifting

Data has never been as abundant as it is now. The Free Our Data campaign has been demanding that as much government data as possible should be available in a format that allows it to be interpretted and re-presented in interesting ways that allow elected representatives to understand the issues that they are deliberating upon more effectively.

In the same way that Point of View Shifting projects such as AccessCity allows for an honesty in political communications that no disability pressure group – no matter how well intentioned – will acheive, data can be presented to make it easier for elected representatives to deal with information overload – as was acheived (albeit in a fairly clunky way) by the London Profiler for example.

Interpretting qualitative information

However, I’d like suggest that there is a huge dimension here that is largely being missed. Making data available to clever techies so that they use it in mashups is all very well. But what about the more qualitiative data? The pamphlets that make arguments – the kind of things that politicians really do get overloaded with? In the UK, there are over 100 think-tanks listed on Wikipedia alone. These think-tanks generate huge amounts of qualitiative information that is marketed at politicians. In many ways, they are the intermediator between high-level academe and busy politicians who want to know what to do next.

Academics are increasingly aware of this, and they are becoming more aware of their obligation to disseminate their work in a way that ordinary human beings can make sense of it. And ordinary human beings – as long as they are aware of it – and have the resources needed to filter that information – can use it to improve their policymaking. 

Local democracy’s inability to engage with policy evangelists

Think Tanks, however, do not have a great track record of marketing their information at anyone outside of Whitehall. They get commissioned by people who want to influence central government and target their outputs at central government. There is no single website in the UK (yet) that is aimed at marketing information from the world of wonkdom to the wider public. This is where there is perhaps a valuable gap to be filled – one that can’t be filled by geeky mashups, but by human beings with good social skills.

Not only is the world of wonkdom not marketed at local government, local government also lacks the collaborative filtering that central government has. What do I mean by this? Well, those big buildings between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament are stuffed with civil servants whose job it is to stay on top of tiny areas of policy and make sure that they are digested and spat-out into the Red Boxes that Rt. Hon Members have to read before they go to bed.

If local government could find a way of motivating citizens groups to survey all of the policy information on a given subject and to discuss it in an eavesdroppable way (and this can only happen, I believe, in the absense of politicians or local government officers), then we would see a really valuable use of social media in improving the quality of local democracy.

Local democracy can only become stronger when it can compete with central government in evaluating public policy options. And this means doing something as simple as finding local co-ordinators to establish policy discussion groups – using collaborative filtering media to identify information of interest, isolate the useful data, and present it in a way that local councillors can use it. It’s about being creative to overcome the obstables that stand in the way of a more effective local democracy.

Politics is sold like soap-powder. A great deal is invested in encouraging people to follow politics – while very little effort goes into marketing a conversation about policy. The latter is certainly more interesting really – once you strip away the Kremlinology that Nick Robinson offers us.  

If a fraction of the people who follow politics avidly were discussing policy instead, there could possibly be a crowd worth sourcing….

Written by Paul Evans

January 14th, 2009 at 11:18 am

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