Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power Enquiry

I can't remember who it was that said that Harold Wilson could "swallow a sixpence and shit a corkscrew", but it came to mind when I saw Gordon Brown's acceptance - in parts - of the conclusions drawn by the Power Enquiry.

But I'm still surprised at how charitably the whole report has been received so far. It seems to be largely to provide a summary of the kind of demands that non-parliamentarians have been making for some time.

Gordon Brown has welcomed the 'votes at sixteen' proposal of course. And he's up for further reform of the Lords. But whatever you think about Gordon, he's not the kind of adventurer who will give in to the core reforming demands of the Power Enquiry.

Anyone who thinks that Prime Minister Brown will weaken political parties or reform the voting system very much should be advised not to hold their breath while they wait.

However, to the detail of the thing: A few initial reactions - from the Executive Summary,
24. Citizens should be given the right to initiate legislative processes, public inquiries and hearings into public bodies and their senior management.

26. A requirement that Public service broadcasters develop strategies to involve viewers in deliberation on matters of public importance - this would be aided by the use of digital technology.

27. MPs should be required and resourced to produce Annual Reports, hold AGMs and make more use of innovative engagement techniques.

Citizens already have the right to initiate legislative processes. The only barrier is that they have to get someone to vote for them first.

Should this change? Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I don't think it should.

On the question of broadcasters involving viewers, I'd be happy with this if our existing broadcasters could come up with one format that brings the public and elected representatives together to discuss something like grown-ups first. Programmes that attempt to do it at the moment are pretty awful for the most part.

And as for MPs being 'required' to produce annual reports, I'd suggest that voters can ask them to do so if they wish. And judge the results. But if you require them to hold an AGM or write a report and you can expect the usual bland, stage-managed 'big conversations' up and down the country.

So, IMHO, these last two points would do more harm than good.

What no-one seems to be prepared to address is the question of how we can get more ordinary people discussing issues based upon evidence, rather than the ludicrous rumour and hearsay that makes up much public dialogue.

The real challenge to anyone who wants to improve democracy in this country is the question of how encourage people to have more civilised and thoughtful conversations with each other. Ones that are based upon well-reported information.

Much of the perceived political malaise seems to be a symptom of this failing in public life - and not the kind of superficial reforms that the Power Enquiry seems to be wringing it's hands about.

Cllr Bob makes a telling point about the authors of the report:
"...the members of the Commission seem to be lacking in any experience of, ermm,
how can I put this nicely..... democracy!"

(update: read Elephunt in Bob's comments)

More navel gazing about blogging

About 20% of my working day is spent promoting a project that is designed to encourage people (in this case, Councillors) who are not particularly technically inclined to become managers of their own websites.

We could have originally focussed it on getting Councillors to manage their own blogs, but in most cases, the real challenge is to get them to put their toes in the water for the first time.

The reason we're not keen to push them into blogging directly is because weblogs are generally a bit 'vertical' - only the most recent posts attract much passing attention - last week's post is fishwrap, even though it is often fairly timeless in it's composition.

And those Councillors that want to blog, will do so anyway.

Now, 'vertical' isn't an entirely bad thing - creating a pressure to post regularly means that bloggers are sometimes motivated to write high quality stuff (no laughing at the back...), but it's fairly high maintenance. And - when info isn't visited once it's a week old - it is hard to persuade many Councillors that this provides a decent return on investment.

There are, of course, great exceptions. Some bloggers have found ways of future-proofing their copy. Take Geoff's site. I've been a regular visitor there for a while, but - I think - Geoff started off with a website, and then bolted on a blog afterwards.

Aside from his questionable taste in music, Geoff is a true original. If they did an award for London blogging, it would have to be between Geoff and Jag's Route 79 blog that gives you London through someone else's eyes - along with a decent set of recipes.

Pootergeek attempts to rescue stuff from his archives with his 'best of', but I suspect that this is often a chore for him.

Changing the subject, Geoff has a great page on different versions of the London tube map: The newest one on me is the anagram version. I'm not sure that I'm happy having my locale renamed as 'Wifely stench'.

I'm trying to remember which novel is the one with a gay character who has such a horror of .... er.... natural feminine smells .... that he becomes a wildly successful perfumier. It's either 'Kinflicks' or 'Even Cowgirls Get the Blues'. Help me out, willya?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Who will convene the first departmental Wiki Committee?

From the Guardian a few days ago:

"Some of the interactivity of wikis may be adopted by one of the most popular government websites, NHS Direct Online, although it has no intention of allowing anyone to edit its medical advice. Instead, it may invite those with long-term conditions to contribute advice on coping with related problems.

When I was a GP, people with cancer often didn't want to ask so much about their treatment but things like where to find a wig-maker," explains Dr Mike Sadler, NHS Direct's medical director - areas that patients often know better than professionals.

Depending on the contents of the government's white paper on out-of-hospital care, NHS Direct could start accepting contributions from the public next autumn. "It would tap into the community of people with long-term conditions, which is massive," says Dr Sadler.

However, material generated by patients - as well as social workers, who would be involved in such a project - would probably take the format of a moderated chatroom, rather than a wiki. "In the short term, it would be adding to a conversation in print, rather than removing half a page because you thought it was wrong," says Sadler."

The whole thing is worth a read – particularly if you aren’t familiar with the way that Wikis are managed.

