Thinking about using the social web to do democratic things…..

Democracy is what you make of it – Elected Police and Crime Commissioners

I have been dithering about this post and this issue for a while now but thanks to a brilliantly interesting meeting with the team at the South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat (thank you folks) and also a couple of conversations with other Police Authority clients its time to get something out in the world I think.

In November 2012 we will be electing 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who will be the custodian of strategic direction and scrutiny for our Police Forces. These individuals will, with a reasonable voter turnout, have a larger direct mandate than any other elected individual in the UK with the exception of the Mayor of London. This is an incredible democratic opportunity and I think we need to consider what kind of democratic process we want in place to support them.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Elected PCCs but I think at this point we need to look at the possibilities that this opportunity offers to shape the kind of democratic relationship that will work in the 21st Century in a networked society. It’s a chance to design something new which is not shaped by the 19th Century infrastructure which holds back other parts of government.

A new democratic relationship?

Before we describe what it could be a good starting point would be to examine what it shouldn’t be. What stops people participating in democracy at the moment? The evidence suggests 3 things:

  • Time / Convenience / laziness (depending on your point of view)

The process of participation does not fit easily into most of our lives. 14% of us (at best) for example are willing localists who would participate if we had the opportunity (Hansard) and this means designing processes that fit in with contemporary lifestyles if we want to increase participation. These are practical not philosophical issues and can be addressed with better use of technology to make remote participation easy, more agile agenda setting so that you meet to discuss items that genuinely need debate and better facilitation.

  • Lack of interest or even dislike of politics.

The public don’t like politicians and they don’t like politics. They are interested in their local community but as soon as the think the conversation has become political they are turned off. The evidence on this point has been growing and hopefully the Political Parties are ready to listen. It we want elected PCCs to work as part of local politics then they may need to distance themselves from party politics. This means we cannot see these posts as a training ground for future prime ministers and party leaders – we need people who are committed to the local area and want to serve. This is going to be difficult – the party political system is deeply embedded in the way in which we do politics despite the fact that the public and increasingly unlikely to participate.

  • Lack of Self-Efficacy

Many people have little confidence in the system and a lack of belief in their ability to change it. Lack of participation can just mean that you are very happy with the status quo – or it might mean that you are unconvinced you could have an effect. Either way we need to help people understand the purpose and effect of their participation. We know the things that make a difference – transparency, openness and accountability – we have to make sure that they are systematically embedded in this new system which should be open by default and be design.

Taking this into account what would a fit for purpose democratic office look like today?

We know that the public will lose interest as soon as they feel that the posts are being wrestled out between the Political Parties – the public don’t want to be involved in the kind of politics that they associate with Westminster and to a lesser extent Local Government. Let’s not take the problems we have with the current democratic institutions forward to this new office. There is not a lot we can do about this at this point – campaign funding being what it is we are likely to get either party candidates or rich independents – but we can and should be making sure that the public are aware of the opportunity that this new election brings to create a different kind of democratic institution.

Of course we can also take a more positive view and look at what people do like – openness, transparency and a sense of connection with the person who is representing them. There is no evidence that people want direct democracy – there is evidence that they want more direct representation. Stephen Coleman suggests that direct representation would assume a constant dialogue between the public and their representative – not just the binary voting opportunity of the full term election.

So – whats the proposal here?

I have 4 broad principles that I suggest need to be considered here:

  1. The Office of the PCC needs to ‘own’ the democratic process
  2. The PCC should be “open by default and by design”
  3. We should create effective places to curate and listen to the debate
  4. We should ensure access to fast but robust opinion sampling tools which support decisions being information based
More explanation on this below:

The office owns the democracy

At present the nature of the Office supporting the PCC is not clear – different models seem to be emerging in different areas. I would like to suggest one principal for this and that is that the office owns the democracy – not the politician. We want to ensure that the Office of the PCC has a clear and non-political responsibility to ensuring that the Public have the best democratic experience possible when dealing with the PCC. We want to make sure that this new form of democracy is strongly managed and scrutinised. This means the Office needs to have independence in this matter from the Commissioner and have a clear mandate to run the decision-making process.

Be open by default

We want our politicians to be open and transparent – what does this mean practically? Firstly we need to know what they do and who they see, we want to know what they are working on and we want to see the discussions they are having to as great an extent that is possible. We want to be able to connect promises to actions and we want to be able to see the effect that they have. This means that we need to assume that meetings are public meetings unless there is an explicit reason why not. This kind of openness is relatively simple online and there us no reason why it can’t be delivered as part of this role.

Collect the conversation and visibly listen
Effective democracies are supported by active public debate. politicians need to be able to sample and connect to public opinion in order to understand how the public feel about issues. We cannot rely on old media – newspapers – to do this as they are severely depleted at the local level and as know that regional TV coverage is patchy at best. New media can help however – we know that the public are active online and that they are talking about local issues via social media or hyperlocal websites. I am suggesting we need to support the PCC by providing access to this public conversation in a civic space which is both open and transparent in terms of what is being said.

