A couple of weeks ago I went along to a Citizen’s Advice Bureau roundtable thing, to have a chat about a report they’ve just produced; ‘Going with the grain’, examining how our democracy can be made more fit for a digital age; essentially, it was very much my cup of tea. As is usual with this kind of event, I saw some old faces and also met some new ones, one of which being Mevan; fact checker, democracy exponent, good egg and now, most importantly, the latest member of the immortals; Democratic Hero. Mevan is one of the few people I know who has a cooler job than me and now – thanks to the wonder of words, the internet and my copy and pasting skills – she’s going to tell us all about it.
Let’s jump right in.
1. What’s your name and where are you from?
Mevan, its a weird Kurdish name. It’s “me” and “van” stuck together. I was raised in London, but I was born in Baghdad. I consider myself British. It all gets so complex so fast.
2. What do you do for a living? I work at the UK’s leading factchecking charity: Full Fact.
3. Favourite band and/ or artist? Bjork, Grimes – slightly kooky incredibly talented women are my thing.
4. Android or iPhone? Android
5. PC or Mac? I was pretty devoutly PC till I started to learn how to code, then I quickly realised the error of my ways.
6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker? I think its always good to reimagine a system for the better if you can. Although its pretty cool when you fall into the safe comfort of a good one. So how about “Maverick thinker when I need to be”
7. Your house is on fire, what do you save? Assuming my family and friends are safe, I would probably not save anything. I’ve always been pretty into the idea of not owning anything. Although I wonder if that’s one of those things that you think in theory, but regret pretty soon after your house burns down.
8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
I like to smash them with my fists, turn them into a ball with the dampness of the tea, and then consume it as if it were a ferrero rocher.
9. Best project you’ve worked on at Full Fact? We factchecked the 2015 election for 6 weeks straight. We were going from 6am to midnight every single day. Our tiny team was augmented with more staff and 40 volunteers a day. We saw more excitement about factchecking than ever before. We got corrections in every national paper, got Ed Miliband to change the way he spoke about Zero Hours Contracts, live factchecked every leaders debate, and were described as the “anti spin doctors”. To get it all off the ground I raised £33k in crowdfunding too. It was all pretty immense, and tonnes of fun.
10. Where do you hope the field of digital democracy will be in 10 years? Opportunities and pitfalls.
I just hope that we’ve sorted out the easy wins. Every interaction with government should mean that you’re registered to vote. Every election you should know who your candidates are and know where to vote – that shouldn’t be hidden away in a pdf somewhere, it should be a google now card that notifies you. I hope that if you wanted to find out if a claim that a politician or newspaper has made is true or not, you could. I want to equip people with the tools to make up their own minds. I hope that factchecking comes back into newsrooms, and becomes an important part of political debate. I hope that where tech can ensure that we keep services fair and efficient, we do. I worry that legislation isn’t keeping up with technology. I hope that in ten years time that gap is smaller.
11. Best Gov/ Civic site you’ve seen and why? yournextmp.com – an easy win – executed beautifully by Democracy Club.
So there you have it, 11 questions answered by the now legendary Mevan Babakar. We laughed, we cried, we might even have learnt a few things. If you’d like to talk to Mevan online, she does Twitter here or for an offline high-five, you should totally go to one of her Citizen Beta meetups, (the last word in civic tech events).
Currently 1 in 5, or 10.5 million people lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet.
43% of the individuals that lack these basic digital skills are of working age.
Around a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) don’t have a website. This rises to over 50% if you include voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs).
Being a ‘millennial’, I can put my hand up and say I’ve been guilty of taking digital literacy for granted. Doing a stint at a large technology company with a fruit for a name exposed me to some pretty head-in-hands episodes; a wide-eyed lady once walked in with her unplugged modem asking us to ‘fix the internet’.
“ Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. Individuals and businesses alike will need skills to protect themselves online. It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies. We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society.”
Clearly the problem is challenging but the rewards are great.
The same report puts up a number of recommendations for government. In particular an emphasis to address the deficit in provision for digital education at all levels. Government has provided an initial response to the report, though according to the Chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Morgan, it was a bit disappointing. It’s definitely a ‘watch this space’ worth monitoring. Technology is been moving at lightning pace. The government has a real task on its hands to ensure that the UK is not left behind in the emerging digital era.
