Turns out what I am really interested in is civic spaces

I’ve had a really interesting week meeting all kinds of people – and as a result have had to talk a lot about what we are doing with the virtual town hall and the citizenscape product launch (I say had to – its very difficult to get me to stop talking as anyone who has met me will tell you).  Anyway – this has really distilled my description rather and I wanted to capture this – and it’s a nice change of pace from last week’s rather epic post….

My starting point is the huge need that I see to create virtual civic spaces that will outlast the next online fad.  We see all kinds of spaces being built online and we see great government services (at times) but we don’t see any civic space – somewhere that will support Habermas’ public sphere of debate.  Space matters – in the real world the nature of the public realm effects behavior and expectations and it is the same online – if we are talking the social web seriously then we need to think about what a civic web space will look like.  If we don’t then we are relying on the hope that the teenagers bedroom or coffee shop of Facebook and the like will turn into some kind of Agora.  I am not filled with hope of this.

The next thought is the one big difference between the social web and democratic decision making – identity.  Online identity is fluid and transitory – which is one of the reasons that people go there.  People want to explore other aspects of themselves or to be freed from the preconceptions that people have about them.  They may want to talk to complete strangers or perhaps not really think about it at all.  However accountability is at the heart of democracy – it really is the act of standing up and being counted – and we will have to find an acceptable and practical way of bringing this accountability into social web conversations – or find some other more statistical way of providing a decision making mandate.

And the final point that this all distills down is the need to create a practical space that actually delivers some efficiencies.  The promise of the social web will not be realized is this economic climate if we cannot link it to a conversation about how we deliver public services more efficiently.  This is not just a question of making tools efficient and cost effective so that we can deliver more and better engagement for a reducing budget but is part of the bigger question of how we renegotiate the relationship between citizen and government so that we ultimately make better decisions that we can afford to implement.

So – it turns out that my real interest is in trying to build these civic spaces and explore what a social web space built on democratic requirements might look like – who knew??

  1. Dave Briggs

    February 7, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    I think you’re right, but another way of looking at it is that you’re interested in behaviour and activities. In other words, we want openness and accountability from politicians and organisations, and participation and generosity from citizens. What tools they use to do so will always change and develop over time and to try and future proof any one solution will probably always fail.

    Instead, promote the activities, the behaviour and, yes, the culture and let people use whatever tools happen to be lying around at the time.

    • curiouscatherine

      February 9, 2010 at 6:38 am

      Hi Dave – I agree – I am increasingly trying to separate the idea of the space from the idea of the technology supporting the space because its really about creating the right behaviours.
      So the future proofing is really trying to design into the space (not the technology) a responsivness to new tools and technologies. On the Citizenscape platform we have done this to some extent by separating the container from the widgets within it – so that a new tool can be added into the same architecture – but at some point the container will need renewing as well. However – if you have got a destination with behaviours established – the civic space – then a change of technology shouldn’t change that.
      As you say – the real question is about how you bring about the behaviour – I guess why I talk about space is that its intriguing to think about the extent to which design assumptions of spaces can influence this.
      Does that make sense?

  2. Tom Phillips

    February 8, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Agree that one of the jobs must be to try to link all this to “how we deliver public services more efficiently”, but if we are determined that local government won’t own the space, is it not hard to guarantee we can do that? It would be very difficult to bring every discussion back to that focus.

    There will also be great scope for debate about what “efficiently” means. Looking at some of the animated debates recently about snow clearance, as an example, there’s any number of views about what is “efficient”. My local paper seems to think the local authorities were to blame for it snowing in the first place!

    We need to be wary. Local authority input when responding to debate that concentrates principally on “efficient delivery” is often going to have a few very predictable tunes (eg “life’s not like that any more”, “OK you can have that, but what are you prepared to go without?” or “Sorry, that’s not down to us any more”). Many of the responses probably fit into a few broad categories too (“you would say that, wouldn’t you?”, “yes, but it never used to be like that” etc).

    Some of these debates are worth having, of course, even if they are broadly predictable. Some might even generate light rather than heat. Might also be nice to take some of that debate away from the manipulation of local Press letters pages.

    However, the tie in with “efficiency” in some of the things people will legitimately want to raise may be tenuous. The big and largely ill-informed debate down here at present is about golden handshakes to retiring officers. Legitimate area of discussion, possibly. Feelings will run high, and facts are needed. Both could do with a fairly unregulated outlet, but the subject matter isn’t really efficient service delivery. I accept, though, that it could always be manipulated round to that.

    That crucial relationship with the citizen is always going to be based on more factors than how efficiently “we” spend “their” money. However, even as I typed that, a thought ran through my mind that said “No, hang on, maybe that realy is the bottom line these days.”

  3. curiouscatherine

    February 9, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Its a huge conundrum isn’t – and also frustrating the way that a conversation about value has to become one of cost and efficiency. I link this back to Dave’s point about behaviours – we have to change the nature of the relationship – but I frame it in the language of efficiency right now as given the current climate all debates have to be framed this way.

  4. Peter Cruickshank

    February 13, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Hmmm. There seem to be obvious parallels with the e-petitioning process, where it’s turning out that the council officers are important to making sure a petition will work (by ensuring correct wording etc). I also totally agree with your them moving away from looking at the “e-” to looking for the debate, wherever it is.

    One thing that crossed my mind though when reading this is: if the discussion space is a local government function – what happens when the discussion turns to what central government does (or should be doing) – or a neighbouring council? Would the council moderator have to close the debate down as being out of the councils remit? (In the same way that a petition’s wording has to be carefully crafted to match what a council can actually do). Should there be a way of linking, federating or clustering debates?

    • curiouscatherine

      February 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm

      Absolutely – and I think more effective citizens will demand a more sensible interface with decisions – not through the arcane routes of different decisoin making bodies. I think this relates to the following post – if these spaces were to be citizen led then they would undoubtably be more extensively geographically rather than institutionally organised

      • Peter Cruickshank

        February 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm

        Yeah, after I posted my comment, I wondered if it should have been on your next post…

        Back to the point: I guess then it leaves you with the challenge of creating a space that is not institutionally boxed in – eg allowing a switch to control out of the civic community rather than council if circumstances allow. And I’m sure that’s what you’d say CitizenConnect does!

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