Policymaking in the Cloud: Increasing the Quality of Citizen Engagement

Clouds: a metaphor for our increasingly connected lives, apparently. Photo: Jhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/48813704@N02/5740160774/in

Since attending my first Political Innovation event earlier this month I’ve been thinking about the potential new technology such as social media and other digital engagement tools have to transform the way policy is made.

So far , much of the debate has tended to focus on how technology will change the way policy professionals (politicians, civil servants and assorted policy wonks) engage with citizens from static consultation windows to a more dynamic, conversational form of engagement. You can read a good summary of these developments by Dr Andy Williamson on the Political Innovation website.

While any progress towards  a more conversational form of engagement in policymaking should be celebrated, I feel in our excitement to ‘do’ crowdsourced policymaking we must not lose sight of the need for an attendant increase in policy literacy. Without us as citizens having a mature understanding of the wider context in which policy is developed and how our views on different issues relate to each other, there is a danger that new technology will simply add to the ‘noise’ which already surrounds policymakers.

By way of a practical example, the Health and Social Care Bill highlights the need to do more. Putting aside my personal views on the Bill and the Government’s motivations for introducing it, so far my engagement has been limited to re-Tweeting messages demanding the Government drop the bill and (after being prompted to do so by people I follow on Twitter) signing an online petition and template letter to Number 10 to the same effect. Arguably new technology has helped  keep me informed of breaking developments and allowed me to be mobilised as part of well-run political campaigns. In of itself, however, it has not resulted in me truly engaging with the substance of the Bill and the finer points of Health policy.

I believe there will always be limits to the extent to which we as citizens will want to or feel capable of engaging more deeply with the policymaking process, not least of all because of the time and effort this would entail. Nonetheless, there are some simple steps we can take to help us as a society increase both the quality and not just the quantity of citizen engagement in policymaking:

1. Increase the accessibility of policy information

In a previous lifetime I was strategic lead for Disability Equality for a local authority. This experience brought home to me the challenge of explaining often complex ideas and information in ways that people can understand yet retain their original substance. While Government departments do publish Executive Summaries and Plain English guides to major documents, large swathes of policy documents remain impenetrable to the average bod. If we are serious about achieving a shift to a more conversational engagement on policy, as a minimum we must ensure citizen have access to the information they need to understand and engage with complex issues.

2. Provide citizens with the tools to understand how their views relate to others

At the last Political Innovation event Steph Gray provided a round-up of digital collaboration tools that can enable citizens to play an active role in developing policy. Writeboard, for example, allows a people to write, share and revise a shared document, working together to agree a shared position on a particular policy. Before we get to this level of engagement, however, I believe there would be value in us at citizens understanding where our views sit in relation to other people. For example, if we as citizens were able t to know that our position on a policy issue was firmly in the minority, we would have a more realistic view of what our contribution to engagement exercises is likely to achieve. We could also choose to take steps to persuasive work to build support for our position, rather than ever-more loudly proclaiming our position across a range of online platforms to anyone who will listen (and those that won’t).

3. Provide citizens with tools to understand their personal outlook

Most of us (not me, obviously) are a tangled mess of fuzzy thinking and contradictory priorities.  For example, through the process of online engagement I could signal to policymakers that I wish to see the Health and Social Care Bill dropped and, in the next breath, express my dissatisfaction at the lack of choice in Healthcare (not my personal view I hasten to add). By creating more opportunities for engagement, there is a danger that these contradictory impulses further de-stabilise the policymaking process, thus reducing people’s faith in the democratic process.

Moving forward, I see value in applying the principles which underpin online collaboration tools to help citizens get a holistic view of their outlook on life, as reflected by their position on different policy issues. Using online surveys citizens could gain a clearer understanding of which issues they feel most strongly on and how their views differ from issue to an issue. For example, at the most basic level, a survey might tell an individual they are broadly liberal on social policy issues such as Equality and Diversity yet more conservative on wealth redistribution. In my view, having a better understanding of oneself would enable citizens to engage in policymaking in ways that are more productive and coherent for the political  system as a whole.

Over to You

As I’ve already stated, most of us are a tangled mess of fuzzy thinking. I’d love to know what you think about policymaking and the role for citizen engagement within it. Do you agree with me that political literacy is an important if we are to reform policy making? Or maybe I am a product of my background and my time working in policy has made me overly cautious about the potential for citizens to be involved in the policymaking process. Whatever your thoughts, please do get in touch – you’ll be helping me make my thinking just a little less fuzzy.

