Digital democracy – beyond the ballot box


A challenge for Cambridge – and perhaps where you live as well. With local civic society structures broken, its systems obsolete and its content though important, discussed in a very frustrating manner, something must be done. But what, and by whom?

Some of you may remember when Puffles appeared in the Cambridge News – see here. That was published on the back of me writing an angry blogpost following a local council meeting – see it here. Item 7 of the open forum in the minutes (click here) illustrates why.

Mr Carpen queried what actions councillors would take in 2014 to inspire young people in local democracy.

ACTION POINT: Councillor Ashton (as Committee Chair) to write to local schools and colleges to invite students to attend future South Area Committee meetings.”

The schools and colleges aren’t helping – so far all the councillors have had back is an acknowledgement that their letters were received. (See item ii in ‘Matters arising’ in the minutes of March’s South Area Committee meeting here). I actually flagged this up with my former history teacher (who is still at one of the schools some 20 years on) in a local coffee shop recently.

“What about residents associations and community forums?”

I can’t recall ever having been part of one in childhood. It was only when I left the civil service that I started attending local council meetings to get an idea of what they were all about. That was in 2011. It was only a few weeks ago that I found out a forum of residents associations existed that covered the area of south Cambridge between my neighbourhood and the city centre. I went to one of their regular meetings not so long ago. It was a learning yet sobering experience.

“The good bits?”

People care about their communities. Furthermore, they have been proactive in community building in the new developments that have gone up. This essential but otherwise unpaid work is probably what David Cameron had in mind when talking about ‘Big Society’. Quite often they are the link between local councillors and residents. In the grand scheme of things, a well-run, well-chaired residents association can make a councillor’s role much easier.

“The challenges?”

Apart from the lack of diversity age-wise – I was probably the youngest person in the room, and I’m in my mid-30s now. Most of the people in the room – about 15 of us in all – were middle-aged to retired. The structure of the economy and society means that the only people with the time, resources and mindset to commit to this type of civic activity generally seem to be people of a certain demographic. Accordingly, I asked the people there to plot on a matrix of community action and online connection where they felt they were. The results are not scientific or statistically significant, but are summarised below

A snapshot of online connectivity of community activists in residential associations in one part of South Cambridge
A snapshot of online connectivity of community activists in residential associations in one part of South Cambridge

One said they were online, but not ‘social’ – and I heard some interesting comments in individual conversations about some of the challenges after the meeting. But I can’t deny that even with such a small sample size, the results are sobering. Given the demographics of voter turnout in local elections, you can see why councillors regularly tell me and Puffles that it simply is not worth the effort investing in social media. The community activists they engage with aren’t really online, already engage through existing structures and feedback the things that councillors feel they can influence. Think the muddy verge, the parking issues (that never go away), the potholes in the road and local civic history – for example here.

“Are you saying that potholes and bins are not important?”

Quite the opposite. At the same time, it’s the stuff we take for granted too. The Green Party in Brighton found out the hard way what happens when you mess around with bin collections. Also, looking after the small patches of greenery amongst other things, when looked at cumulatively, are the things that help make neighbourhoods nice places to live in. Nice people looking after the place and looking out for each other.

“The problem is…?”

The people and the local civic structures did not stand a chance when faced with financial interests measured in billions, with multinational power bases and significant resources to call on. I remember meeting a consultant at a council meeting a year or so ago, sent up to Cambridge on a cold winter’s night in the middle of the week to observe a council debate on housing. She was sent by her consultancy that had been retained to represent one of the biggest development firms in the country. I remember when I was in housing policy in Whitehall, feeling completely outgunned by the wealth of expertise the ‘key stakeholders’ could bring to bear. I wasn’t surprised when the much-criticised ‘help to buy’ policy was announced long after I left the civil service. It may as well have been written by the housing developers. And Puffles’ Twitterfeed exploded with Newsnight recently featured one of the first beneficiaries.

The above is just a tiny sample.

“So…what’s the solution?”

It’s more ‘observations’ first.

Civic structures

As I stated at the start, the structures, systems and processes are broken, obsolete and frustrating to most people – to the extent that all but the most passionate and persistent stick with them.

Too much going on already within existing structures

Most of the councillors work their socks off just treading water with their statutory responsibilities. For example I go home from council meetings when planning items come up because for me I have little influence or impact – or interest on the small items featured. But councillors still have to be there to make the final judgement call on each planning application. Their judgements have a real impact on the lives of the people that submit them, that live in the buildings surrounding the sites and those that may live or use the developments upon completion. Combined with full time jobs and families, that simply does not leave any time for ‘big picture strategic thinking and planning’ – the very thing that Cambridge needs.

Don’t expect the people currently using them to drive the changes

Despite numerous attempts at persuading them on all things social and digital media, I’ve failed locally. Easily caricatured as a Twitter-busy-body, I completely understand why some councillors see me as someone who ‘shouts the loudest’, just online rather than on the phone. There’s only so much one person can do, and I get that feeling I’ve gone as far as I can alone.

“Changes to what, exactly?”

Good question.

As I said to the forum, who are the people in our communities in the top-left corner that are missing? Where are the young families, where are the teenagers and school leavers? Where are the commuters? How are they represented in our civic structures?

“No – really. What is it that you’re aiming for?”

1) A change in the culture of local democracy in Cambridge, which (in part) will be demonstrated by 2) an increase in the number of people casting informed votes at elections, and 3) an increase in the quality and quantity of conversations (whether offline or online) between councillors and their constituents, so that the decisions they take are more informed about the needs and pressures of out communities sourced from a broader range of people. What I want is the title of this post: Digital democracy beyond the ballot box.

