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

Surveillance or Participation?

This is going to be one of those annoying posts which strays between research stuff and more practical things. I’m writing it to tease out an inconsistency in my thinking around both the thesis and also our design work for Citizenscape. It really is thinking in public so please feel free to look away and leave me quietly muttering to myself……

I am just neurotically tweaking (with heroic help from the amazing @GeorgeJulian and others) my thesis which does two main things:

  • Describes and describes a method for reliably finding informal civic activity online
  • Suggests some design criteria for creating Digital Civic Spaces which would enable this participation

I hasten to add that at 90000 words I sincerely hope it does a few other things as well but we shall see…anyway

I define informal civic activity online as being content which is created with an intended primary audience of the wider community as opposed to informal social activity which has an intended primary audience of friends and/or family. I use the term ‘primary audience’ as the publicness of the online world means that this content will also have unintended secondary or further audiences as well. Community might refer to community of place or of interest but my work focuses on community of place. In more practical terms I am talking about community websites, hyperlocal sites, Facebook groups or active individuals who are using the Internet either to talk about or organise in their local area. One of the points I make is that we can’t just frame this content as being citizen journalism – while some content creators fit this description there are more who are using these tools without any intent that they are creating an authoritative record or commentary on events and are better described simply as community activists or active citizens.

This ambiguity about audience for informal civic activity creates a dilemma for policy makers and politicians. While this content is in the public domain it is not necessarily intended as part of any political or democratic process. We can argue that because we should all be aware of the publicness of the social and the possible existence of secondary audiences that this information is in the public domain but without the active intent to participate its role in public debate is – well – debatable.  This debate is around the nature of Social Media with respect to the concept of the public sphere and its role in political communication – will pick this up separately.

Its fairly standard practice for communications teams to monitor sentiment and significant influencers online and this is part of the advertising tax we all pay in different ways to keep social media free in the main part. I am amazed that more politicians don’t do the same thing. However this kind of monitoring, while useful, does not seem to me to be a solid foundation for a different and more co-productive relationship with the Public – something I would argue strongly that we need. (There are some interesting parallels with academic research ethics around social media here which I might pick up at a later date).
The existence of informal civic activity online speaks of the potential for a more meaningful role for this in the democratic process as it opens up a connection to community groups and networks which are often outside of the ‘usual suspects’ of community engagement and political campaigning. However on the other end of things we don’t as yet include social media content which has not been created in response to a specific question in consolation or engagement processes and this means we are closing down the potential for agenda setting and proactive engagement in the policy making process other than by traditional routes.

So, we have meaningful activity online and no clear route for how we actively rather than passively include it in the democratic process.

This is where the design criteria for digital civic space come in (sorry folks – this is repeat from other postings):

  • Design Criteria 1: The purpose of a digital civic space to is to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making – it is a Public and open space that is available to any interested Citizen.
  • Design Criteria 2: The space should facilitate a co-productive relationship between Citizen and Government. This should extend to the content curation and management of the space
  • Design Criteria 3: The geographical reach of the space should be self-defined by users with administrative boundaries being subordinate to ‘natural place’ described by the Civic Creators.
  • Design Criteria 4: The space should support the principles of open government with respect to data, process and transparency
  • Design Criteria 5: The space should be able to authenticate the identity of participants to a standard which makes their contribution available to consultation and policy making processes.

The thesis will (I hope!) tell the story of where these all came from but we (at Public-i) have been working on creating Citizenscape on this basis (this is where the action comes into the action research!!). We are about to be ready to beta the next version of the platform and this post was triggered by a need to really think about the point of connection between the informal civic spaces created by citizens (as described above) and the more formal but still open space which is described by the criteria above. We will be testing this thinking as well as the UX in the beta tests so I will report back at some point.

We can (and do with Citizenscape) take a step forward from the surveillance scenario described above by making sure that anyone whose content is being used is informed and by ensuring that the platform ensures that platform shares the same metrics and measurement with both the audience and the administrators. However in terms of creating a democratic space the key is I think in active participation – which is linked to criteria 5 – identity. While a Digital Civic Space might draw on ambient or passive activity which has the wider world as a secondary audience some act of active participation is needed in order for this to be included in democratic debate. This might be a response to a specific questions (as is the case with online consultation) or it could be the sharing of identity with the Space in recognition that you want your content to be ‘counted’. I don’t see any issue at all with making it clear that democratic debate needs to understand how representative the participants are and also have a degree of accountability which is not possible without a sense of who is participating (note: this doesn’t mean your identity needs to be public – it just needs to be known).

So – I am proposing that the that missing connection between informal and formal digital civic activity must be a conscious act of participation. We cannot consider media monitoring to be a substitute for democratic participation – even though that is the more straightforward approach. In practical terms this means inviting people before including their content and being completely transparent about how its being used – I don’t think either of these points are either difficult or unreasonable.

Government can learn a lot from monitoring activity online – but it can gain a lot more by collaborating with the content creators.

One other thought – if therefore we are going to ask people to identify themselves to the Digital Civic Space in order to participate in the democratic process then we are going to have to ensure that there is some kind of democratic promise in place. If we want people to be actively participating then we need to be actively listening. The nature of that listening is another post – perhaps a discussion about Networked Councillors as well as a discussion about new forms of Policy Making.

