Who should build the building???

Ok then – I am going to try and reach past the gadget haze that my new iPhone has left me with in order to try and put some thoughts together. But it is a thing of great beauty which works very nicely indeed – I’m impressed – can’t wait to start really exploring what it can do (I have already learned that it can act as a torch and a mirror – who knows what other secrets may be uncovered when I actually start looking at useful stuff).

I spent a big chunk of this week in Brussels getting various projects reviewed – including the Citizenscape project. We are going to turn the full evaluation into a white paper and I will post it here as there were some interesting learning points – most of which have fed into the Virtual Town Hall work. The commission have asked us to do a toolkit document as well so I will post that too. We also had a review of Europetition and a really interesting meeting about the European Citizen’s Initiative – more on this at a later date.

But just wanted to capture a thought that has come out of a few conversations I have had recently – with Hugh from Networked Neighbourhoods amongst others. I need to think through and explain why all the Virtual Town Hall pilots are lead by Council’s rather than by other potential stakeholders. If this is co-created space then does it make sense that you target a specific stakeholder as the ‘host’?

In terms of the democratic engagement there is absolutely no reason at all -as we are talking about creating some kind of mediation between informal and formal conversations the host of that conversation could come from either end of that spectrum.  In terms of the practicalities of getting something like this in motion there are a few reasons to look to an institutional model:

  • Resources – Local Authorities are not swimming with free time but once they decide to do something they are able to resource an idea both in terms of people and actual cash
  • Responsibilities – it is not clear where the responsibility for local democracy sits – I would argue that the public should take far more responsibility but the fact is that recent legislation and the infrastructure leans towards the idea that Local Authorities are the custodians of local democratic processes. This does not mean that they ‘own’ it but it does mean they have more auditable responsibilities than anyone else which makes them more inclined to do something about it.
  • Knowledge – Local Authorities tend to have institutional knowledge about process and about services which means that they are very well placed to be central to a wide ranging conversations. They are also structured and organised to have these conversations
  • Representative democracy – Local Authorities are the home of the elected representatives and if we are going to join this all up again then this needs to be taken into account.

There is also a personal bias in here – I have worked with Local Government for nearly 10 years and so would hope to understand it better than I would the other alternatives – direct community engagement or working through third sector organisations.

However these are all practical concerns and none of this points really relates to community leadership or who has the best understanding of what the community needs – but these practical concerns give us a starting point for a process.

You do also have to take into account that there are tensions in this approach that need thinking about:

  • One of the reasons that trust in local decision making is difficult to build is because a lot of power is seated with the Local Authority – they currently run the budget, manage the services and co-ordinate the decision making process. This means that as organisations they are managing a lot of tensions and without being very familiar with the people and the processes it is easy for the public to assume that they are balancing this badly.
  • The usual suspects problem – Anyone involved in community engagement knows that there is a risk of ‘institutionalising’ community representatives so that they think too much like the local authority to be considered representative. This problem should also be turned around and applied to Local Authorities as institutionalised thinking can inability creative thinking and innovation.

I think that arguably a community led model could on the other hand provide a far more vibrant local conversation – my question is would it provide local decision making? I would like to test this – but my initial feeling is that it is unrealistic to expect the community to self-organise in this way without a lot of support. I believe this is where the project that Michelle Ide Smith is running in Cambridgeshire is focusing but will need to ask her in more detail.

There is of course the option of a trusted third party model through third party organisations and NGOs. This is along the lines that Stephen Coleman was describing in his writing around ‘a civic commons for cyberspace‘. This may well be the direction of travel with community ‘boards’ being created in order to manage the local civic space and you can see that as LSPs start to develop, as more single tier authorities are created and as initiatives such as Total Place focus in on describable regions it is clearer how this could work. However for the purposes of trialling these ideas there is no-on I can see to interface with – though I would be interested to here if anyone else has thoughts on this.

So – is this a reason or a load of self-justification about the constitution of the pilot programme?  Hopefully neither – I am going to see what I can do to try and get a community based trial running – or look around to see if there is something comparable in existence so that I can compare the approaches. For me, as per the last post, the issue is currently around building a shared civic space that is trusted and can meet the requirements of democratic accountability. Who builds it is perhaps less important.

One comment
  1. Tom Phillips

    February 17, 2010 at 11:13 am

    My own view is that this may end up being a matter of “horses for courses”. I think that anyone who has been involved in community engagement for any length of time will have seen several sides of the same coin. There are good examples of community based groups who have taken on a representative role outside electorally determine processes. Some will have begun as offshoots from those processes, some not, and some of these would be capable of hosting the local digital debate. For all we know, some plan to do so, and haven’t told the rest of us yet.

    LSPs, in my experience, have too many internal organisational tensions, and are still too tagged as “local government” to be the natural “community” host at present. Mind you, their responsibility for determining, delivering and evolving the local sustainable community strategy does present a rather good opportunity to trigger as many debates as you can imagine, in response to broad questions like “How is it for you?”, “How would you like it to be?” and “Who can do something about it?”

    There seem to be a few LSPs dabbling at the fringes of this, and it would be good to know of some concrete examples, or work in progress. One good thing ownership of the space by an LSP could do here is transcend many of the local governmental boundaries (the “Sorry guv, not us, try them.” issues), particularly when it comes to the all important need to respond to local debate and local issues, and take action.

    I live in an un-parished suburban fringe of a medium sized town. The community has several times launched local debate about things that matter to it. It has also come close a few times to being prepared to do something about these things, too. However, the hurdle has usually been the “It’s not up to me” syndrome. Communities are still undoubtedly better at identifying issues than taking action on them. It’s possible that a better class of debate, on-line and dedicated to the issues in a given area, might alter that. Not sure we have a representative body of evidence on this yet. At minimum, the existence of the debate provides an evidence base those who are responsible for specific things ought not ignore.

    Part of the issue is another and different aspect of what Catherine calls “The usual suspects problem”. Whether these people suffer from “institutionalisation”, or not, is a moot point. More of an issue IMO is that because they crop up everywhere, they are just as likely to crop up in the on-line environment. That’s not a cause for pessimism, though. I’d like to believe that in that environment, what they have to say would be better able to be tested and interrogated by the views of others, in ways that simply don’t happen in more traditional methods of engagement. Whether that means the conversation would be more “vibrant”, I don’t know. I do think it could be more challenging and less tolerant of some of the well-travelled views of the “usual suspects”. To that extent, bring it on!


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