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