5 Responses to “Surveillance or Participation?”

  1. Hi Catherine,

    Some very interesting ideas and views in here.

    Firstly as I’m not sure I commented on your design criteria but I really love these as they clearly make you think about the key behaviours that need to exist in order for what is created to be successful and meaningful to all stakeholders.

    I have a few questions now but need to reflect more on the post in order to unpick some of the things in my head.

    So in this model/framework how will or how does the online and offline environments come together to really inform local decisions?

    The data infrastructure that you mention, how will people interact and interrogate data to enable them to ask better questions of those currently making decisions and how will that be audited or measured in terms of impact?

    What culture change within current democratic organisations is required to really shift toward a new model of operating which delivers benefits and increases accountability and transparency?

    What in your experience is the response from people who are identified as having something to contribute to the democratic debate, but perhaps feels they don’t want to be involved or have their views shared more widely?

    On a really practical level, what would you consider to be the first steps for a council/organisation who wishes to move in this direction but are unclear as to how to progress?

    Sorry for all the questions…I love your posts but they always challenge my thinking and always leave me asking more questions of myself so I thought I would share them with you.

    Carl

    PS: I look forward to seeing the beta of citizenscape :)

  2. Thank you Carl! Really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Am also really glad you like the design critieria – need a little more tweaking but nearly there I think and as I say they have 90000 words behind them! Answers to your questions below – but if you are at UKGC13 would love to pick this up in a session

    Q. So in this model/framework how will or how does the online and offline environments come together to really inform local decisions?

    – my intent with this is that we find the points of connection between online and offline activities and maximise/amplify these through social reporting and good use of things like streaming in order to ensure that the information rich online space is representative of the combined online/offline space that makes up a place – does that make sense?

    Q. The data infrastructure that you mention, how will people interact and interrogate data to enable them to ask better questions of those currently making decisions and how will that be audited or measured in terms of impact?

    – part of this answer (technically) is in the open data widget project we are working on with a few others (funded by TSB) – need to get a post up about that as its interesting. basic idea is that we contextulise data to sites based on topic and geography and then we are planning on providing access to data experts via the same channel. We have to accept I think that data is complex – we can present only so much to the standard user and they need to either learn or ask

    Q. What culture change within current democratic organisations is required to really shift toward a new model of operating which delivers benefits and increases accountability and transparency?

    – huge – we need to embed transparency in the culture, create more networked organisations and also start to have a single coherent relationship with the citizen which connects officers and members rather than scattering it around the organisation. But these are all the kinds of changes that forward thinking organisations are considering anyway…..

    Q. What in your experience is the response from people who are identified as having something to contribute to the democratic debate, but perhaps feels they don’t want to be involved or have their views shared more widely?

    – generally positive from the formative research we’ve done but this is one of the things that we want to look at in the beta testing – how do citizens feel about being involved/connected in these ways. 9/10 people I have spoken to are very happy with the approach but we need to talk to more people!

    Q. On a really practical level, what would you consider to be the first steps for a council/organisation who wishes to move in this direction but are unclear as to how to progress?

    – mmmm…..social media audit always – no point in getting into this if there isn’t activity in your area. That being said we have never done one and NOT found a viable audience for this kind of thing. Political as well as officer support – you need a team who is ready push social media beyond communication in collaboration or even co-production. This means you need to be serious about empowering the citizen. In designing pilots the steps are going to be:

    1) check there is an audience
    2) create an internal multi-discipline team with direct access to decision makers and some confidence that a problem is not the end of the world
    3) open spaces meeting with all participants – citizens + state
    4) discussion about what you want to use the space for while piloting the approach – making sure this is time bounded so it doesn’t just hang there
    5) lots of action research reflection and data gathering – 360 evaluation with citizens

    Where we are have started work in this way there are lots of upstream process re-engineering issues which arise – to be the important thing is that the instigation is in and of itself co-productive – open agenda setting – which I think is inherently more powerful even that a co-design approach if we want to get communities more involved

    As I said in the initial post – all volunteers gratefully received!!!

  3. I like this. I’m starting to get excited about it, and I hardly ever get excited about things. The web creates tons of durable evidence about what other people think and feel, which we never had access to before. It’s already changing the nature of sociology – http://soc.sagepub.com/content/41/5/885.short

    I think the stuff you call “informal” is massively important, because it’s the opposite of lobbying. It’s people working out what they care about, and it has authentic, messy humanity that we don’t find in petitions or lobbying or campaigns, which are rhetorical practices based around trying to persuade the government to do a specific thing. It has an ‘Us and Us’ quality, rather than ‘Us and Them’.

  4. Jonathan Flowers says:

    Ok, well, obviously my head now hurts. I too would like to see Citizenscape.

    I wonder whether it would be applicable to other processes/places that we don’t think of as “democratic” but which are about consensus building.

    In a very narrow context the design criteria listed seem to be good criteria for a space in which me and my fellow citylit governors could talk amongst ourselves, and some of the “curation” thinking might help lift this beyond a simple closed forum .

    Broadening the context a bit it sounds like a good space in which a bid team could exchange ideas (for that is not a hierarchical environment), or indeed a sapce in whcih those in my company who enagge with a particular sector could exchange opinion as well as facts.

    Lastly, it would be an interesting space for CityLit governors to engage publicly with our student constituencies. Or am I missing the point ?

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