A few weeks back, (October 27th) we held the second in our series of Practical Democracy Project events – this time, with a focus on the possible risks, benefits and methods of involving people in decision-making.
For those who couldn’t make it along on the day, here’s a quick round-up. And we’re planning more events in the series so there’ll doubtless be other opportunities to talk digital democracy with roomfuls of interesting people.
These events are designed to keep building the conversation around the interaction between technology and government, with a focus on the stuff that actually makes a difference to effective public participation in decision-making.
This particular gathering was in collaboration with The Democratic Society and New Media Scotland, and took place at the City Art Centre’s Alt-w LAB in Edinburgh (an amazing venue with all the coolness and great aesthetics you’d expect of a gallery, and some spectacular views to boot). As with the first event in London, there was a great mix of people present: academics, members of the pubic, civil servants, researchers, service designers – all sorts.
I was slightly thrown when the room was plunged into darkness just as we were due to start – though it turned out to simply be a deliberate, and rather snazzy, spotlight setup. Fortunately, I soon got to pass the literal limelight to our lineup of invited speakers, all of whom had excellent chat…
First up was Anna Grant from Carnegie UK Trust
Anna was sharing some insights informed by a recently-published report she’d been working on called ‘A Digital World for All?’.
Anna was keen to dispel some of the myths and assumptions that people can slip into when thinking about online engagement and inclusion – especially regarding young people. She repeatedly stressed that encouraging participation was not as simple as merely opening a feedback channel and then just waiting for people to magically turn up.
The report also made clear that it should not be taken for granted that all young people are automatically ‘digital natives’, completely comfortable and able to take part in any- and every-thing online. As more and more services move online, there remains a responsibility to equip everyone with the digital skills to ensure equal access. And when it comes to participation, it’s also important to give people sufficient motivation/reason to get involved.
Check out the full ‘Digital World for All?’ report
Then we heard from Wittin’s Dr Matthew Davis.
Wittin is a very new, and therefore still tiny, startup – formed specifically in response to a ‘CivTech’ challenge run by the Scottish Government. The founder, Dr Matthew Davis, told us about how he came up with a proposal to Stirling Council around opening up their data for citizens to analyse and interact with directly.
It was fascinating to hear about how the Council and Wittin are working to develop this scheme, and all the considerations that come into play when trying to get such a bold new idea off the ground: the work of getting buy-in; the need to balance anonymity, privacy, availability and insight; possible strategies for recruiting ‘early adopter’ citizens to see how people might start using Council data when given access to it…
Alongside that, it was great to hear about the appetite among public sector organisations for new and additional ways of hearing from their citizens and getting insight to help them provide better services. It’s a recurring theme in our experience: people in government aren’t averse to hearing from the public – quite the opposite, in fact. There’s no lack of willing: the main barriers are purely practical – so the more we can do to provide civil servants with affordable, viable, user-friendly ways of opening up engagement, the better.
Next up was Dr Ella Taylor-Smith from Edinburgh Napier University.
Ella has been involved in the digital democracy scene from arguably its earliest days, and is hugely well-versed in online participation/engagement. On this occasion, she shared some findings from an intriguing piece of research she’s recently been working on – about ‘knit-bombing’. Yes, you read that right: the central focus of this research was impromptu knitting.
Dr Taylor-Smith had studied the phenomenon of crocheted protest signs around Edinburgh, which had caught people’s attention both ‘IRL’ and on social media. Interested by questions of where such ‘ground-up’ movements come from, what causes them to catch on, what ‘counts’ as a participatory intervention and if/when they can be considered ‘successful’, Ella had interviewed a host of people involved in the production of these protest signs – generating a wealth of interesting findings.
Among these, I was particularly struck by her honesty about the sheer effort that democratic involvement can entail. As she observed, ‘participating in democracy is time consuming & emotionally draining – but community is a motivating value’
And wrapping up the morning was Tim Brazier from Good Things Foundation.
Tim is a senior Service Designer at Good Things Foundation, a charity committed to ‘building a digitally included society and supporting people to grow their essential skills’. Looking at the question of how to practically go about effectively involving people in decision-making, he made a fantastic case for the importance of the quality of interactions, and the ‘human’ side of conversations with citizens/service users.
He regaled us with several stories of projects where Good Things Foundation had conducted up-close-and-personal field research, striving to meet people ‘on their own terms’ (rather than in the potentially ‘artificial’ environment of a focus group session or similar).
And he also advocated strongly for the importance of listening well – not simply going in with a set of leading questions and set answers, but allowing space for suggestions or questions or ideas to arise naturally in the process of engaging with someone, to be able to respond to these emergent topics and themes that you as an organisation might never have predicted.
Tim also made some notes from the day. As you’d expect from someone with such a keen eye for design, they’re rather lovely – worth a look if only for that enviable penmanship:
We’re looking forward to hosting more Practical Democracy Project events in the new year – watch this space for one near you!