If there was one sound bite that stood out for me at the last Translation Layer event, it was Steph Gray’s ‘policy is written by those who show up’. If that’s the case (and it’s hard to argue against it) then the job for all of us concerned with democracy and engagement is simple… get more people to show up!
Unfortunately there are significant, multi-layered barriers to democratic access for many people: digital exclusion increasingly creates a sub-class of citizens who lack access to many engagement platforms and are limited in their access to others; lack of information literacy limits or prevents those who are online from participating effectively; and lack of political literacy means that many citizens do not have the knowledge, skills or confidence to navigate and participate in public policy environments.
This disaffection isn’t new, it’s part of a long standing decline (starting in the 1950s) in political participation and trust. Some might of course argue that this suits policy makers as there is little public awareness of (read: interference in) much of that they do. To overcome the current deficits we have to re-build levels of interest in policy and politics, but doing so is neither quick and or easy. Nor is increasing levels of political and information literacy. So alongside strategies to build long-term capacity through education (both formal and life-long learning), we need to build up, harness and connect networks of intermediaries – people with the pre-requisite skills and knowledge – and then connect them up with communities that need support.
This will work because the power of new media lies in the power of the networks it facilitates. There is the potential to overcome the power of strong ties through networks of association. In this new landscape the strong ties that count are the mavens who connect vast networks of issues-based citizens, who in turn are best place to nudge the latent nodes within their networks into action.
On the other side, government, both politicians and policy makers, need to do their bit and step out of broadcast mode. Engagement cycles need to go through the key stages of listening, response, action and reporting on action right around to more listening.
Listening too must occur outside the engagement framework, new social networks provide rich seams of data that, through tools such as sentiment analysis, can help to understand public opinions. In effect, we need to shift from passive policy cycles to active policy cycles. This method can be helped by a willingness on the part of those who host the engagement to step out from their normal domains. In the physical world, this means going out to engage with stakeholders where they live, work and play.
Online, it requires the virtual equivalent, instead of engagement sitting passively on gov.uk or parliament.uk websites, push it out to third party blogs, websites and social media – go where the people who will really be affected already are: don’t expect them to come to you.
Such a strategy can be unpopular and for a very good reason; the impact on resources can be significant. However, this is, I believe, manageable, what is really required is a new set of processes and tools and above all a new mind-set. If we are to look at making more grounded collective decisions then we need tools that are collective and collaborative. We need to match the technology to people, the engineering to the design.
Whilst there are numerous good digital engagement platforms around, innovation in this field is remarkably slow and many engagement exercises are simply shoe-horning offline tools into digital settings or copying what was done elsewhere, often with limited results. Ticking the engagement box is very easy, creating effective valued-added engagement, less so.
I’m arguing here for a move towards a common centre. I don’t believe that governments own the systems of democracy and engagement. Nor do I believe that civic society does either. Both are polarisations. Both demonstrate tensions and fractures, particularly along their borders. Whilst good things can occur, too often they leave both sides feeling unsatisfied. For effective engagement, we need to build more consensus driven approaches that inhabit shared spaces that are neither public sector or privately run but partnership-led with independent brokers and information gardeners able to facilitate a meeting of minds.
Ultimately what I’m advocating is for the democratisation of knowledge gathering and a more transparent, less ideological approach to informing policy development. This is about trust, not power.