But enough about politics. The ‘digital challenge’ should be bipartisan and embraced by all. We need it to be. I’ve set out what the challenge is so far and it would be mean to leave you with no light at the end of the tunnel. Unsurprisingly Martha Lane Fox’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
One of those is Go ON, a digital skills charity dedicated to helping everyone have the basic digital skills they need. You’re asking, what are these basic digital skills, well they’ve created a handy framework to explain. In the spirit of public participation they have even set up a Digital Skills Charter to inspire people and organisations to commit to helping others to gain those skills alongside a web tool to help.
The one I’m more interested in is her recent initiative to set up Dot Everyone with it’s broad sweeping purpose to “to transform understanding and use of the internet in every aspect of UK life”. It will aim to lead the charge and thrust Britain as a leader in the digital world prioritising opportunities in education, women and ethics. It definitely doesn’t lack ambition and considering the statistics above, if successful, the implications could be tremendous. With 10,000 signatures clocked on the petition on change.org it has certainly has some momentum.
Technology is just one component of digital democracy. Delib strives to build tools which improve the interaction between government and citizens, continually improving them to be more responsive and better for everyone. However, clearly there are still barriers to some groups of users getting online and taking advantage of these tools to make their voice heard. The digital divide is real and present but it is heartening to see efforts being made to close it.
Here at Delib, we’re always glad to see people using technology to broaden the transparency of Government and to enable the public to participate in democracy as more informed citizens.
As the saying goes, ‘knowledge is power’: I’m a big believer in equipping citizens with the facts first so they can engage with what Government is doing (or not doing). With the right information in front of them, people can then begin to engage, comment and challenge.
But we should definitely celebrate steps in the right direction and give appropriate credit where change is happening – like at The Office for National Statistics (ONS), for example. The ONS is the UK’s national statistical institute and the largest producer of official statistics. One of its key responsibilities is to collect, analyse and disseminate a range of key economic, social and demographic statistics about the UK. Early in 2014, the ONS conducted some research into the audience of its website. They wanted to understand the characteristics of users in order to help them achieve theirstated aims of supporting democratic debate and finding ‘innovative ways of making data, statistics and analysis more accessible, engaging and easier to understand’.
The persona of an ‘Inquiring Citizen’
Three core ‘personas’ were identified in their research: ‘Expert Analysts’, ‘Information Foragers’ and ‘Inquiring Citizens’. (If you’re anything like me, you’re squarely in the third camp: ‘I’m not a power user looking to analyse complex patterns and knuckle down with regression curves. I’m just looking to find a trustworthy source of information about things in the news!’)
What the ONS found was that they needed to simplify their website, reduce the complexity of the language and make the whole site more responsive.
Visual.ONS was released earlier in January this year and represents a first step, sitting alongside a partner site to the ONS Beta website which is acting as a testing ground for a future ONS website for the ‘analysts’ and ‘foragers’.
Although still in its infancy, Visual.ONS has already drummed up some positive engagement in its first few months. Aparticular piece of analysis on ‘single people in the UK’ using Census data has captured the imagination. The current featured piece on maps illustrates different data sets on a map of the UK and is useful for comparisons. If you’re in the market to buy a new house, it might be worth checking this out to find out where your next move might be… (I’ve already settled on Burnley). This shows that there is real potential for data published by the ONS to spark wider discussion and debate when presented in an accessible format.
There is a lot to be encouraged about from the direction of travel that the ONS is taking and even better that it began from some good old fashioned survey research. With the UK perfectly placed as a leader in open data as well, I am holding cautious optimism for a brighter, more open policy making future with a greater dash of public engagement.
Eric – secondee from the the Civil Service Fast Stream
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.
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!
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!).
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.
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.
Donna had just attended the 35th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) last week in Italy. The IAIA is the leading global network on best practice in the use of impact assessments to make informed decisions regarding policies, programs, plans and projects. By bringing together experts and practitioners with diverse backgrounds, the IAIA aims to establish and disseminate best practice for impact assessments. The Office of the Environmental Protection Authority were there to present a paper on how they were using digital tools and social media to revolutionise environmental impact assessments in Western Australia.
