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Community sites and active citizenship – a #LocalGovCamp roundup

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From Spacemans Flickr pics

From Spaceman's Flickr pics

Dave Briggs surpassed himself on Saturday convening a terrific event in Birmingham. I’m hoping to pick up a number of issues that came up in different posts here, but I’d like to start with the session that I helped lead on. I don’t want to detail or argue any of the issues that came up in this post (time enough for that / the archives here touch on a lot of the arguments anyway), but it pulled together what are, I think, four of the most interesting questions:

The one I posed was the old chestnut here:

“Nosey do-gooding interfering unelected self-important fanatical busybodies and how social media loves them.”

This was a flame-baiting conversation starter to smoke out what I’d see as the ‘direct democracy’ problem.¬†Will Perrin responded with an outline of his own local media project along with a profile of a few others:

“Community empowerment through the web”

Will’s examples neatly punctured the simplicity of my arguments with really good examples of the way that active citizens have created very popular active local sites that highlight the pavement (or in Will’s case, the burning vehicle) problems. It illustrated the power of the crowds – ensuring that details get picked up on, demanding flexibility and imagination from local agencies while creating a degree of community cohesion and social capital. As it happened, the event was on the doorstep of Digbeth which has it’s own site – and the site-manager was there to outline her work.

An outline of Will’s work can be seen here on David Wilcox’s site.

For my part, I offered a range of theoretical objections to this. The potential for abuse from unelected ‘community activists’. Many of them are unrealised phantoms, but it wouldn’t do to discuss this issue without raising them. The notion of community leadership (or ‘Gauleiter’) or the ‘community representatives‘ that proliferate in Northern Ireland are the ones that spring to mind.

Also, in my local area, the most prominent local blog isn’t run by quite the benign ringmaster in the way that some of the sites Will highlighted are. It’s not really a community site, but it is one that acts as a local ‘gamechanger’ - and not necessarily one that is the unqualified public good that Will’s site is. It’s much more in the Victor tradition.

At one point, the conversation veered towards the question of local authorities and their response to the retreat from local reporting of the mainstream media. Will’s view is that – under no circumstances – should councils ever be allowed to publish their own local newspapers.

I’d suggest that Will’s position could be taken one step further: You could reduce local authorities websites down to the very bare bones: An unstyled bit of CSS that provides just the facts. This could be picked up by trusted service users and they could describe the councils services for them – providing information and a feedback loop in one go. As the Norwegians describe the whole Web 2.0 concept: “The ordinary citizen as a supplier of public sector information.”

All of this led to the prior established claims of representatives / mediators (trans: Councillors and trained local journalists). Will was a good deal more sceptical than I would be about thier respective qualities or legitimacy.

As you’d expect at an unconference, the real strength of the discussions was the spontaneity. Will and I only spoke for a few minutes preparing the session and one issue came up there that we didn’t get around to during the session:

My view is that active citizens are a valuable asset insofar as they can flush out all of the issues and help to provide a better description of the problems and the options that are open to councillors, but that elected councillors should always have the final say on policy issues.

Will doesn’t really agree on this. My understanding of his position is that the imperfections of our electoral system mean that councillors can only deliver for their particular ward if their party is in power. When in opposition, all of the resources pop up elsewhere in the borough.

I’d be interested to see research that illustrated this, but it has a prima facie credibility about it. This, combined with the all of the well-trodden questions around the legitimacy and competence of local councillors does add weight to his argument.

Resolving this one, I suspect that we’re slightly at cross-purposes, as my argument on the sovereignty of councillors is based largely on them making decisions about optimal policies rather than about the allocation of resources – not entirely extricable questions but slightly different ones.

Bit either way, this session threw up the contours of a big big debate that needs to play itself out over the next few years as new modes of communicaton change the relationships between elected members, political parties, local officials, active citizens, professonal journalists and the general public.

I’m not sure that these are just sociological questions either. The Labour Party was founded primarily to deal with the question of representation among the lower social classes – how to ensure that the poor could be represented and get elected and support themselves financially as politicians. I do worry that online communities have the potential for placing a time-rich articulate middle class in an authoritative local position at the expense of everyone else. The dynamics of conversations are so rarely as inclusive as we would like them to be.

These are all classical questions. They’re not new ones either (the Athenians would be familiar with some of the questions). They have a political significance – different strands of libertarianism use demands for a more direct democracy in an instrumental way, and they can lead to a more populist politics.

I’m glad we got the chance to open the conversation on these issues.