Meeting People is Easy: The World of Innovation beyond SE23

The Plan ZHeroes team at City Hall, 15th Feb 2012

February is traditionally the time of year when New Year’s Resolutions, if they haven’t done so already, fall by the wayside. With this thought in mind, and inspired by the great work my friend Craig Ennis is still doing on his New Year’s Resolution (Cinema Scraggadiso), over the past couple of weeks I’ve made a concerted to keep my commitment to get out more and connect with at least some of the mind-boggling number of events that are always taking place in London.

Being Amazing

To make things easier on myself, I started off by getting along to events that were in my comfort zone. To that end,  On the evening of 1st February I braved the cold chill and got myself along to Side Kick Studios in Old Street for an informal meeting of The Amazings‘ Street Team.

I’ve previously blogged about The Amazings before so I won’t say too much more. In a nutshell, The Amazings is a  great (amazing?) social enterprise that helps people who are about to retire or have retired create (and sell) amazing experiences with the skills, knowledge and passion they’ve picked up throughout their life. Last year I had a lot of fun helping out by serving on market stalls, introducing people to the service and selling tickets for the experiences on offer. I’m very pleased to say the The Amazings is doing really well and, after successfully securing funding from NESTA, has big plans to expand its reach across London. I for one am particularly looking forward to helping bring The Amazings to Forest Hill. The Amazings is always looking for new street team members, If this is something you’d like to be involved with, do get in touch by clicking here.

Policy Innovation in a reassuringly traditional setting

Adam Street: Reassuringly Traditional

 My confidence buoyed by a successful social outing, in no time at all I found myself signed up to an after work event on the 9th February. The event had the racy title ‘co-design and policymaking‘ and was organised by an organisation called Political Innovation. Given my love of all things political, policy and social innovation how could I say no?

At first glance, the contrast between The Amazings and the Political Innovation event couldn’t have been more stark. Whereas The Amazings hosted us at their tastefully scruffy design studio in trendy East London (see picture of Side Kick’s kitchen for evidence), the Political Innovation event was held in the type of venue which had its heyday when Macmillan was still Prime Minister: Adam Street Private Members Club, situated just off The Strand.

Side Kick’s kitchen: sweet

Thankfully, first impressions were deceiving and I found the evening largely unstuffy, with some excellent presentations and off the cuff presentations from people looking at ways of opening up traditional policymaking in order to increase trust in the political system and deliver improved outcomes. The only real downside of the evening was that I felt that sometimes there was an unhelpful ‘us and them’ attitude expressed, with people involved in innovation projects taking the moral high ground and criticising others for being ‘political’ as though this were intrinsically a dirty word.

As someone who has worked ‘on the inside’ of policymaking I understand how challenging politics can be and, at their best, how hard elected politicians work. If we are serious about wanting to reform the political system as a minimum there needs to be mutual respect for both sides. And proponents of opening up policy making (myself included) need to recognise that while all of us, either as individuals or collectively as ‘the people’, can provide our views, ultimately deciding which priorities to pursue at any given time will always be an inherently ‘political’ judgement, regardless of who makes it.

There were many excellent contributions made at last week’s event. I recommend you visit the Political Innovation website to find out more and to book your place at the next event. I would like to give a special mention to Paul Evans for setting up Political Innovation and arranging the event and to Steph Gray (@lesteph) for his excellent overview of the various tools available to help increase involvement in policymaking.

You can read a blog post from Political Innovation on the evening here.

Swapping Forest Hill for City Hall

The view from inside City Hall at the Plan ZHeroes Launch

Last but by no means least I’d like to end this post by telling you about my latest social venture (geddit?), which last night took me to the political heart of London, City Hall, for the Plan ZHeroes launch event.

Plan ZHeroes is a civil society group based in London with a mission to reduce food waste to zero. In the long term it plans to do this by lobbying for action to reduce waste at every level of the ‘food pyramid’, from farm to plate. More immediately, however, it is focusing its efforts on connecting the people who cannot feed themselves and their families properly with the millions of tonnes of food that is wasted every year.

To achieve their goal Plan ZHeroes has created an interactive map which allows food charities and other community organisations to easily connect with businesses such as cafes with spare food that would otherwise go to waste. The idea of a food waste map is such a simple one and is a great example of how digital technology can support social action. Now the challenge is to get people using the map.

Plan ZHeroes’ interactive map in action

Although Plan ZHeroes’ launch event was held at City Hall and featured contributions from prominent commentators such as Rosie Boycott the organisers successfully managed to combine serious intent with a sense of fun. Most memorably, they had hired student actors to role play an apocalyptic food crisis scenarios in a near-future London, which led on to some group working to come up with ideas to solve the crisis by promoting the interactive map. It may sound lame but because everyone involved approached it in the right spirit, it turned out to be a fun, creative way of getting people thinking about how we  can make the map a success.