Lucky for us, Donna made the extra effort to pop a little further across Europe to our part of the world, to share some of those insights with us. We’re always excited to hear stories from our customers about how they’re engaging people in better ways!
The Western Australian Approach to Social Media in Environmental Impact Assessments (adapted from Cromity, 2012 and Nagle and Pope, 2013)
Donna shared some of the positive engagements they have had through using digital tools and social media to influence the environmental impact assessment process. At the core of their strategy is the Citizen Space consultation hub, acting as the primary tool for publishing, managing and running consultations. In particular the WAEPA used Citizen Space extensively in 2014 for a number of contentious assessments including proposals to implement a shark mitigation program, and proposals to explore and mine in areas of natural bushland with high biodiversity values.This strategy was effective in increasing levels of participation and also helped to raise awareness for sharks and the complex relationship between man and nature. Responses to the three consultations relating to shark mitigation were particularly strong with over 14,000 responses received.
The WAEPA was able to monitor conversations through channels such as Twitter. They used it to direct the public and stakeholders to information relating to impact assessments, and policy development, as well as opportunities to respond to new consultations. Although they are unable to engage in a two way dialogue due to their particular remit and purpose, the EPA was able to take advantage of the networks to disseminate information as well as raise awareness about their work. In particular I was impressed by their application of the social media framework above to ensure they covered and monitored the realms of publishing, sharing, discussing and networking.
The Western Australian experience is hugely informative and provides a helpful case study on how digital tools and social media can positively influence the environmental impact assessment process. These methods offer an often untapped potential for greater public participation. For the WAEPA it has helped them to:
communicate the clear purpose of environmental impact assessment to stakeholders, providing the opportunities for them to feedback into the decision making process;
increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of large scale public participation;
become more adaptable during the public consultation process;
show greater transparency by providing open and immediate access to information;
better target the interested and affected public for participation.
Being a secondee from the British Civil Service, meeting Donna offered a refreshing and encouraging insight into the use of digital tools and social media internationally. Something I’ll definitely be taking back with me for sure! It’s exciting to see the digital democracy bug catch on across the world and I can’t wait to hear more stories from customers and to celebrate their successes.
With thanks to Donna and her colleagues from the WAEPA.
We’re always excited to see the public bodies we work with here at Delib taking steps to engage people in more and more interesting ways, and to share examples of when they do it really well.
This week will see the end of a consultation by the Western Australia Department of Health on the future of cancer control in the state. It’s really well-designed, interesting and informative – exactly the kind of thing we like to see our customers doing!
The consultation opens with a video introduction from the state’s Chief Health Officer, Tarun Weeramanthri, presenting the project’s key goals – to get some genuine public input into the Department’s report on cancer, and for that input to be based on people’s own interpretation of the data and assessment of the choices that need to be made.
This is a great way to start. Having a senior official take ownership of the consultation immediately gives it a personal feel, and helps respondents connect with the organisation. It also clearly spells out to people why they should respond and what their responses will be used for.
That data is presented in an easily accessible and engaging way, using infographics, embedded videos of interviews with cancer experts, and other media.
It’s great how WA Health have taken the opportunity not just to ask the public’s opinion, but to provide some really interesting content within the consultation – meaning most people will come out of the consultation knowing more than when they went in (at least I did).
The interviews with experts, infographics and external links are all interesting, easy to understand and helpful. The comparison of cancer survival rates between Australia and other OECD countries was particularly interesting (spoiler alert: The UK doesn’t come off well…)
The survey also focuses the respondents on the choices that the state and everyone in it have to make when confronting an issue like cancer. Questions like whether alcohol or unhealthy food should be made more expensive can trigger immediate responses, often connected to emotions and political alignment. That’s why the consultation does a great job of demonstrating, based on that reducing cancer rates means having to make difficult choices on these issues.
A couple of colleagues from Delib and I had the pleasure of attending a workshop this week run by the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network in Bristol, led by Tim Hughes from Involve.
The workshop brought together a mix of people working in digital democracy in Bristol and the area with the goal of discussing what the OGP has achieved so far and what the priorities should be in the future – then working up some new ideas of our own for how to make the vision a reality.
