Hacking local democracy – a response


A response to Emma Daniel’s post on reinvigorating local democracy

Emma‘s short blogpost is here – please read it before going further.

One of her early questions is: “Why does local democracy need a reboot?”

Low voter turnout and low voter engagement are two reasons. Given that local councils spend a fair amount of taxpayers’ money, it’s in their – our – interest even, that someone keeps an eye on what they get up to and what they spend it on. But why should voters be bothered about local democracy when so much is taxation and spending is controlled by Whitehall, or where service delivery is outsourced? Democratic vs contractual accountability anyone?

Follow the money 

The problem is that for all the rhetoric around localism in recent times, following the money shows that much of the revenue raised and spent by local councils is done by central government. Only a small chunk comes from business rates and council tax. Combined with that, there are a number of statutory duties and services that local councils must provide – because the law says so. Once those statutory duties are accounted for, there isn’t really that much left in terms of genuine flexibility on taxation and spending.

The Coalition is trying to do some things step-by-step in more urban parts of the UK – in particular its City Deals, removing budgetary control from Whitehall departments and devolving those decisions to cities and city regions. (Cambridge is one of those on the list). Will this make much of a difference? It remains to be seen – but that alone won’t turn things around, much as such relaxing of the reins is welcome. Parliament in particular will be interested in how robust systems of accountability and scrutiny are too. Are individuals blessed with multiple skills, talents and competencies putting themselves forward for election, being selected by parties and getting elected on high turnouts in genuinely competitive contests? I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.

“Oh Hai! It’s elecshun tyme! Can I haz your vote?”

Or so goes the oft-heard complaint about voters only hearing from politicians around election time. I can understand the sentiment, as well as complaints from the other side saying that politicians and activists (in their dwindling numbers) do a hell of a lot of work that’s seldom seen by the public.

Puffles scrutinising Cambridge City Council from the rafters
Puffles scrutinising Cambridge City Council from the rafters

I took Puffles along to a full council meeting. I was only aware of it because I found out about it on Twitter at a time when I was in walking distance of the Guildhall, following a very full day of workshops for a couple of organisations.

I can empathise with anyone who feels that the last thing in the world they want to do is to stay up till nearly midnight after a full day at work, watching their local council. Especially where they are debating things that, to the general public can often feel more complicated than needs be.  “The A14? It’s been a nightmare for years? Why can’t you guys just sort it out?!?!” (Actually, my take is the A14 passes through so many local authority areas that ministers over the years should have pulled their fingers out and sorted it, rather than leaving it for under-funded local authorities to ‘get together in a strategic partnership to resolve the issues.’ There are some things that should not be devolved. Nationally critical or nationally important infrastructure is one of them.

Who has time for local democracy?

This in part is where those of us who care about it (myself included) need to make the case to those around us as to why it is important, and then make its functions more accessible to more people. Part of the problem with current approaches is that little consideration is given towards the groundwork needed before the annual appeals for people to vote, or people to stand for election are made. (There are leaflets in my local library from the county council, as well as web pages such as this one).

What do you mean by ‘groundwork’?

Much of this involves face-to-face contact – difficult at a time when people feel that there are so many other competing pressures. Where do people go? Do councillors and officials go where the people are? What isn’t helping at the moment is the closure of so many public services which serve as meeting points and social hubs – especially for those that need the most support.

Why can’t people go to shopping centres or supermarkets?

The privatisation of public spaces is why. Ever tried organising a protest inside a shopping centre, or leafletting outside a shop? Anything that even looks like it would get in the way of people shopping is seen as a big no-no. But in this society it’s where you find lots of people. Whether they are in the mindset of being open to talking about political issues is another thing, but if you can’t even get near the car park, it’s a meaningless debate. Thus we find ourselves in a situation where criminal justice legislation used to deal with the symptoms of anti-social behaviour has also criminalised political activism in the same spaces at the same time. If you get turfed out of a shopping centre because you were leafletting, returning could have you up on a charge of aggravated trespass.

