Digital Heroes – Kevin Davies & Helia Phoenix

A couple of months ago I jumped on the train to Cardiff to meet the National Assembly for Wales Digital Engagement team, as is my want to do. It struck me that, despite working with organisations all over the world, I had little to no idea what the Welsh were up to, and after accepting that this glaring anomaly needed rectifying, I had a good old chat with Helia and Kevin.  It turns out they’ve been quietly doing all manner of interesting citizen involvement work, which I thought the rest of you might want to know about. Without further preamble then, let’s jump right in to another fascinating interview filled with the big questions, (Biscuit dunking and so on).

1. What’s your name and where are you from?
KD: Kevin Davies originally from Carmarthen, living in Cardiff.
HP: I’m Helia Phoenix, born in Cardiff, lived in loads of other places (London, Exeter, Southampton, Sheffield, Bristol, Berkeley out in California!), now living back in Cardiff again.

Helia_P
Helia Phoenix

2. What do you do for a living?
KD: I work for the National Assembly for Wales (not the Welsh Government!). The Assembly scrutinises the decisions made, the money spent and laws proposed by the Welsh Government, and my job is to get more and different voices to help the Assembly scrutinise the Welsh Government, particularly for committee scrutiny. I arrange consultation engagement activity like events, focus groups, surveys, web-chats, video interviews, online discussions and so on to facilitate a service user/citizen voice in the process.
HP: I’m a digital media specialist working for the National Assembly. It does everything that Kev says! I head up all things that relate to web content, which covers a vast range of things like digital accessibility, trying to improve our online content as best we can, and working on new innovations for how we communicate with people online. In my spare time, I run a (hyper)local blog about Cardiff, called ‘We Are Cardiff’. It’s been going for six years and is mostly based around pen portraits of people who live in the city, alongside information about alternative culture and events. It’s won Blog of the Year at the Welsh Blog Awards, and been named as one of the world’s best city blogs by the Guardian.

3. Favourite band and / or artist?
KD: LCD Soundsystem
HP: ARGH that’s too hard, I have too many! Queens of the Stone Age, Jon Hopkins, Leftfield, Four Tet. I also really loved the most recent Belle and Sebastian album but was never a fan of theirs before. Sub Focus. Fleetwood Mac. Pinch. Everything!

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
KD: Creature of habit
HP: Maverick …

5. You house is on fire, what do you save?
KD: My housemates?
HP: I put the fire out and save everything!

6. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
KD: Dunk. Everytime.
HP: Dunk!

7. What does digital democracy mean to you (or maybe, what should digital democracy mean)?
KD: Digital democracy to me means breaking down walls and accessibility, it’s about us talking to people in the way and in the places they want to, it’s about recognising that different people consume information and have their say in different ways in different places and we need to embrace that. It isn’t the way that everyone wants to engage so it’s horses for courses and from my experience almost always needs to be combined with offline promotion/face to face interaction. It’s a way for people to help us figure out if the Welsh Government is doing a good job, and helps us make recommendations to the Welsh Government on what actions  they should take to make Wales a better place to live and work. It should be a way for the public to shape political debate.

HP: Digital democracy to me means showing people how ‘government’ is relevant to them, in places that they’re already using to carry out communications – online, email, social media sites, and so on.

I use the word ‘government’ really to talk about any kind of state apparatus that organises or affects the lives of the people. Particularly in Wales, devolution has been such a complicated process – the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government started off being one organisation, then they split, then full powers have been devolved, and then the Wales Bill will see even more powers devolved. UK Parliament has been basically the same for hundreds of years, while we’ve got all these changes, which makes it so hard to educate people.

Also people have a negative perception of politics and politicians … it’s about making it relevant to them. Do you care about hospital provision in your area? Do you care about your local schools? About the park on your street? Politics is all of that. If you don’t participate, you have no right to complain. It’s making people understand and think about those links, and then make it as easy as possible for them to get involved when they are moved to do so. It’s about everything as simple as answering every tweet or Facebook comment we get (the sensible ones, that is!).

Kev_Davies
Kevin Davies

8. Where do you see the field of digital democracy/ digital engagement in ten years? Opportunities and pitfalls?
KD: Smarter and more effective ways of getting information out to citizens. better transparency. Better informed electorate.  Direct democracy – people raising issues with politicians, political establishments quickly and easily. Electronic voting. Possible pitfalls: online security, information overload, internet access, older population, managing people’s expectations – public conditioned to expect instant results from their interaction (twitter/xfactor etc).

HP: I can’t even imagine where we’ll be in ten years time. Electronic voting, definitely. Possibly direct input into legislation via online means? Or voting directly on budget allocation? Hopefully there will be ways that people can get more directly involved in the democratic process.

9. Best project you’ve worked on at the Welsh Assembly and why?
KD: One of the Assembly’s committees was looking at STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) Skills, and they wanted to speak with young people to find out what inspired them to choose their course, how easy/difficult it was to find an apprenticeship in their field, and the main obstacles that they faced in pursuing their interest in the subject. It’s important that the Assembly seeks the views of people from all parts of Wales, so we ran a web-chat using Google Hangouts where Assembly Members gathered in a room to have an online conversation with students. When it came to the end of the project, the Committee wrote a report to the Welsh Government, which included 14 recommendations.

What I liked about this was seeing how rewarding students found the experience, and how much the Assembly Members enjoyed themselves too. Here is a blog one of the students wrote after taking part, and here’s a video of Rhun ap Iorwerth AM and Julie James AM talking about taking part in their first web-chat:

What I loved about this project was how much impact it had on the report. Web-chat participants were quoted or referenced 17 times throughout the report, which demonstrates how much effect their contribution had on the project and on the suggestions we made to the Welsh Government. For me that’s what it’s ultimately all about, I think we can get lost in doing things for the sake of it, particularly when it comes to digital, the real success comes when you apply new techniques and technologies to the objectives of your project as we did here.

HP: One of my favourite projects was a week we spent in Wrexham earlier this year, where we worked with the local authority to train staff about what the Assembly does, had events at local schools and colleges, had our outreach bus in the centre of town, and also had a session with hyperlocal journalists. I worked on two events there. One was a ‘digital takeover’ of our youth engagement channels by students from Coleg Cambria, where media students set up a camera and filmed other students talking about lowering the voting age, and about other political issues in general. We let the students take photos and create content throughout the day, which we put out over our Your Assembly channel. A couple of the students went off and wrote blog posts for us – they were such high quality, I was so impressed. Who says the youth aren’t engaged and don’t care? This is student Ieuan Walker’s blog post from that day and this is another student, Callum Murray. The day after, I took part in a little interactive training workshop session with some hyperlocal blogs from Wrexham, like Wrexham.com, and some university students from Glyndwr University. It was a brilliant couple of days – exhausting, but really rewarding.

10. Any shout-outs?
KD: Dyfrig Williams and Ena Lloyd at the Good Practice Exchange, Will Barker – digital man @1000LivesPlus in NHS Wales, Dave McKenna – Local government scrutiny and policy person at Swansea Council

HP: Jo and Esko at The Satori Lab, who are putting on GovCampCymru in one of the Assembly’s building in September this year. Gareth Morlais who is an endlessly valuable resource on Welsh language in technology. Carl and Tom at Native HQ, who’ve been amazing advising us and are working endlessly on exciting projects!

Thanks to Kevin and Helia for taking the time to share their work. If you’d like to carry on the conversation, Helia does Twitter here and Kevin does it over here.

Until next time.