Last Tuesday morning (June 27th) marked the first in our series of Practical Democracy Project events – kicking off with a focus on ‘well-designed democracy’.
If you couldn’t make it along on the day, this right here is a quick round-up, including links to all the slides/talks from our speakers. 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 get people talking about the interaction between technology and government, with a particular emphasis on the stuff that actually makes a difference to effective public participation in decision-making.
This one was at Newspeak House in Bethnal Green (a fascinating thing in itself – it’s a dedicated ‘community space for political technologists’). And it was a great crowd that turned up: a really interesting mix of civil servants, service designers, techy start-up types, local gov staff – all sorts.
After a slightly mad dash to grab the promised breakfast and some excellently buzzy conversations over coffee and croissants, the talks got underway.
First up was Temi Ogunye from Citizens Advice.
Temi was presenting findings from a piece of Citizens Advice research called ‘Going with the grain: why democracy needs to fit with modern life’. It was grounded in concern for the practical, everyday things that can make it harder for people to get involved in politics – often disproportionately across different groups.
I was delighted – but not surprised – to hear that one of the main findings was that in the UK, in general, people want to take part – but there are a load of barriers that prevent them participating as much as they would like to.
It’s one of the core tenets of Delib, one of the main reasons we exist: that if you make it easier for people to get involved in the decisions that affect them, they will take up the opportunity – and that makes those decisions, and democracy, better.
Temi gave a host of great examples/findings. I was particularly struck by his observation about financial security as one such barrier to participation. He talked about how it is often harder for less affluent people to get involved in government decisions – even though they may often be those most drastically affected by policy changes. He hypothesised that this might be a simple issue of ‘headspace’: if you’re worried about making ends meet, it’s tough to find the time for what feels like the ‘luxury’ of political engagement.
Or check out the full ‘Going with the grain’ report
Then we heard from Involve’s Sarah Allan.
Sarah made a fantastically clear and compelling case for the benefits of involving people in decision-making (perhaps not surprising given that she’s the Engagement Lead for an organisation literally called Involve).
She then shared a bunch of great practical/at-the-coalface stories from her work with Involve (my half-remembering of the details won’t do them justice – check out the full deck instead).
I particularly enjoyed her report of the ‘IWOOT’ phenomenon – where someone will ring up from an organisation wanting to do some public engagement and say ‘we saw this fantastic exercise from so-and-so. We want to do one of those, too!’. As Sarah explained, whilst the enthusiasm is laudable, that’s not really the best way to settle on a participatory process.
Instead, she argued for approaching involvement as a design challenge. This is something we’re forever banging on about: good engagement is about finding what’s appropriate to the decision/situation and effective for the people who need to be involved – and what works for one situation often won’t be the right fit for another.
Download Sarah’s slides (PDF)
Next up was Dr Michael Hallsworth from the Behavioural Insights Team.
He rapidly shared an amazing wealth of stats, stories and insights – all around a common theme of how ‘small things can make a big impact’. Again, these were fantastically detailed and thoroughly-researched case studies: the Behavioural Insights Team run lots of real-world control tests to get measurable evidence on changes that make a difference to people’s actions. Have a look at the detail for yourself in Michael’s slides.
And it’s a point that definitely bears repeating: small things that remove ‘friction’ from the process of participating can end up making a massive difference to people’s involvement. (It also reminded me of some of the stats we heard from BEIS at one of our Citizen Space user groups – about going from a 7% to a 25% completion rate on online consultations). The more people come to appreciate and get accustomed to this design-led approach to policy and participation (design in its truest sense – not just ‘making things pretty’ but elegantly crafted and perfectly suited to their purpose), the better.
Download Michael’s slides (PDF)
And wrapping up the morning was Glyn Britton of ad agency KBS Albion.
Glyn gave a really eye-opening account of the creation of GiffGaff – ‘the UK’s first democratic brand’ (in that user participation was central to its business model and how decisions were made).
The whole story was packed with great examples of learning the value of testing and iteration, user feedback, community interaction and designing decisions around the people they affect – as Glyn put it, ‘in the wild’. (For example, the fact that they extensively tested incentives for people getting their friends to switch to GiffGaff: apparently, straight-up cash was by far the most effective [no great surprises there, perhaps] – but there was no major difference in the amount of cash offered. £5, £10, £20: the response rate was the same. So it seemed to be more about the sense of fairness/getting something back/not being exploited, rather than just a money grab.)
Whilst there are obviously differences between the world of government and private business, especially when it comes to ‘rewards’ for participation, I think there’s a lot of overlap in the process of learning to function in a more emergent, iterative, responsive way – especially online. It was great to hear some of those parallel challenges and opportunities from a fresh perspective.
Read the transcript of Glyn’s talk
There was one other thing that Glyn said that stuck with me, just near the end of his talk (and he was the last to speak, remember). Namely, that he felt ‘a bit of a fraud’ and ‘inexpert’, giving thoughts on designing democracy in a room full of people who are specialists in exactly that. While I think that’s far too modest of him, he was right to remark on the room. Here was a whole group of people who are passionate and knowledgeable about how to make it easier for government and citizens to connect with each other online. In fact, a good number of them work in government and are paid to think about this stuff as their actual job. That certainly has not always been the case and it’s surely something to celebrate.
As Tom Steinberg argued recently, this stuff – this user-led, design-based approach to public involvement – is (finally, thankfully) becoming established, mainstream, the norm. It’s an idea that can’t be put back in the bottle. And that is excellent news: the more it becomes embedded, the more it will genuinely improve democratic involvement. And we hope we can continue to grow the conversation, refine the practice and keep making public participation better and better.