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Codesign and democratic accountability – some questions


Codesign democracy

This post is by way of a warm up for LocalGovCamp – its to help me shape what I want to pitch. There is no guarantee I’ll actually pitch it of course but best to be prepared! Localgovcamp is, for me, a chance to work on ideas which are personal projects so this post is also me working through what I want to work on.

My brain is pretty full at the moment as I am working on a number of really interesting things as well as being wildly over stimulated by learning about my new home at Capita – its fascinating. I’m not feeling ready to blog about that yet (still processing!) but the different strands of things are:

  • Digital and social innovation
  • System change and its link to innovation
  • Engagement in its widest sense

There is clearly a lot of overlap here and my framing is always the fact that we are working against a background of social change in world which is best explained as a socio-technical system. Once you start to see things in terms of a connected system some of the breaks and disconnects in that system start to become more apparent. Generally I want to focus on these “between” spaces.

Throughout my doctoral work I was drawn to the gap I perceive between the arenas of communications/engagement and democratic participation and my proposals around digital civic space are intended to address that. However this gap is deep and wide and requires more than a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.

The democracy stack is a model I am developing of a connected democracy system which bridges the gap between representative and participatory approaches at the same time as ‘wiring in’ a deliberative layer as part of the system rather than leaving it as an optional consultation tool. It is intended to build in agency for individuals and emphasise participatory approaches at the same time as acknowledging that complex and wicked issues are best addressed via some kind of delegated authority.

This is a complicated thing and I am reading and writing about it in parts. I thought that for Localgovcamp I would see if people are up for exploring the relationship between codesign and democratic decision making. I’m basically after a discussion as to whether or not this is a real problem for people who work with politicians or a theoretical one which is causing angst in my theoretical model.

Other forms of participatory processes, for example participatory budgeting, have a difficult relationship with the political process. Much of the community development and engagement effort is spent in growing the agency and efficacy of people within the community – or in many cases creating a space where people can do this for themselves. When they then encounter the democratic decision making process – often in the form of politicians in committee for example – they feel let down and disempowered. Sometimes this is necessary as a participatory group is not always representative and can step outside of their own legitimacy – but it can be and can certainly feel like a lack of respect and reduces rather than increases participation in the future. Sometimes people just get on with stuff without political intervention – crowdfunding and co-producing solutions – and while that’s brilliant in so many ways it is at odds with the current democratic process of place.

As we redesign public services for the 21st century how do we ensure that democratic participation and decision making is redesigned at the same time?

I see new tensions between participation and our current representative system with the widening adoption of participatory design methods. As a technologist I am all for it – but what happens when the users you are working with are not reflective of the voting population? At what point does user centred design start to build services which don’t reflect the democratic mandate of a place? And how do you ensure governance and accountability is assured for co-designed services?

The work being done on open policy making starts to address this gap but its being carried out without a parallel discussion about what democratic reform might be needed and it is not being discussed actively enough by local government which delivers so many public services. The role of the elected politician is crucial here – and until that is changed and updates then we need to rely on the behaviours and actions of those politicians who appreciate these tensions.

So – the questions which I want to pose at localgovcamp are:

  1. Has anyone tried to involve politicians in a participatory design process?
  2. How do we think it should work?
  3. How might we ensure governance and accountability for participatory design processes?

And of course – the main unconference question – does anyone want to spend an hour trying to figure it out?

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