What politicians need to know about social public information pt4: Lessons from effective hacktivism

Enlightenment thinkers were wide awake to the dangers of direct democracy as demands for the franchise increased. The concerns raised by thinkers such as Burke, Mill or DeTocqueville remain very pertinent to the discussions around the idea of The Big Society: That active articulate and engaged citizens often have strong ethical views or material interests of their own. To increase their scope to organise society is possibly to damage – not enhance – the legitimacy of modern democracy.

I’ve already mentioned the MyPolice and Patient Opinion projects that have grasped this problem. Elsewhere, in North London, Harringay OnLine (a district within the differently-spelled borough of Haringey) represents a genuine attempt by a networked individual to create an agenda-free inclusive conversational space. A growing hyperlocal movement aims to replicate the success of HOL.

Elsewhere, in areas where families find themselves in the worst of all situations – one where illness and injury leave them with highly complex needs at a point in their lives when they are highly traumatised – we see the state at its most unprepared. Rigid efficiency-led structures with crude delivery mechanisms meet people who don’t know how to express their complex and urgent needs.

Combine this with the competitive gaming that exists on both sides of means-tested benefits and you have a recipe for unmet expectations and inefficiency. Under-resourcing is only a small part of the problem here.  The iCaring project seeks to create a more informed and resourceful community of people who provide and receive care. By creating intelligent informed advocates for the vulnerable and needy, this project is starting to solve another key problem.

This doesn’t just offer an opportunity to public-facing services either. As more services are outsourced, the public sector is reliant upon a crude contract-driven relationship with commercial suppliers whose first obligation is to their shareholders.

No procurement will ever really foresee and describe every eventuality, and this problem is exacerbated by the relatively closed loops that manage procurement. It is a common complaint that one set of consultants write the tenders and another group win them all. The tendering processes themselves are sealed-bid exercises in which civil servants have little scope for developing the kind of human relationships that make other sector of the economy work.

It is a situation that actively discourages small social enterprises from bidding, and – perhaps more importantly, it drives out innovation instead of encouraging it. To purchase a service on behalf of taxpayers in the way that I’d purchase a camera would be a career-ending move for a public servant. Again, by building conversational spaces, projects such as Simpl hold out the potential to transform how public services are defined and purchased.

Similarly, organisations like The Centre for School Design that seek to engage architectural professionals, procuring civil servants and ‘customer’ parents and teachers in a richer dialogue that can remove some of the rigidity and expense from the system.

This list can go on.  In the previous part of this essay I outlined the possibilities that are on offer between hack and flak, including all of these and more. But what do politicians need to learn from this? I’d suggest three things:

  1. To continue to rely upon ‘flak’ – a defensive attempt to dictate the quality and pace of information that is available about public services – is unsustainable. The public trust it less now then they have ever done.
  2. Creating an effective feedback loop that isn’t monopolised by permanent officials can only be a good thing for politicians – it puts them back on the public’s side instead of forcing them to defend the indefensible
  3. Politicians have often been forced on the defensive because these information monopolies have become adept at defending their right to avoid interactivity. Challenging this resistance could become the defining feature of a government that seeks to challenge bureaucracy in pursuit of more efficient, effective and responsive public services.

And how can this resistance be challenged? A recent exercise by participation specialist Tim Davies identified fifty small obstacles that provide the excuses that many organisations think they need to justify a retreat from the interactive space. These barriers range from IT provision, training, and procurement norms through risk-management policies and management inflexibilities.

It is possible to challenge all fifty of these barriers, and Tim’s ‘Interactive Charter’ provides a framework that every politician could be urging upon the permanent officials who report to them.

This may be an opportunity for politicians more than it is a threat. If MPs can conscript the public into a crowdsourcing of the levels of scrutiny that bureaucrats in complex modern systems really need, it may expose the day-to-day activities of the permanent bureaucracy to the standards of transparency that we’re coming to demand from MPs.

Conclusion

Organisations and politicians as individuals need to think strategically about how they can benefit from trusting others to describe their services or positions. This isn’t easy and it won’t work if it’s done in an unmoderated way.

Tim Davies’ Interactive Charter identifies 50 small obstacles that stop organisations from interacting effectively, but it doesn’t deal with the biggest obstacles – the lack of buy-in and confidence from the people at the top – the ones who didn’t-get-where-I-am-today-by-Twittering.

But none of the potential benefits can be harvested if senior people feel insecure. Senior managers and politicians need help with understanding the possibilities. They also need to be able to develop the skill levels and confidence needed to take the first steps. This is a small step for an organisation to take. It’s a medium-sized one for an influential individual. But it could (should!) be fun – once you’ve got the hang of it.

About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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