People, place and networks – story #1

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. (Winston Churchill)

I have been exploring finding the narrative in my research to try and make my thesis a less painful document to read… is the first attempt.

There is a problem that needs thinking about

If my decision to do a PHD was motivated by anything it was motivated by a belief that most consultation processes are an exercise in controlling the message rather than actually finding out what people want and that government is a combination of mad and endangered if it doesn’t start listening to what people were saying outside of the consultation process. Consultation, engagement and communication are distinct and different things – but we have got into the habit of treating them the same and falling into a broadcast mode of delivery.

Clearly this is a generalisation and not all consultations are pointless – well formed surveys and consultations have a place in the policy process – but I believe that all too often they are used as a way for officers to control members (often with good reason!) or by members to push through policies rather than as an objective measure of what people think. They are also tend to be deeply unsatisfactory for the public as a democratic experience – they make you feel less rather than more involved in the final decision as they push you away from the deliberation process into being a passive part of the data.

Because the world is changing

I need to establish my arguments for the existence of social change and the potential epochal shift to a network society. The social web means that the public no longer need to wait to be asked and they expect to be listened to. How can we make sure that they are?

People matter

I need to explore the tension between the push from people who are active and the pull from the inactive majority who need to be taken into consideration even while their passivity frustrates. I also need to explore the tension between representation defined at the ballot box with the representativeness of someone who creates the digital narrative of a place and community. This means understanding the nature of identity online in both a personal and political sense.

Place matters

In exploring identity I need to discuss what it means when you step out of your social group and start acting in a civic context – what gives a sense of community online and what does this look like when you introduce the idea that people and place are inextricably linked when you are talking about democratic decision making – place matters.

Networks matter

With the social web we see people, place and networks are coming together to discuss what they want for their local area – the question in my mind is how, or indeed if, government will be part of this discussion. My ambition with my thesis is to explore and articulate the relevance of online activity and participation in the social web for Local Government and demonstrate the pressure this puts to bear on our current democratic decision making processes. To do this I need to explain what I mean by the social web and explore the concepts and thinking of the network society.

I believe there is a need for change

I need to articulate this pressure that the social web puts upon our process of governance and decision making – we have been used to liner, waterfall decision making and we are being asked to parallel process. Within my journey metaphor – we now get pictures from the routes that we are not taking and that alters our experience of the path being taken.

Government needs to be relevant – and if people have digital lives then government needs to respond to this.

And I have a strong opinion about what that change should be

I am a democrat even as I admit that democracy is probably no more than the least worst method for making decisions and though I believe in co-production and a more central and direct role for citizen participation in the process of government I also believe that the civic creators that I define and find are unlikely to be truly representative of their communities. In discussing this I will be examining how we define community and place as well as how we currently make decisions and satisfy ourselves that our decisions are representative.

What I want to see is the public involved in shaping the agenda more actively before you start to use the tools of consultation – I want to get to a position where the public recognise the options that are being in consulted on because they have been more actively involved in defining them.

And there is a process here

While exploring these issues I believe that I have learned some things that need testing and defining with respect to the social web:

  • There is a distinction between the informal and social content that forms the majority social web and the informal civic content that has the potential to contribute to local decision making
  • Its not enough to talk about content you need to find the content creators
  • You need a process for including as well as excluding people and content – and this needs to be transparent and repeatable
  • Community voices are not representative – we need to balance this if we are going to engage in decision making. This is something we are used to doing offline and need to learn how to do it with digital voices
  • Space matters and you need to look at the way in which you combine content and content creators to build a civic space online

Building the narrative

I think my narrative may be simple. People define places and form networks within those places and these three elements create a public sphere which can, in the right environment support democratic decision making far more effectively than the linear tools of an industrial society. The urgency and pull of the story is the fact that I believe that effective decision making is important – and that if we don’t change the way we do it then we will have to live with a damaging distance between citizens and state.

Am off to think about this more, hide from any consultation people I have offended and walk the dog….

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