Digital democracy – beyond the ballot box
Summary 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 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
- Facebook – They are on it, but as a ‘friend’ account rather than a fan page.
- Twitter – @CambridgeTories – broadcast-style tweets, but not regularly. Three or four activists are regular Twitter users, including @Radegund, @Andybower and@Moufflon.
- Website/blog – they are here.
Cambridge Green Party
- Facebook – They are here as a fan page, which at the time of blogging is standard. They also have a Cambridge Young Greens fan page too. While anyone can post content, conversations are limited.
- Twitter – @CambridgeGreens, though as with the Conservatives, a few broadcast-style tweets. No local regular Twitter activists sparring at a Cambridge City Council level, though @FionaRadic covers at a county level, and @GreenRupertRead at a regional level.
- Website/blog – they are here.
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
- Facebook – They have a fan page here. Not posted anything since January 2013, though anyone can post content and comments. Cambridge Student Lib Dems have a fan page here, which is just as open, with more content, events and comments – similar to their Labour student counterparts.
- Twitter – @CambridgeLDs – very few broadcast style tweets, in stark contrast to local MP Julian Huppert, and councillor @Librallady.
- Website/blog – They are here.
- 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? Courtesy of Puffles at A dragon’s best friend