Now that the prospect of traditional mass participation indifference and accompanying frenzy of old-style party politics is out of the way for a bit, it could be time for Whitehall to turn its attention to implementing Gordon Brown's ideas for a New Politics of citizen engagement.
These started to surface in July with a Green Paper on The Governance of Britain:
Our constitutional arrangements underpin how we function as a nation. The nature of the relationship between government and citizens, the accountability of our institutions, and the rights and responsibilities of everyone in Britain together determine the health of our democracy.
The proposals published in this green paper, 'The Governance of Britain', seek to address two fundamental questions: how should we hold power accountable, and how should we uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen?
As part of this, the Government wants to engage people around the country in a discussion on citizenship and British values and will be conducting a series of events around the UK to gain as much input as possible.
This got some attention from Chris Leslie - local government specialist and self-confessed constitutional hobbyist, the British Humanist Association (let's disentangle church and state), and the Flag Institute, who naturally enough were interested in the review of flag flying practice that was part of the package. Apparently there's some confusion about how often it is OK to fly the Union flag from government buildings. The Liberal Democrats produced their own proposals, the Policy Exchange has an event this week, but I didn't see much wider popular interest.
This changed in September when the Prime Minister promised a "a new type of politics" in a speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations.
I believe that Britain needs a new type of politics which embraces everyone in this nation, not just a few. A politics built on consensus, not division. A politics that draws on the widest range of talents and expertise, not the narrow circles of power.
Whether it is crime and gang violence, the future health of the nation or climate change, the solutions will not come simply from a narrow debate between states and markets.
So quite simply I reject the old politics of dividing people, not uniting them, of quick fixes, not the long term solutions that everybody knows we must work hard to achieve together, and it means therefore debating concerns and issues like housing, crime, the NHS, schools, community development and regeneration, debating issues that affect local communities direction, not just in the corridors of power but throughout the country.
He promised a series of citizens' juries, standing commissions to bring together a wide range of interests to address key issues, and a Speaker's conference to deal with the problems of the political system.
My friends over at Involve were quick off the mark with an analysis from director Richard Wilson. This urged that juries and summits must not be just opinion-gathering exercises, they must help empower citizens; events aren't enough... you need to "leave the room" and go where people are; and new media could play a big part, perhaps through media agencies including the BBC.
Involve used their blog to create pages where people could comment on what would be needed for the new politics to succeed, and offer up videos. The aim is to create a Democratic Dossier for submission to the Prime Minister in November.
One of the ideas in the Green Paper was a statement of values, and the Daily Mail had some fun with suggestions that this would be a motto to be displayed on schools and public buildings. Could be "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" ... or as one BBC website user suggested "Smile! You're on CCTV". If you are looking for a more serious discussion, Prospect magazine offers thoughts from 50 writers and intellectuals - but my Googling didn't throw up much else.
What I take from this is that there won't be much point in the Prime Minister's no doubt genuine efforts towards a Bill of Rights, or other mechanisms to engage and empower citizens, if New Politics just become Old Participation and political knock about. What's needed are ways to break out of the usual narrow media-politician dialogue, and top-down consultations.
Could new media offer at least part of the answer? Fortunately the Ministry of Justice has published a second report from the Digital Dialogues programme, under which Ross Ferguson and colleagues have studied various Government experiments in online engagement. These range from David Miliband's Ministerial blog at Defra (now transferred to the Foreign Office, where it is joined by other officials) , to a Communities and Local Government Forum, Downing Street Webchats, and a blog by the Food Standard Agency Chief Scientist).
The findings from the study, and associated recommendations, seem to me to provide guidance that could be very relevant across the New Politics/Governance of Britain programme. I think that their preceding analysis is spot-on:
The UK government has a challenge on its hands. Public trust, knowledge and efficacy in British political institutions have been consistently depressed in recent years. Whilst few would question that Britain is a democracy, it has been criticised for its lack of democratic vitality. Its citizens have been described as ‘noisy spectators’ rather than active participants, and its politicians and government accused of retreating into a ‘bunker mentality’ rather than facing the problem.
The researchers suggest that there is a latent interest among citizens in being more engaged by political institutions and representatives - but that there is "a failure on the part of political institutions to take advantage of opportunities to engage the public, often by failing to address what motivates awareness and participation".
I think this is the crunch issue. People are usually interested in issues that affect their lives, if they can understand what's going on. But they are increasingly cynical about engagement processes in which power-holding agencies don't listen, or if they do listen, don't necessarily deliver much resembling the wishes of those engaged. As my friend Drew Mackie wrote a few years back, we are Dancing while standing still.
Anyway, The Digital Dialogues report argues that online methods not only offer new ways for people to engage, but also present "significant logistical, and transparency benefits that are not always present in conventional offline methods". I think that is shorthand for shake things up a bit. They should be mixed with other offline methods, and owned-by and involve Ministers. They work best where government representatives are active participants, not detached convenors.
Recommendations emphasise innovation, being ready to scale-up pilots, co-designing with users, training staff, being interactive, evaluating ... and lots more wisdom generally applicable across the whole field of engagement.
Here's conclusions after a few hours piecing this item together, and reflecting on the various reports and recommendations:
- It is difficult, at the moment, to see what's going on, and to write about it in the spirit of online engagement. Reports are usually pdfs which you have to laboriously download, scan, copy and paste to create anything remotely usable. There are too few links on official sites - "if you are interested in this, you might like to look at that".
- Unless I've missed it, no-one in Government is speaking or writing about this in remotely conversational terms. That - together with the inaccessibility of source material - makes it difficult to talk about - or blog. The default approach is still Ministerial speech, press release, document. Putting a speech on YouTube helps a bit, but the message in the presentation is still "you have to understand things our way".
- The emphasis in most of the policy proposals is still one-way: we need to do more to engage citizens. In my experience, that's not the biggest problem. What's needed is some organisational engagement and culture-change to address not-listening, not-delivery. If you can't deliver, just offering engagement makes things worse.
- When online engagement is discussed, there's a presumption that it means simply creating another official web site, forum, blog. But a long-learned lesson of convention engagement is that few people want to come to "official" places. Don't rely on public meetings, go to the places where people are already talking. As a first step, do some scanning of the online world to find the buzz, then invite the hosts and bloggers in for a chat about how best to engage. Less scary (and risky) than walking in unannounced. Create your own place too, of course.
- Overall, think about creating trusted places and networks within which (hopefully) more constructive discussion can take place. I had a go at explaining that here.
The final recommendation in the Digital Dialogues report is for government to start some co-ordinated internal thinking on engagement processes:
Team up. There are a number of different government networks and funding streams specialising in discrete engagement fields. This fragmentation is leading to replication and inefficiency. Government should establish a cross-departmental ‘community of practice’ to provide leadership, coordination and resources in order to maximise the effectiveness and sustainability of on- and offline engagement activity.
My suggestion: open that up beyond the civil service. There are plenty of people who would like to contribute some thinking and practice, and help create genuinely new politics. The big lesson from using new, social media is that you don't have to do it on your own: build on what's out there already, share what you create, cross boundaries, make new friends. Should be good practice for the new politics too.