Neighbourhoods, democracy and networks

Like most participants I came away from?UKGovCamp this weekend fizzing with ideas and enthusiasm. I’ll post my thoughts over the next few weeks about various parts of the weekend. Firstly, I wanted to look at the morning session I attended on Saturday, which was co-hosted by Anthony Zacharzewski of the?Democratic Society and Catherine Howe from Public-i.

The session was based around the We Live Here work they are doing at the moment on the?Creative Councils programme funded by?Nesta. We were asked to look at the ways that neighbourhoods can be viewed as networks of networks and especially how characterising them in this way can refresh democratic engagement.

So, not lacking in ambition then.

#UKGC12 introductions worldle

A lot of the discussion centred around the practicalities of engagement. A number of people, such as?Tom Phillips,?David Newman from the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford? and Alison Cotterill from the Home Office had some interesting observations from their own experiences. At one point we moved quite seamlessly (or so it appeared) from talking about kids kicking footballs over people’s back fences in Kent to petrol bomb fights in Belfast.

We were also joined by Councillor Ian Sherwood who explained why he felt local politicians were sometimes reluctant to talk to people online. He said they were often afraid of making an unguarded comment that was then blown out of proportion by journalists. I can certainly imagine that politicians will be followed online by journalists waiting for just such an eventuality and we’ve seen the instance recently with Ed Milliband where a typo/autocorrect snafu has lead to wide and somewhat perplexing coverage.

Additionally, politicians make themselves more available when they enter the social web. This does make them more accountable and can give them new methods of consulting their constituents. It can also leave them at the mercy of obsessive characters pursuing single issues. I made the point that as online conversations are ones with an audience a skilled politician who deals reasonably with somebody like this will not satisfy the individual but will probably gain respect from people observing the conversation. It must still act as a barrier to some people joining in the first place though.

Using the network of networks idea a number of places have been mapped for their civic engagement nodes and links. This hasn’t been a solely online exercise and Catherine described walking round the streets of an area to better understand the different parts of its civic society. Some networks were described as looking like a game of pick-up-sticks while others like an entangled ball of wool or string.

Anthony and Catherine argued that understanding how networks interact with each other ought to lead to increased participation in local democracy. Catherine has made the case here that?“we also need new structures for democratic engagement” and that theme was pursued on Saturday.

The immediacy of online communications and the ease of finding and talking to people raises an expectation that we can therefore extend our own influence with politicians and officials. However, our politicians and officials recognise and assess the amount of effort we might have made in contacting them and will respond accordingly.

This is why it’s probably still worth writing a letter, in ink, to your MP, because they will give it more weight than a Tweet or a copied-and-pasted campaign email. Unless the ink’s green, that is.

The project has created a?prototype site that tries to start mapping online civic engagement in an area. When Anthony brought it up it struck me that it was quite similar to the?B13 website that a number of us in Birmingham set up. this aggregates news, events, blog posts written in or about the area onto one site.

I’ve also helped to set up the?We Love Balsall Heath website recently and one thing I’m keen to do on there is to see how pulling together different pieces of data about the area can help to understand it better and also to campaign for changes.

Some of the questions I came away from the session with were:

  • How can understanding the network of networks that exist in an area help us to connect people and organisations together so their voices are more easily heard by people in positions of power?
  • How might doing this also increase their ability to do things for themselves?
  • How much does the ease of connecting and doing things online spill out into offline?
  • How do we use a mixture of social web, open data and old fashioned on-the-ground civic activism to have meaningful and mature conversations with elected members and officials?

So, a stimulating discussion, only a fraction of which I’ve discussed, and an interesting project worth following. Thanks to everybody who attended it and apologies to those whose contributions I’ve overlooked.

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  • Hannah

    Agree very much with network of networks. Civic engagement often goes wrong at a local level when one network assumes authority, and seeks to ‘represent’ all. Part of the answer I believe lies in effective community hubs, that connect networks online, and on the ground.

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