This civic space would enable the representative to listening to priorities and concerns from the public and where necessary ask questions and gain clarification. The public would know where the conversation was happening and would be confident that views aired there would be noted.

The civic space also gives the opportunity for the PCC to interact directly with the public in a coherent way which also doesn’t mean that they need to leave the places they are already using – this is a ‘network of networks’ that connects the relevant sites and content together without having to force people to participate in places they are not using anyway.

Sample opinion quickly and accurately
You can’t make decisions based on this kind of conversational space especially since we can be certain that at least in the short term the participants won’t be representative of whole electorate. Consultation tools can be used to get a representative sample of the views of the public using online and offline methods. This needs to not be cumbersome – this is more like the sampling methods of YouGov and Ipsos Mori than the full blown Place Survey with associated wrangling about questions.

Wrapping up

One of the things that shows the divergence between democratic practice and the network society is the way in which the public react to issues that reach a flashpoint of concern. Any new democratic system needs to be ready for the wildfire effect of online campaigning and be ready to respond swiftly and meaningfully to public concerns. These should surface within the civic space described above but should have an active and positive response from the office of the PCC.

I feel very uneasy with the idea of policing being controlled by a political process. I think an independent police force and judiciary are key elements of a liberal democracy. However, we are where we are as they say and that means that on 15th November 2012 we will be going to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners and on 16th November 2012 they will have control of the strategic direction of 41 Police Forces.

I imagine that in practical terms it will take a little bit longer than that to sort out.

We know how the public behave when they are concerned about something. We know how people campaign today and it is not with leaflets and posters. There is no excuse for creating an Office of the PCC which doesn’t meet the needs of contemporary society and which shapes a new form of democratic relationship.

What this relationship might be is still very open to debate. I have made some suggestions here but as no plan survives contact with the enemy there is a lot of practical thinking and exploration needed to refine how this will work.

We have had some initial conversations with Police Authorities and where some are thinking about this with excitement others are still too immersed in the details of asset transfers and staff structures to consider the democratic implications about this change. We will be spending the new few months trying to encourage Police Authorities to start to consider what kind of relationship and infrastructure will be in place on November 16th 2012. If you want to be involved in this conversation then let me know.

5 Responses to “Democracy is what you make of it – Elected Police and Crime Commissioners”

  1. I am pleased to see that the Lib Dems are strongly urging [the Federal Party cannot dictate to Local Parties] that theri should not be party candidates. I support that in Nottinghamshire – but I do hope that there will be some sensible non party candidates [Not Socialist /Tory] that will stand on the sort of platform that you advocate. Party politics in the PCC electionbs will be a disaster [and this seems to be supported by a significant number of Conservative activists locally and quite a surprising number of Labour activists too.]

  2. Andy says:

    Re the above from @SouthwellFocus I am not sure why there is any surprise by “the numbers of Labour activists” who share the view or even the need for the point to be made, unless the politics game you allegedly don’t want to see is being played.

    Most, in my opinion know that the involvement of party politics will be a disaster in the same way the changes just for the sake of it on things like the scrapping of ASBO’s to do some political point scoring is.

    My worry is that for PCC’s to have the success that is needed they will need powers to deal with failing councils, who aren’t using the powers they have, in full, to deal with all matters related to broken window syndrome etc. as much as ‘failing Chief Constables’

    Knowing politics there will probably be a lot of difficulties for a Labour PCC in a Tory constituency and it will be the same for a Tory PCC in a Labour area (with the aim to make their opposition look bad) , so without the tools to say I need this done and the ability (tools to enforce if necessary) to get it done the roles will be pointless

  3. Intrigued – and slightly anxious – by your principle that the ‘office owns the democracy’, and that PCC democratic accountability should be “strongly managed”. If your argument is (as I suspect) that there needs to be a hard-wired, institutional commitment to proper public accountability and scrutiny, then I think that would be a good thing. The challenge will be how to achieve that, because bureaucracies don’t have a natural tendency to operate in that way.

    But what of the Commissioner’s role? She or He is the person who will carry the (electoral) can, and is directly answerable to the public. What tendency are you seeking to balance here, with a prescription that the office should be the true home of this accountability?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Its a really good point – I think my underlying assumption is that while politicians will want to give the public the experience most likely to get them re-elected we actually need the office to focus on making sure people have a good democratic experience. I think if I tease it out I am not sure the two are the same thing.

      Does that make sense?

      • Yes, it absolutely does. A politician’s focus (dare I say it) is going to be on issues of power, influence, and how things play out in the ‘court of public opinion’. But I think it will also be a challenge getting the Office to genuinely share power and accountability; it would need to be something that is embedded both in the processes and in the culture. And you could foresee some real tensions with the PCC over contentious issues – and there will be plenty of those!

        Your argument also raises a broader thought for me: which is that openness, accountability and engagement is not just for the politicians but also for the officer corps, and that this in turn somewhat blurs the line between those we elect and those who beaver away in ‘the background’.

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