Hacking local democracy

28 Apr

So how about we hack local democracy? What am I talking about?

Hacking is associated with coding, but as I learned at bluelight camp..essentially it means taking a thing and modifying it to make it work better. I know that lots of policy people, active citizens, politicians, public authority officers and others have really good ideas about how we could create projects which modify local democracy to increase participation.

Why does local democracy need a reboot?

(This is my list…please add more)

  • People feel that they only connect with politicians around election time, yet I am sure that the vast majority of Councillors work very hard all the time. A similar problem is felt in policing where people feel there is a lack of ‘bobbies on the beat’. Of course the chances of randomly bumping into your Pcso when you walk along the road is remote. Social media has to an extent helped the police address the need for a direct relationship with people and to show that officers are present in an area. Could Councillors learn from this? See @curiousc Networked Councillor Blog
  • The language and structure of local democratic meetings has become unintelligible to modern communities – requiring enormous interpretation and support to navigate. I refer to this is in my citizens agenda blog and so many local councillors ( from all over the country) related to this point making me positive that councillors are ready to lead change.
  • Democratic moments (HT to @demsoc) are too spaced out and mostly negative. In essence between elections there are too few opportunities for citizens to participate in decision making. Plus, in all other aspects of our lives we expect swift reaction and interaction/ feedback/ outcome. In local democracy, you can complain and object but to work positively requires massive effort and going to local partnership meetings etc. structures around positive engagement tend to be designed for the council structures and are over anxious about risk, stifle debate (conflicting points of view are generally perceived to be ‘a problem to be avoided’)
  • National scandal has tainted local politics (expenses/ links to corporate vested interests) as well as a perception that politicians are a class apart, groomed from birth via various routes depending on the tribe and not ‘of the people’. Yet again, to a certain extent some of these issues are shared by policing, and the idea that policing happens by the people for the people has been widely underlined by online policing communities. Trust and respect are vital for both police and politics to create a sense of legitimacy for decisions and actions taken. Digital can provide a transparency, it can give people the opportunity to directly question and scrutinise, as well as community reporters and bloggers to provide local and hyper local citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is I believe an asset to democracy, but it is often perceived as an annoyance. John popham and I were discussing this today. Hopefully a session could run on this at hacking local democracy.

There are lots of non tech ideas I would expect to arise which meet the challenge of increasing trust, confidence and participation in local democracy…list yours in the comments or tweet me!

But my list of techy solutions that could support some of the behaviour change that local democracy requires:

  • Doorstep app- let people see routes and allow for pop up events. Use text/emails to alert people so they can ask you to call in (or not)
  • Pop up community surgeries to respond to hyper local issues swiftly
  • Citizens agenda – see my previous blog
  • Develop e-petitions to enable community discussion



6 Responses to “Hacking local democracy”

  1. Damian Beaumont April 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    I agree, there is so much we can do differently. The work of ‘code for America’ has some good templates for us to look at.

    I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Pahlka’s TED talk on this subject.

  2. johnpopham April 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    As we discussed, Emma, I agree with you whole-heartedly. You might want to have a look at a post I wrote along similar lines about a year ago http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com/2012/03/the-hyperlocal-jeremy-paxmans-are-out-there-we-just-need-to-find-them/

  3. ianchisnall April 28, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Hi Emma, some good thoughts and I am certain that social media has a vital part to play to improve the situation. However we must start with peoples primary motivations (just because the pig has a twitter account, doesn’t stop it being a pig so to speak). We know that some police officers will always resist twitter (and in some cases because they are not interested in engaging with people) and some need to be helped and then we have the rest who took like ducks to the water. However because outside the force structure few people know how many police officers there are, it seems as though the whole force is moving in the same direction. Inevitably the MPs and Councillors are easier to count and measure (and unlike officers they do put themselves up for public office). What we need is to help those MPs and Cllrs who are techno phobic (as opposed to people phobic) to be seen when they do good engagement, and for those who are already using social media, to be constantly encouraged to see this as only part of the engagement thang!. Several years ago Wealden Cllrs were encouraged to do the market research for the Community Strategy by going to their constituents with a questionnaire to ask residents their views on a bunch of things. This was a long way from the elections and it led to some very positive outcomes for both voters and the Cllrs. That sort of thing should be seen at least as important as some of the more formal processes which may be needed but probably don’t really make much impact on residents.

  4. sashataylor May 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    Great article…definately in for organising the event with you. Disagree that MPs engage only around elections…dont think they engage even at this time correctly…the example being last elections i looked down very long list of people standing and had not heard of any or seen anything from them…so i gave the ballot paper back unmarked!! Waste of my time going…but also more importantly a waste of a vote. I have no idea who represents me locally…they certainly have not canvassed my ideas/beliefs/wants 😦
    We need to get them engaging well with those who are digitally enabled.

  5. Catherine Howe (@curiousc) May 27, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

    Finally! Back at the weekend desk after PHD submission holiday!!

    I completely agree with what you are saying here and would add a couple of other thoughts:

    1) Another reason I think for the disconnect between people and politics if the fact that the policy making process means that the opportunity to influence outcomes is disconnected – or at least separated by time – from the moment at which people become aware of the consequences. Some of this is down to people not being aware but I think we have to put serious thought to more agile and open policy making processes so that our democratic moments can be linked to substantive thinking about the issues we care about. More on this here http://openpolicy.demsoc.org and http://www.curiouscatherine.info/2012/02/19/taking-the-technology-out-of-agile-ukgc12/

    2) I think we also need to think about how we re-enfranschise officers – while its vitally important not to have political bias in the administration of a council (or national government) at the moment the way we address this is very restrictive for the people involved. If we believe that more informed and active communities are more likely to be democratically engaged then we are not taking advantage of one of our greatest assets – our active, engaged and community minded officers

    And finally – event yes please!



  1. Hacking local democracy – a response | A dragon's best friend - April 28, 2013

    […] short blogpost is here – please read it before going […]

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