The four issues were, in summary

  1. ‘The direct democracy problem’
  2. The positive potential of local websites
  3. Local authorities – should the step into the space vacated by local newspapers?
  4. The old ‘councillor / journalist compact’ – fit for purpose?

Written by Paul Evans

June 23rd, 2009 at 9:16 am

8 Responses to 'Community sites and active citizenship – a #LocalGovCamp roundup'

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  1. [...] Paul Evans – Community sites and active citizenship [...]

  2. Thanks Dave for opening up this discussion on Saturday and for these further pertinent comments. There is a place for opening up new media channels for the expression of local views on local issues – to inform, to enable debate by providing information – but participative (or direct) democracy has limitations. Whilst we have a system of representative democracy (for all its flaws), we need to recognise the points that you make about elected councillors and their legitimated role as the elected representatives whose task is to weigh up issues and make decisions on resource allocation and on the balance of evidence, and legislative frameworks, for the provision of services etc for their areas. The problems though that we face are many: the decline of real “power’ at the local level means that many council decisions are predicated on frameworks that are set by central government, reducing the real influence that councillors have at the local level; many councillors are not informed or knowledgeable about the range of issues on which they are required to take decisions (and, cynically, many officers prefer it that way); whilst many decisions at local level should not be “party” decisions, the role of political groups in local councils can over-influence the way in which decisions are taken; the move towards Cabinet government at local level has reduced the role of back benchers in local councils to a minor, primarily scrutiny, role – and added to this the decline in participation in political parties, and the dearth of able candidates willing to stand for local government election means that our representative democracy at the local level looks increasingly irrelevant and unable to respond to the interests and concerns of local people – leading to widespread disillusion with local government processes – and thence the decline in electoral participation. But on the other side, community activism has a long history in the UK, and has always been a way for issues, often minority ones, to come onto the agenda. It is not an either/or – it is how we enable the voice of a wide range of interests to be heard, to provide information, experience and voice. The risks are that the clamour of those who can shout the loudest will be dominant, and in the web world, this for me is a significant risk, as whilst in the public face to face forum, debate can open up people’s minds, in the more private world of the web, I am concerned that the debate, the conversations, risk becoming the converted preaching to the converted. There is a balance needed. We need to rethink the role of representative democracy at the local level, and to explore and invest in the range of participative mechanisms that can fully engage citizens – both on line and off line. More effective citizen participation is not an add on to representative democracy – it is an integral part of it. We are just not at all sure as to how to make it effective, relevant, and to understand the ways in which we can ensure that a full range of voices are heard.

    Christine Forrester

    23 Jun 09 at 11:01 am

  3. Will may not like it but many council’s already have their own newspapers that are delivered to every resident. Why would it be a bad thing if council’s collected emails of local residents and (with permission) sent them this electronically?

    More interestingly, I think council’s have a role to play in helping facilitate very local news. I would like to see local people skilled-up to produce community pod/video casts of local issues/news. Don’t you think councils are well placed to bring the relevant parties together with a focus on digital/social inclusion?

    Stephen Hilton

    23 Jun 09 at 11:08 am

  4. here in edinburgh it was the local fe college that stepped in to save the printed word local paper. they had the skills and pro bono resources, and see themselves as a community hub.

    one question – who the councils are for – their members or their officials ? if they were for their citizens, they would ask us how they were doing more than once every 4 to 5 years. they would be servant leaders more often as well.

    i go with the norway view, but they seem much more prepared to devolve power.

    local government in scotland is adapting to PR ; lots more coalitions required now. web2 not happening much yet.


    23 Jun 09 at 2:47 pm

  5. “I do worry that online communities have the potential for placing a time-rich articulate middle class in an authoritative local position at the expense of everyone else.”

    A reasonable concern, but it would be good to see some research into whether or not this is actually happening.

    Anecdotally, three of the most active bloggers I know are a bus driver, a window- cleaner and an office admin worker.

    Andy Mabbett

    24 Jun 09 at 10:02 pm

  6. Victor Meldrew? “not necessarily one that is the unqualified public good” ???? – You cheeky B******d. I’ll have you know I’m half Irish & Half Australian, so there’s nothing I like better than a good row!

    If I had a clue what you were actually moaning about or criticising me for I’d probably have one !

    Love – Rog T – The Barnet Eye

    Rog T

    25 Jun 09 at 5:45 pm

  7. [...] already posted something here on the question of active citizenship and local sites, but I think the Birmingham project foregrounds the issue [...]

  8. [...] Other options include beefing up the council’s information department with a view to turning the fairly skimpy info circulars into fully-fledged newspapers or being more in tune with hyperlocal sites of the kind that Will Perrin is promoting at the moment. [...]

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