Repairing our democracy with a little digital help


Some thoughts from a gathering of the revived Democracy Club of 2010 -> with 2015 in mind

They are tweeting at @Democlub, are on Facebook here and have a website here.

I’ve blogged a lot about democracy (see here for a sample). With Puffles having stood for election in Cambridge in 2014 I took Puffles for a rare post-election outing to London. Miserable rainy day it was too, so being stuck in a lower-second floor basement without wifi or mobile signal wasn’t as bad as the morning tweet announcing this sounded.

There were about 20 of us there, several of us being familiar with each other by reputation if not face to face, and people with a talent for computer coding and development conspicuous by their presence. Hence I noted that as conversations went on, where me and Puffles were coming from was a very different place from where everyone else was coming from.

Bringing people from disparate, diverse communities and backgrounds & getting them to act in unison is never going to be easy

The organisations notable by their volunteers included 38 degrees, MySociety and FullFact. I didn’t get the impression that many had stood for election for the main parties, though most had experience of campaigning and/or community action. Yet the aim of the Democracy Club’s campaign happens to be one of the main aims of Puffles’ campaign: to increase the number of people who feel that they are casting an informed vote.

Two focussed issues for Democracy Club

1) How can we use all things digital to make some of the essential information available to citizens?

2) How can we collect data and analyse the impact that the above has?

This touches on my first draft evaluation (see here – I need to finalise it over the summer) where I noted that there was no way of being able to measure and attribute the impact of Puffles’ campaign on social media use for local democracy by residents. The only thing part of the campaign – the posters – might have done, is to remind people of the date of the elections.

I’ll leave the Democracy Club team to provide more details in their next blogpost (which will be here) on what their plans are. In the grand scheme of things I don’t have enough of the historical knowledge of more established activists or the technical knowledge of the coders to elaborate further on what they have planned. What I do know is that the vision for what they have planned in terms of digital tools are things that will be really useful for someone like me. For example I have no idea how they went about ‘coding’ the freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.Com. I do, however have experience of how to use the Freedom of Information Act to get public bodies to release information – even when they refuse first time around (as this example shows).

Will Will (and Sym – of Democracy Club) create the umbrella organisation that the country could do with – bringing together an otherwise fragmented assortment of individuals and organisations?

Because although there was a huge amount of talent in the room, the scoping activity we did at the start showed there are people dotted about all over the place that want to do something to improve our democracy – but outside of political parties. This was the idea in 2010 – see here. That was an intense period of activity over 4 weeks. This time around we’ve got just under a year to prepare. Can we make the links quickly enough to have a much bigger impact for 2015? Because as Will said to us at the start, by doing nothing we risk having the media and the senior politicians ‘doing the election to us’. Think of the bland churnalism where a reporter says:

“And the economy is going to be on the agenda in the election campaign today as [insert name of politician] is in [insert name of town] to make a speech on …”

…followed by a Q&A session with some hand-picked ‘ordinary people’. The problem is that most people are not told in advance which politicians will be campaigning when and where. The only times I got to meet Ed Miliband in Cambridge were when people tipped me off on Twitter. It’s the same with the main political parties. There’s no means of publicising when senior politicians will be around for the public to meet. The reason parties give is that they don’t want their senior politicians to be ambushed and outnumbered by opponents. Tactically I can understand it, but it ain’t good for democracy. It means the public who might want to ask something substantive and interesting have to rely on luck rather than being informed about who is coming to town.

Within the room, I got the sense that between us we had enough contacts and connections to bring some of the more well-known campaigning organisations together to co-ordinate actions, provide the necessary core funding for the developers to weave their magic and give some user-friendly digital tools for those less technically proficient to run with them. Helping people find out about the tools created by the likes of My Society & bringing them to wider audiences falls within my remit.

The democracy gap

And there are some big ones – ones that several people came up with. The nature of our system and the existence of ‘safe seats’ means there’s no incentive for incumbents in such seats to do anything that’ll make their life harder. I’ve spoken to enough political activists from all over the place who have said they’d quite like the easy life of a safe seat where you don’t have to do much campaigning vs the intense campaigning in a contested seat. (That said, some of the younger activists with ambitions for elected office have said to me they’d rather fight a contested seat than be ‘handed’ a safe seat). The gaps means that there is no one person or organisation with a responsibility to ensure some democratic basics happen:

  • Who organises hustings?
  • Who organises more formalised online debates (rather than some of the over-personalised abuse that is too often becoming a substitute for substantive discussions on issues, ideas & policies)?
  • Who collates, prints and distributes the election addresses so that people can have them all at once?
  • Who puts up posters in places where people wait lots – public transport hubs, cafes, doctors/dentists etc to inform people when elections are on?
  • Who collates the digital contacts and websites for people standing in their area? I tried it in Cambridge when no one else did – see here. And that wasn’t exactly successful.

The above are all things I’d like to see Cambridge’s civic society groups discussing at some point in the autumn so that between them they can create a programme of events & actions in 2015 for people to get involved and informed in the run up to the general election.



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