To give some background, the Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011, bringing together governments and civil society around the world to promote transparency, build civic participation and tackle corruption. Each country that signs up produces an action plan, which contains a series of commitments to opening up government. The UK is now on its second action plan – which includes commitments to make more data open data, to practise ‘open policy making’, and to increase transparency among government contracts, amongst others.
The OGP Civil Society Network plays the role of coordinating civil society input to what government is doing, ensuring that the process of opening government itself does not become a closed one! They are also collecting the public’s contributions to a crowdsourced Open Government Manifesto – using (what else) our very own Dialogue App.
With a desire to make sure they avoid being too London-centric, they are running a series of workshops around the country this spring to engage with local civil society – and it was the inaugural session that brought them to Bristol.
Personally, I got a lot out of the workshop. In particular, listening to a group of people expressing their hopes and concerns for Open Government highlighted what for me are three of the biggest challenges in this area:
1. Turning transparency into participation
Working in government, the open government agenda tends to generally be very closely associated with open data and transparency. This is one of the areas where the UK has performed very strongly on a global scale – coming in at first place for 2014 in Open Knowledge’s Open Data Index. Sites like data.gov.uk are really impressive pieces of work, and the enterprising citizen now has an unprecedented range of government information available to them at the end of a google search.
However, I can’t help feeling that this strand of work only takes us so far. Whilst all of this data is useful, much of it is unintelligible to the ordinary citizen without being summarised or analysed by an expert. Such a focus on opening up datasets risks neglecting one of the other main strands of the OGP’s work – increasing participation. After all, what better incentive do citizens have to engage with the data that is available to them than if they are asked to make real decisions based on that data? There is also the concern that the section of the population that engages with open data tends to be predominantly well-educated, well-employed, and already in the orbit of government and policy.
Projects like the open policymaking pilots show a lot of promise – in the future I’d love to see government finding more ways to let citizens make, or at least contribute to, the decisions that the data can help inform.
2. Making the data useful to everyone
Following on from the point above, there are a lot of challenges relating how data is presented. We could perhaps imagine a matrix that plots clarity against obscurity on one axis, and useful accuracy against confusion/inaccuracy on the other. Typically, a lot of information released by government is either clear but confusing/inaccurate or accurate but obscure/unintelligible.
For the former I am thinking of press releases, ministerial speeches and infographics that use easy to understand language and visuals, but strip out the important detail to an extent that without context they are very little use in appraising the policy concerned.
For the latter, I mean the very lengthy delivery plans, parliamentary bills, and spreadsheets of data that are all publicly available, and comprehensive in their detail, but whose size and complexity mean that they are only really of use to the few people with the time and inclination to read them.
It would be great to see more data that is both clear and comprehensive, giving the facts in a nuanced way that is also easy to understand. There already some organisations that do good work producing this kind of information – fullfact.org is a favourite of mine, and the BBC and Guardian Data Blog do a good job too.
In the future, I think it’s important for government to be filling this space more – working hard to make sure that everything published presents all the facts, rather than the ministerial office’s ‘lines’, and seeks always to inform, rather than to hide or deflect.
3. Turning Open Government into something big
One of the real difficulties when discussing Open Government is balancing expectations against reality in terms of the scale of what can be achieved. The concept promises a lot, especially in the current era, with its distrust of politicians and parties. There’s also the sense that new technology should have the potential to redesign the way we participate in public life in the same way it has completely changed how we shop and socialise.
In this context, some of the projects that are being carried out – many of which are quite specific and policy-wonkish – might appear to be failing to address the issues at the required scale. What the government has done to improve transparency in aid spending, or what we do at Delib to help councils consult on budgets, is (we believe) good and important work, but it all often falls beneath the public radar despite our best efforts. At the workshop, there was also a sense that even for those us working in the sector, the goals and actions of the UK’s Open Government programme hadn’t been high-profile enough.
For open government to really capture the imagination of the wider public, we need to embrace big ideas, and these ideas need representation at the top of our political system. The OGP has called on political parties to commit to open government going into the general election – let’s hope they do!
Thanks again to Tim and Jo (with support from Development Initiatives and VOSCUR) for facilitating a fun and thought-provoking session – see you again soon!