Can social media get round this?

I’ve always said that social media works best in campaigning when it complements (adds to and improves) existing offline activities. It will never be a replacement for it. The challenge for politicians and activists here is getting conversations going. Locally on their own forums, this has proved particularly difficult. On Twitter, we have a local politics bubble here, frequented by a number of local councillors and activists from the big three parties. However, interaction by other third parties is often very limited – mainly to a handful of regulars. While some of the exchanges make for interesting reading for those interested in politics, how do you go about opening the exchanges up to other local people? (Remembering all the time that Twitter has its own skewed demographic).

There are a number of features that can help open things up to wider audiences – ones that many of us social media natives take for granted.

Using electronic calendars

The first is the scheduling of meetings and events in people’s electronic diaries and calendars. Facebook events, Eventbrite etc all have these features. Shouldn’t local councils make these features as standard on any public meeting and event that is being put up?

Finding out which people act as hubs/hives for their communities

This doesn’t need to be social media specific, but allows you to use limited resources to publicise meetings and events. There’s also a role for schools and colleges too – in particular any courses that touch on things to do with local history, geography and politics. Are the teachers of those courses being engaged with and are they encouraging their students to take an interest in local politics?

Training up local councillors, journalists and activists to use social media

I’m lucky here in that a number of local journalists are regular social media users. But others are not. Cambridge people, I volunteer for a local charity that provides free 1-2-1 social media training. Outside of Cambridge, you may find other ones listed here. I also still have an open offer of hosting free workshops to activists in the four main local (to me) political parties too – none of whom though has yet taken me up on them. There are also lots of free online guides too – my digital videos on Twitter, Facebook and blogging being some of many.

The challenge here is to deliver training in a manner that encourages people to interact with their local community. Not so much ‘here’s how to send a tweet’ but rather ‘these are the accounts/feeds from your local area that you might be interested in’. There also remains the ongoing issue of people’s fears: staying safe online.

Finding out where the debate is already taking place

During my university days I became aware of the website Urban75 and it’s forums. It hit the headlines back in 2002 when Brian Paddick, then Commander of Lambeth Police was  unmasked as a contributor towards those boards – something described by webmaster  Mike Slocombe here.

Here was an officer who was prepared to directly engage with the community he was paid to serve

Paddick was ahead of his time – and the media firestorm that followed only showed us a glimpse of the fate to befall many a social media pioneer since then. But the point remains that active community boards – and even local newspaper boards too – are also a channel from which to engage and listen to people.

So…to conclude?

Social media has a role to play, but a number of the big barriers are not social media related. There are some quick-wins – such as with event organising. There are others that will need a more considered approach. That includes how to co-ordinate and sequence the actions required, as well as identifying who can/needs to do what.


2 thoughts on “Hacking local democracy – a response

  1. A great response to Emmas blog, I would add that at least one local authority that does allow officers to use social media, restrict its use to lunchtime. This sounds lamentable (indeed it is) but this is a relatively progressive LA, many simple prevent staff from using it at all. We have a long way to go before the use of facebook for meetings will become part of the mainstream for all, but its definitely the way we need to go.

  2. some very good points here, a useful adjunct to the original post. especially liked the point about privatisation of public space. one thing that really needs much greater focus is that the undermining of local democracy through the deliberate privatisation of both service provision (outsourcing) and policy making (consultants). both of these obscure accountability and seriously subvert democracy. both have been widely practiced by councillors poorly advised by their party HQs, not wanting to rock the boat, over-willing to switch to cabinet structures, and over-inclined to blame their officials. the senior of whom, are largely schooled in the the ‘new public management’ agenda, which is deliberately designed to obscure cuts / destroy the post war consensus that the government, often through councils, should meet some of our basic needs. instead the agenda is all about ‘easy council’ a la barnet. commercial confidentiality, secretive subcommittees and working parties, and death by 400 pages of management speak… can you blame people for feeling disconnected?

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