Saturday, 11 October 2014

73. The Double Doughnut of Democracy

The double doughnut of democracy is the idea that government should not engage directly with the public.  Instead public engagement happens through a ring of sharers such as councillors, community groups or the media.  While potentially more effective, this approach implies that government has to work in a different way. 
mmmmm doughnuts
This idea draws on three sources.

The first is a conversation we had about online democracy at govcampcymru. 

The second is a set of ideas developed by Catherine Howe that I heard about first at localgovcamp.  While Catherine is more interested in a citizen perspective here the implications for government are centre stage.

The third source is some conclusions form the academic literature.  Lawrence Pratchett in a paper for Parliamentary Affairs suggested that intermediate bodies such as the media and community groups might be the best route for public participation as local government is essentially a representative rather than participative institution.  Similarly, Marion Barnes, Janet Newman and Helen Sullivan in their research into public participation, suggested that participation initiatives might be more successful when semi autonomous from government and run by voluntary groups. 

The double doughnut of democracy is essentially a public engagement strategy for local government (or any government for that matter).

It is underpinned by the assumption that local government has neither the capacity or the capability to involve the public in the democratic process; it's just not very good at this kind of thing. Explaining why public participation is such a big challenge for local government is a big topic  - more here if you are interested.

Instead local government should work with the sharers - the people who can take the stuff of democracy, engage with the public and report it back into the process. 

The sharers (Catherine Howe calls them the civic creators), who are the middle ring of the double doughnut, include:
  • Councillors
  • Council officers
  • Partner agencies
  • Voluntary and community groups
  • Citizen bloggers
  • Journalists

Adopting the double doughnut means a number of things:

  • Talking to the sharers about their needs and how you can meet them - they are the 'service users' for online democracy
  • Publishing the stuff of democracy in a form that can be easily shared, online and off
  • Taking steps to build the 'democracy community' - recognising and supporting the sharers
  • Responding to the feedback 

This last point is of course a massive practical and cultural challenge - recognising that it needs to happen would be a good start.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

72. Online democracy: Seven questions for government

An unconversation at GovCampCymru

This is my write up of the online democracy session at GovCampCymru (and some other linked conversations).  GovCampCymru was in fact a thoroughly excellent day organised by Satori Lab and friends.  What? You couldn’t make it?  Then come to the next one.

This particular session was about online democracy, in other words the minutes, agendas, reports etc etc that local, devolved and national government make available through their websites.  The idea was simply to start a conversation about how this stuff could be improved, who uses it, what they want and so on.  What I really liked was the opportunity to bring a mix of voices to the discussion; policy types, democracy types, technical types, community types etc.  Thank you so much for all the contributions on the day or otherwise. This is very much my take so please, if  I've got it wrong or missed anything - just add a comment.  Also – sorry if this a bit long.  I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

At the heart of our discussion were the following seven questions for government about their online democracy:

1. Is it readable?

Seems pretty basic but actually this stuff is hard.  The language of decision making is not the language that people use in the pub. Perhaps the process itself needs a more technical language but, when governments share, they need to make sure people know what they are saying.  We talked about the way that the Government Digital Service approach language and thought this was worth using.

2. Are you clear about the purpose? 

Have you thought about why you publish this stuff online?  For information? To ask for people’s views?  To ensure politicians are held to account?  Just because you have to?  Once this is clear you can design what you provide.  You can also tell people why you are providing it so they know what to expect.

3. Do you know what the users want?

‘Users’ here means the people who actually look at all of those online minutes, agendas and reports.  Do you know who they are and what their needs are?  Do you know how they come to your websites and what happens when they do?  In service design this is sometimes called mapping user journeys – putting the citizen at the centre of what you provide. As someone in the group put it: 'If we want people to get involved, we need to open up and work from bottom up. Need to ask people'

I did some initial twitter ‘research’ on who uses this stuff at local government level and why.  Here are a few of the suggestions:

  • Councillors to support their role and find out what is happening in their community
  • Council officers to help them do their jobs and to know what decisions have been made
  • Active Citizens / Citizen bloggers to hold politicians to account and to make sure people know how the democratic process is affecting their area
  • Charities and communities groups looking for anything that affects the people they work with and to support ‘lobbying’ of councillors if they need to
  • Journalists to find information about planning applications but also any policy related news stories
  • Local campaigners who want to know what is happening about their issue
  • People who just want to find out what is happening in their area
  • Students because they have to for their assignments
  • Auditors so they can check if the council is being run properly

It was great to hear that the Welsh Assembly have been talking to citizen bloggers about their needs – I’d love to learn more.

4. How will your content get to the non users?

Most people, of course, have nothing to do with online democracy and may never want to.  But the stuff going through the democratic process affects them so how are you going to reach them?  Have you thought about the mediators (many listed in the point above), the ‘civic sharers’ who can pass this stuff on?  Government is not very good at working with the ‘hard to reach’ (terrible phrase, I know) but other bodies are.  How are you going to make use of them?

5. Is you content shareable?

The advantage of social media is that it is easy to share.  But online democracy is not particularly shareable.  Content captured in lengthy pdfs is hardly likely to go viral.
We talked about the short form / long form approach that many use in central government.  If every meeting item, every report was captured and published as a shareable summary it would be much more likely to get people engaged.  I also like the point that was made about making digital democracy digestible ‘like john Craven's Newsround’:)

6. How will you make your content relevant?

People want to know about the stuff that affects them yet government publishes only in a way that suits the process.  People in the group pointed out that:

  • The content of politics is generally vague and/or boring 
  • People shouldn't have to consume the whole damn process 
  • Our democratic content is nothing then everything i.e. There is no warm up
  • We need to work on how to get to the right people - digital democracy is not necessarily about getting lots of hits or likes 

There are lots of new platforms springing up (like vocaleyes) that might make the process more relevant and meaningful and relevant for people – how are you going to link with these?