For anyone who is yet to have a go, My2050 challenges you to get UK CO₂ emissions below 20% by 2050 by setting how much effort is applied to areas both in the Supply and Demand sectors – and it’s not a simple feat.
The Guardian asks four journalists what they would do differently
It’s interesting to see how individuals approach the My2050 challenge and to hear the rationale behind their decisions. The common theme to emerge from the Guardian article is how difficult it is to balance supply and demand – working out where, and how deep, the cuts should be.
“The exercise was valuable in forcing confrontation with demand as well as supply. The latter is easier to navigate.”
David Walker, contributing editor for the Guardian
Tracking the journalists’ thoughts and opinions as they were actually using the tool also helped to expose the difficult decisions which are needed.
“Oooh, it’s fiddly, this balancing demand with supply while getting down to 20% of current carbon emissions.”
Louise Tickle, social affairs journalist from the Guardian
Cardiff University explore the challenges of creating a national citizen engagement process for energy policy
In a more academic context, the My2050 tool proved useful in presenting the higher level complexities of system change to a varied audience, as well as improving engagement in policy change.
What all of these examples show, is the huge diversity of uses for such a tool – not to mention the broad range of individuals who can be engaged as part of what is a very complex challenge to address.
In the three years since its launch, the landscape (environmentally, politically, economically) has, of course, changed. Were My2050 built today, might the emergence of fracking, the decreasing price of oil and the renewed focus on nuclear power change the structure and approach?
These developments provide a good example of what the My2050 tool plays a part in – highlighting the continuous flux that underpins the complexity of balancing environment, economy and energy demand. That My2050 still continues to encourage discussion and Deliberation on the difficult questions around UK energy provision is something we are pleased about; perhaps the important thing is just that the conversation continues.
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.
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…
At Delib we’re always keen to help support and improve government’s understanding and use of digital, so when it was suggested that we had a Civil Service fast streamer seconded to us for 6 months, we embraced the Del Monte school of thought and said ‘yes’!
Matt’s going to be helping with, and learning about, all aspects of our work, so here’s some quick fire questions with the man himself.
What’s your name and where are you from?
Matthew Hornsby, from London
What’s your professional background?
I’m in my second year of the Civil Service’s fast stream development programme. For the last 6 months I’ve been a policy adviser in the office of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, before that I worked in the Department of Health, managing public health programmes. Prior to joining the civil service I was a ‘secondary raw materials trader’ (kind of a glorified scrap dealer), at Hanwa Co. ltd, a Japanese trading house, for 2 years. I’ve also been an English teacher in Japan and in Spain.
What made you want to be seconded to a digital company/ Delib?
I wanted to experience an atmosphere that’s really quite different from what I’ve got used to in government, and I think 6 months at a small(ish) tech firm with big ideas like Delib will be perfect to put the sometimes rather staid and unambitious attitude you can encounter there in perspective. One of the big tasks for government over the next few years is to learn from the digital sector how to do things better. People are already wondering why they can order an air freshener off amazon in two clicks but need to fill out 5 different pieces of hard-copy paperwork to claim back taxes, apply for a passport or register at their GP.
What are you most looking forward to learning about?
Seeing things from the other side of the fence – so as a ‘supplier’ to government, rather than the one doing the purchasing, will be really interesting. I find everything to do with digital really fascinating – the business model of the company, some of the real technical stuff about how the apps and the web work, the AGILE project management techniques. I’m particularly looking forward to developing a good ‘tech’ vocabulary, so that I can go back to the civil service and dazzle senior colleagues into submission with a lot of acronyms they don’t understand…
Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Myself! I have an exotic banknotes collection which I’d grab if it was handy. Everything else is replaceable, more or less…
Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Normally leave it, due to a fear of crumbs in my tea.
Favourite band and / or artist?
Too tough to answer! My two most listened of all time are probably Billy Bragg and the Smiths, which is sad because my dad also likes both. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Ethiopian jazz maestro Mulatu Astatke, which is a bit cooler.
Bristol – historic, vibrant city or regional backwater?
So far I haven’t met anyone with a bad word to say about the place! Looking forward to exploring and getting to know the city.
Anything else to add?
Delighted to be here and can’t wait to get stuck in!