“So…you going to stand for election then?”

I haven’t decided – sometimes I’m like ‘Yeah!’ and other days I’m like ‘No…too many risks (not least to my mental health, which would suffer in a campaign).’ It is something I am actively considering, but there are some basics that I need to decide – including in which ward. (Cherry Hinton, Queen Ediths, or Coleridge). Secondly on what platform and for what purpose? Finally, campaigning in what manner?

The thing is, digital democracy beyond the ballot box is not something for me alone to deliver. ‘We the people’ need to persuade local politicians and activists that ‘digital matters’. But how can we do this when the paper literature that comes through our door is not making links between what local parties do online? I’ve got a copy of the latest ‘newspaper’ from Cambridge Liberal Democrats. Not a single reference to their website, let alone any of their social media accounts. And they are the party currently in control of Cambridge City Council. Basic, basic oversight. Or is this an inertia thing or rather something to do with not getting many ‘hits’ or referrals online from offline literature?

Cambridge political parties: Social media snapshots (If you live outside Cambridge, go to Write To Them as your first port of call for councillors/MPs/MEPs).

Cambridge Conservatives

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fanpage. While anyone can post comments, only admins can post content. Cambridge Universities Labour Club’s Facebook page (see here) is much more vibrant, and anyone can post content.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeLabour – nothing since 2010! In stark contrast to a wealth of active Twitter users, including deputy leader @CarinaOReilly, @CllrRJohnson and @AnnMSinnott.
  • Website/blog – They are here, but the new-style website based on a centralised template (see similarities say to Harlow, here) needs populating – particularly on campaigns and events.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Cambridge UKIP

  • Facebook – None
  • Twitter – None, though the (former) UKIP group leader @PeterReeve on Cambridgeshire County Council has been a regular tweeter for some time, and has a sizeable following.
  • Website/blog – the only one I could find was this one.


“So…who needs to do what to change things?”

This is where I’m calling out people locally to play their part. Can we build some sort of informal online movement that encourages lots of people that already use social and digital media to post questions, comments, suggestions and ideas to local parties? In particular, can we demonstrate to those too young or ineligible to vote that just because they are disenfranchised does not mean they have no voice?

Any takers?


3 thoughts on “Digital democracy – beyond the ballot box

  1. I’m afraid that I’m deeply unconvinced by social media. If you are a celeb, a media type or an activist you have reach and you can influence people. However most of us are neither and need to balance any outside activities with work and family commitments and have limited ability to improve our social media “reach”. I therefore wouldn’t be surprised if the “average” twitter user has followers that are basically their offline friends!

    Indeed this seems to be backed up by the stats which show that the average twitter user has 200 followers ( I’m willing to bet that if this is the “mean” average is probably significantly higher than the “mode” average (due to the impact of a small number of twitterers with thousands of followers). I’m sure it would probably be even lower still if you factored out teenagers who use twitter as an accumulating followers game (based on the limited number of teenagers I know).

    Having been on twitter my experience was that there are some genuinely interesting people with interesting views (Jonathan Portes, Francis Coppola yourself, etc). However there are an awful lot of windbags (and a small minority of trolls). If you do attempt to push out an agenda or idea (which is hard if you don’t have reach) then even with a low reach you still end up dealing with a lot of noise.

    If you don’t believe me try writing something pro EU or pro immigration – Instantly you will get responses from various people with “theories”. Obviously can choose to ignore this but then effectively twitter becomes as mechanism to push ideas which seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of a social media tool. Meanwhile if you do engage occasionally you get a real insight. However more often you find yourself giving your opponent a basic political education (which is both depressing and often pointless – as often people who hold their view “strongly” enough to engage on social media are often wed to dogmatic and ill-informed opinions – “the Dunning Kruger Effect”).

    Obviously that’s with big national debates, however, the objective is a local debate (e.g. potholes) then I struggle to see what social media really brings to the table at all. If the debate is hyper-local surely the necessary reach can be achieved via good old fashioned knocking on doors, sending leaflets and round robin emails and then finding a front room/hall to hire .

    1. You start by saying that other commitments prevent increasing social media reach, and finish with suggesting traditional, much more labour intensive, methods of engagement!

      The traditional methods have their place They’ll probably have a much higher engagement level, albeit on a necessarily much smaller base. They’ll reach people who aren’t online. Face-to-face can be particularly valuable for creating connection, but it depends on how well you present to others in person!

      It’s crap for reaching me. I’m rarely in when people come door-knocking, due to my level of commitments outside the house. Most paper through the door is liable to go straight in the recycling – I resent physical spam much more than the digital kind.

      Online resources are available at a time and place of my choosing. They can let me know about things outside my immediate geographic area – and by this I mean even other parts of my city! It’s much easier for those of us who are shy, and/or who like time to think about questions and responses.

      For me the value in social media has been in the other people I have discovered, and have now met. It’s not a large reach in terms of numbers, but I find I’ve got a useful network much more quickly than waiting around for physical meetings to occur, which might not be at convenient times, and at which I would be too scared to talk to people anyway.

      It’s also been valuable to me in seeing, for example, councillors as people, with personalities and interests outside of politics. In a time of high disillusionment with politics, and treatment of politicians as ‘other’, we need to be reminded that public figures are still people, and fallible ones at that. Few other mediums mix the personal and political so well, I think.

      Part of the problem is when people think of social media only in terms of how to project to others, rather than how to interact with others, and gain from that.

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