At Delib, we’re big fans of the Democratic Society or Demsoc as pretty much everyone knows them. They do interesting, useful work that promotes and builds the wider democratic sector and, more importantly, they’re a thoroughly nice bunch of people. One of those people is Ali Stoddart, a surprisingly loud, ceaselessly keen and properly Scottish individual. Ali has just started Dem Soc’s first ‘regional’ office in Edinburgh which shows a remarkable, some would say foolhardy, amount of trust in him. Therefore, I thought we should hear a bit about his background, his thoughts on biscuits and his hopes for a post indy ref Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst Ali is a very bright guy he does struggle with brevity; you probably want to put the kettle on for this one.
1. What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Ali Stoddart, I come from Glasgow via Aberdeen. Spent my early youth in the Granite City but escaped the Haar and moved back West to Glasgow where most of my family are from. Where you are born is not necessarily where you are from…
2. What do you do for a living?
I am Community Engagement and Scotland Lead for the Democratic Society (Demsoc). My job involves running projects and events that help make more participatory democracy a reality through small, repeated experiments. I have recently opened our office in Edinburgh, and make up the Demsoc team in Scotland.
I love my job as it is very eclectic: one day I am helping senior civil servants think about improvement to citizen engagement within their institutions; the next I am on my hands and knees helping to pump up a tire on a bicycle, disguised as an Elephant, to be used in a Village Fete Jousting Competition… I think that is what they mean by “on the ground community engagement!” I’m not afraid getting my hands dirty when it comes to giving citizens the opportunity to get involved in decisions and services that impact on their lives. I feel Demsoc is as much about ‘doing’ as it is about ‘thinking’ when it comes to implementing participative democracy.
3. Favourite band and/ or artist?
I would have to say Beirut. Zach Condon is an unbelievably talented musician who has managed to channel Eastern European musical influences into melodic alternative pop music. I had the pleasure of sharing a pint with him during the Edinburgh Fringe a number of years ago. He is, needless to say, a very nice guy.
In order to score ultimate hipster points I should declare that I am delighted, Edinburgh based trio, Young Fathers have won the Mercury Music Prize. Their song “Get Up” should be hard to listen too because of how low the bass is, but the catchy vocal hook transforms the song completely. Listen to it here.
4. Android or iPhone?
5. PC or Mac?
PC, but that may change as the majority of the Demsoc team are all Apple Zealots… I may be forced to rebel from Emperor Gates.
6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
That is tough. I would say I am creature of habit when it comes to theoretical stuff; I like to stick to what I know, which is participative democracy. However, when it comes to putting the democratic theory into practice I would say I am much more open to trying new methods and seeing what happens. All failure is learning and all that… Fortunately, most of the time things seem to work.
7. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Other than loved ones, it would definitely be my electric piano, Yamaha P-155 , which I have had for 11 years, and has graced many a stage in Glasgow and Edinburgh, when I was in a Blues Pop band called Alan Panther and the Energy Treadmill. That was fun.
8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Chocolate Digestive – Unsullied.
9. Best project you’ve worked on at Dem Soc and why?
There are so many to choose from but I will narrow it down to two: one for its direct, on the ground, impact; and the other for its huge potential.
The first is a project we did with Lewes District Council called the Zero Heroes Community Competition which was effectively an experiment to see if the council could use participatory budgeting as a carrot to encourage behaviour change around the not-so-sexy issue of waste and recycling. Although it was really hard work, as scheme covered the whole district, it ended up being incredibly rewarding. All of the areas managed to win some money for funding local projects chosen by the community and this resulted in over 140 ideas being generated, some of which will be funded and make a difference to the area. Furthermore, the project has encouraged the Council to be more confident when it comes to thinking about future citizen participation.
Secondly, I would have to say our work with the Scottish Government on Collaborative Government in Scotland. We have been working a lot with SG’s Strategy Unit and, former Delib Blog Interviewee, Christian Storstein, on thinking about how to improve the Scottish Government’s engagement and consultation techniques and create stronger a relationship between government and the people of Scotland.
We started the process in July with a workshop that brought together senior civil servants and members of civil society to discuss how the Scottish Government should go about creating a more collaborative ethos to their work and the attendees came up with a set of shared intentions about how to take the agenda forward. It is really exciting and hopefully the start of something transformative for Scottish democracy. It is early days yet but I really like the idea of government “collaborating to create collaboration” and establishing a lot more opportunities for co-creation with citizens on policy and other aspects of governmental work. You can read the report from the workshop here.
10. Now the dust has settled, what’s your feeling about the whole indy ref palava?
First off I have to say I was delighted about the level of engagement that came out of the #indyref discussion. It was a privilege to walk around the streets of Edinburgh talking to voters about their relationship with democracy which you can read about here and here.
I feel that the reason that the turn out was so high was because people actually felt they could have an impact on something, which is unusual in other electoral situations.
Therefore, the independence referendum has energised Scottish Democracy and provided a fantastic opportunity for a more involving and participative democracy in the future. The issue is now harnessing all of that potential democratic energy.
Furthermore, I don’t think it should be about Yes/No or 45%/55% any more as that is divisive. It should be about all citizens in Scotland deliberating and working together to create policies they feel will improve Scotland. You can read my short submission to the Smith Commission here. You can read more thoughts on the #indyref here and here.
11. Where do you hope Scotland will be in 10 years in terms of public consultation/ digital democracy/ open governance? Opportunities and pitfalls.
Wow… In ten years time I would hope that Collaborative Government in Scotland, or something like it, is the norm. A Scotland where people feel more connected to politicians and civil servants; where there are a range of digital and offline tools available for people to co-create with the people they have elected to represent them; and where there is a political culture that shares power with people, as opposed to wielding power over them. Basically, the utopia outlined by, Demsoc governor, Andy Williamson and Martin Sande in their book From Arrogance to Intimacy: A Handbook for Active Democracies.
The opportunities are the growing, but fragile, desire from the public and government to explore the participation agenda further, and the potential of technology available. (I am not a technological determinist, more a digital democracy potentialist).
The pitfalls are the traditional political pressures of time and the need for constant success. Once more people realise that monumental change, like reshaping our 19th Century Representative Democracy into a more Participative system for the 21st Century, takes a lot of time, effort and learning, we may have a better chance of making it a reality and being part of something more.
12. Best gov site you’ve seen and why? Other than GDS.
I’m going to go with the Paris city council participatory budgeting site. The new mayor Anne Hidalgo has got all the bits right – commitment from government (€450m over five years, in increasing amounts), a “participation charter” that sets out what people can expect, an attractive easy-to-use interface, open voting rules (anyone who lives or works in Paris can vote), and even publishing the results as open data! The fact that the money available will increase each year shows that they are experimenting and learning as they go. So, by the time there are very large sums of money for Parisians to play with the Council will know what works best when it comes to city-wide participatory budgeting.
So there you have it, an exhaustive interview with the man behind Dem Soc Scotland. If you want to talk to Ali about how he can help your Scottish organisation or initiative, you can find contact details here and his Twitter account here. If you do call him, just remember to hold the phone away from your ear…