Plan ZHeroes is asking for help to spread the word about food waste and the interactive map.and pledge to introduce the map to 10 organisations you know. This could mean telling your local supermarket about the map or perhaps a church or community group you attend. To find out more about you can do to help, click here.

What has being sociable taught me?

Looking back at the three events, I feel there are opportunities for each group to learn from one another and to improve. Future events by The Amazings and Political Innovation would benefit from the interaction of the Plan ZHeroes. Political Innovation could learn from the relaxed atmosphere of the Amazings. Political Innovation benefited from the quality and diversity of its attendees and is all organisations putting on events should look to emulate their approach.

Mind the Gap

The Great Wealth Divide. Photo: BBC World Service
Updated: 06/02/2012

Last week I had the good fortune to stumble across a great little two-part radio documentary on the BBC World Service called The Wealth Gap: The View from London. The programme vividly brought to life how our lives are shaped by inequality. It also succeeded in conveying the complex nature of inequality and the challenge it presents to policy-makers wishing to take steps to reduce it. 

2012: a year defined by inequality?

Inequality and the widening gap between the richest and the poorest in our society has hardly been out headlines of late. Wherever you look, from the recent political jockeying over the size of Stephen Hester’s bonus to the ongoing high-profile protests organisers by the likes of Occupy movement and UK Uncut, it seems, at a rhetorical level at least, everyone is agreed that ‘something has to be done’ about inequality.

Throw in some added economic gloom for good measure and the timing of The Wealth Gap’s broadcast starts to look like an inspired move on the part of the BBC World Service (itself a victim of deep reductions in public funding).

The Wealth Gap: Economics with a Human Face

The Wealth Gap’s chief strength is that it succeeds in turning what could easily be a very dry discussion about economics and statistics into a gripping human interest drama with a satisfyingly complete three-act narrative arc. Well, not quite, but the producers of The Wealth Gap should be commended for bringing out the human impact of widening inequality without sacrificing the underlying substance.
The programme focuses on inequality through the lives of people living in London, one of the most-international cities and a magnet for many of the wealthiest people. At the start of the first episode we’re told that rising inequality is a global phenomenon, with statistics in both developed and emerging economies showing an increasing share of income and wealth is held by an ever-narrower elite. After that, however, we’re given the chance to focus on the lives of different people living in the capital and how they relate to inequality.


Home is where the heartache is 

The focus of the first episode is London’s over-heated housing market. We hear from a range of voices: an an estate agent who has witnessed first-hand the rise of ‘super-prime’ £5 million+ properties; a low income family with  young children experience over-crowding and a senior teacher who cannot afford to buy a property within commuting distance of her school. These voices bring to life what it feels like to live in a city where housing has become ever more expensive as people at the top end of the income distribution, whose earnings have outstripped those of the population as a whole over the past thirty years or so, continue to exert upward pressure on housing prices. 

Sufficed to say, after the first episode my moral indignation at rising levels of inequality was turned up to 11. What’s new, you might say? Luckily, episode two of The Wealth Gap came along an shook me out of my comfort zone by suggesting that inequality can also bring with it certain benefits and, gulp, maybe we should in fact show a little more gratitude for the super-rich and the jobs they support. 

Let’s hear it for the 1 per cent 

Making the case for inequality, we hear from management and shop-floor staff from a company that produces luxury £80,000 beds fit and another company that arranges bespoke experiences for super-rich clients. As unpopular as they may with the public at large, are the world’s super-rich an important source of jobs in London. Similarly, despite everything we know (and even more we don’t) about the consequences of tax avoidance and tax evasion. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, tells us that the top 1 per cent of earners now contribute to around 28 per cent of all income tax paid in the UK, an increase from 11 per cent in the late 1970s. While Paul is quick to point out that this change reflects the extent to which incomes of the super rich have grown, it also shows the extent to which current levels of public spending are dependent on high levels of income inequality. 

Living with complexity 

Given the recent brouhaha over bankers’ bonuses and executive pay, there was something refreshing and daring about The Wealth Gap being prepared to make the case for the super-rich. While I remain unconvinced that the growing inequality we are experiencing in London is neither inevitable nor is it a price worth paying for the tax base and jobs the super-rich support, I feel I have a better appreciation of just how complex the issue is. As someone who is keen to see a progressive future I would have liked to have seen more attention given to the practical steps we as a society and through our individual actions can take action to manage and ultimately reduce levels of inequality but this is a huge subject in of itself.

If you hurry you should still be able to find both episodes of The Wealth Gap on BBC iPlayer. and as a podcast download.

What did you think of the programme? Do you think rising levels of inequality are a fact of life? Would we be better off spending our time focusing on other matters? Feel free to get in touch and share your thoughts and experiences of inequality.