7. How will you respond?

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult point is what are you going to do as a result of engagement?  If online democracy is just about informing then be honest and say so.  But if you tell people that you want to engage - then what does this mean?

The view in the group was that the culture of government is not a responsive one:

  • The importance of having a responsive back end to go with any fancy front end for digital democracy
  • We need to create organisations / democratic structures that care about what people say in consultations because generally they don’t
  • There is a difference between disseminating information and starting a conversation

What can we do?

At the end of the session we identified two prices of work that would thought would really help:

  • A style guide for online democracy to help ensure it is readable and shareable
  • Research into what users want from online democracy – some user journey maps that government can learn from 

Ok, let’s get started then...


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

71. Mini Mayors

Mini mayors are local councillors with added status and recognition.  More than simply the community’s representative on the Council they are the focus for community governance.  Many councillors already act informally as mini mayors – the idea here is that this role could be formalised and given legal weight.

Mini mayor wins award for services to community governance

I was at a Welsh Government seminar this week on Reforming Local Government.  One of the questions was around the role local councillors and how it might develop. A couple of issues came out of this:

  • Many back bench councillors are disillusioned and feel they cannot make a difference.  Young councillors in particular have come into local government full of expectation but find that they are excluded from council wide decision making.
  • Sub local governance, in other words the patchwork of community and town councils, community regeneration partnerships, voluntary groups, school governing bodies etc etc, is, democratically speaking, a mess.  There is nothing that formally links everything.
  • Councillors are in a great position to tie all this together. They are already on many of these bodies, as school governors, on management committees of community centres and involved with voluntary groups.  Many councillors already wear two hats – they serve on local authorities and on their community and town councils.

As well as their traditional councillor role this means they would automatically:

  • Have a seat on the community or town council (no need to be elected)
  • Be a governor on all the schools in their patch
  • Sit on the management committee or board of any community initiatives in their areas

This would ensure that the local councillor not only had influence in all of these bodies but was able to join things up locally.  The presence of an elected councillor on all of these bodies would also ensure added democratic legitimacy for them.  At the same time the mini mayor would be a stronger position to represent the views of the community to the Council and there would also be more scope for mini mayors to facilitate public engagement in their areas through area forums or similar initiatives.

When people vote for their councillor now, they are electing someone to represent them on the Council and various committees.  Would it make a difference to turnout if people knew that the councillor they were electing would also be automatically be involved in a number of other community bodies?  Would it improve the accountability of those bodies if the mini mayor for the area gave them all a public and accessible face?

Couple of issues.  The first is, to make this work, there would probably need to be only single councillor wards.  Second, and most important there would need to be enough councillors to ensure that mini mayors are not spread too thin.  One the plus side, supporting a network of mini mayors could be an important counter balance to the increasing remoteness of our increasingly large local councils.

UPDATE:  A reality check from Councillor Simon Cooke and plenty more food for thought in this post.  In it Simon says:
Much though I see merit in the mini-mayor idea, it is a reminder that the 2000 Local Government Act emasculated local councillors and created the situation where many ended up flapping around wondering what their role and purpose might be.... What we need to do is give those councillors the support, access and capacity to actually do that vital job of kicking down the doors of bureaucrats to ensure that the people's voice echoes round those offices as loudly as possible.


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

70. Cabinet and Backbench Councillor Support: Uncrossing the Streams

National and devolved governments have separate support arrangements for their executive and non executive politicians.  In local government, however, the support streams for cabinet members and backbech councillors, including scrutiny, are crossed.  Officers work for the whole council and provide the same advice regardless of which councillors they are advising.  But why can't local government have the same separation between executive and non executive support arrangements?

Best to avoid a total protonic reversal

Mirroring the National Assembly for Wales Commission, local councils could have each have a Council Commission charged with delivering support to back bench councillors, to scrutiny and to council and committee meetings.

The Councillor Commission Expert Panel Wales thought that this type of separation was a good idea, both for the independence of the scrutiny function and for the protection of resources for backbenchers.  Their recommendation was that:
Consideration should be given to introducing a legal separation of the executive and non-executive functions of the council, with separate funding streams, that would protect the central provision of members’ services. 
You can find the full argument in their report here.

This didn't happen of course.  Opponents pointed to the added complexity, bureaucracy and cost that such a system might bring.  Important arguments that are perhaps even more pertinent now.

We have, however, had steps towards a separation of powers in Wales.  The Local Government Measure (2011) introduced Democratic Services Committees and the Head of Democratic Services Officer role specifically to ensure that support for backbench councillors was properly protected.  

Arguments For

Is it now time to go one step further and debate a full legal separation between executive and non-executive functions?    Here are 6 reasons why this could be a good idea:

  1. The independence of scrutiny from the executive would be more visible if scrutiny had independent support
  2. The Council Commission would be mirrored by a strengthened Cabinet Office providing direct administrative and policy support to the executive 
  3. Backbench councillors would be able to directly decide the best use of their own support resources
  4. A separated scrutiny function would have more credibility with other public service providers who would be less likely to see it as an arm of the local authority
  5. A separated scrutiny function would be a necessary prerequisite for local public administration committees (see the Centre for Public Scrutiny proposal here)
  6. The introduction of council commissions and cabinet offices would bring professional alignment for local government support officers with those working national government and the devolved administrations  

Of course, as the Ghostbusters will tell you, there is one really, really significant risk of crossing the streams - total protonic reversal - best to be avoided I reckon.