Matters arising:
  • With Wikis, could non-mainstream medical perspectives (e.g. the anti-MMR viewpoint) be highlighted because of the all-inclusiveness, or would the Wiki have less of an establishment cachet, thereby improving the public’s understanding of medical advice?
  • Will establishment-managed Wikis lead to yet another hierarchy that rules on who is allowed to comment and who isn’t? Will the bureaucracy and public-funded argument that goes into who can and should have editing rights use up more energy than the actual creation of content?
  • ... and will this improve or degrade the quality of advice to the public and professionals alike? (a: degrade! degrade!)
Elsewhere in the Guardian, (again, from a few days ago) modesty forbids me from linking to this. So I won’t.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Wonderful news!

If you've seen this, you'll understand why I say this.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Speaking truth to power

I often wonder why people are so frightened of conversation. Janet knows.

(hat tip: Lisa R.)

e-Enabling transactions

The New Statesman blog links to this Italian virtual cop-shop.

Now, I know that I've been accused, in the past, of slightly stereotypical criticism of Italy

But I don't care. Does anyone know what the Italian translation of 'pay your bribes here' is? I can't find anything that looks like it on the site, but it's probably because my Italian is a bit rusty. They could probably just use Paypall?

Monday, February 20, 2006


Bet365's 'Forest Bet' service* is offering odds on who will be the next England / Newcastle managers, but they are silent on the Forest job.

I've heard the following names mentioned in various places

  • Colin Calderwood (Northampton)
  • Nigel Clough
  • Paul Hart
  • Kevin Keegan
  • Brian Laws
  • Paul Merson
  • Graeme Souness
  • Dave Penney (Doncaster)

Ian Holloway has also come up in conversation, but after this, I think he can be ruled out...

Also the message-boards have mentioned (if only to rule out) "ex-managers of Leicester and Derby."

Alex wants Keegan - and I think that Forest fans have always taken a dimmer view of KK than is fair. But, given what was going on at the time, it's hardly suprising.

It's safe to say that Nigel Clough's return to the City Ground would almost certainly end in failure, no matter how well he'd do. Just thinking about it gives me the kind of excited nausea that I used to get on the way to Goose Fair / Ilkeston Fair when I was about eight years old.

Update: Steve Stone backs Forest old-boy (specifically Clough or Laws). I have a distant recollection of Brian Laws saying "I'd crawl over broken glass for the chance of managing Forest."

* I know, I know. It's a syndicated service that isn't run by The Mighty Trees. Interesting, they've got Curbishley as 4/1 second favourite, behind Martin O'Neill for the England job. Big Sam is at 9/2 and Psycho is at 10/1 (behind Peter Taylor!!?!?). Steve Coppell and Trevor Brooking are at 25/1. But aren't they forgetting someone?

Here's a clue:

Update: Totalbet have him at 80/1! I'd have him above Taylor, equal with Pearce and miles ahead of Brooking.

Alastair intimidated

Some statements can be interesting, not for their content, but for who is saying them.

Alastair Campbell
"Research in the UK after the election showed that 28% of UK internet users went online to get political information - this equates to 15% of the population. This is still a long way behind other sources. 89 per cent of people cited TV as a source of political information relevant to the campaign, 70 per cent said newspapers. But among young people aged between 18 and 24, the figure rises to 33 per cent. It is still not high enough to be able to claim a "revolution" in political communications, but it may suggest a trend towards it."

"The appeal of all this, in our very aggressive media marketplace, in which news and comment have become fused in so many of our papers and broadcast outlets, and in which 24 hour news has become a journalistic talking shop, one reporter often being interviewed by another about what others say in their newspapers, is that it offers the prospect of more direct communication. Also, just as the public have grown very canny about techniques of political communication - how could they fail to given the media's obsession with exposing and criticising so-called "spin"? - so they are very canny about media spin too. The internet gives them the chance to put themselves in the driving seat so far as access to political information is concerned. They can decide what they want to see and read, and go and find it. They can have their opinions, and go to find the arguments that help maintain them, rather than have anyone tell them what to think."

"The area most in need of development is in how you turn this into a genuine two-way process of debate and engagement. The best of our MPs have picked up on this and developed really exciting ways of re-engaging with their constituents. But it is slow, and I think even the best would admit that pressure groups still lead the way. They do not always have the resources of the major parties but they make up for it with technological know how and entrepreneurial spirit. Make Poverty History was a brilliant example. Regardless of whether it was or it wasn't, people felt this was a two-way dialogue. Political parties are still driven by "one to many" communications, rather than trying to imagine - and bring about - "one to one."

"For the parties to get better, politicians need to understand the web more, but I know from my own experience it is an uphill struggle. Only now are young politicians coming through who are familiar with its capacity and relaxed about some elements which intimidate some of their older colleagues, me included."

"As with so much in the world of change, this will be driven by young people, the very people politicians need to reach out too most if we are to reverse the decline in political engagement and the rise in cynicism. It means understanding that we now live in an age where anyone under 30 relies on the web as one of their main communications channels, and where for anyone under 20 it is their core communications channel."


Friday night's B4L meetup was fun. I was on 'the other table', so didn't get to talk to everyone properly, but Skuds has an account here.

I've known Andrew for a while, but it was strange meeting Damian and Tom.

Tom is one of the most readable bloggers I know, and he's usually right. Since I discovered him, I've linked to him copiously. Damien, similarly, gets a visit from my copy of Firefox most days, and everything he said got nods of recognition around the table - we knew all of his stories before he told them.

Soon after meeting him, I ventured an opinion about Sting's bass-playing. About ten minutes later, it dawned on me that the reason I held that opinion was because I'd read it ... on er.... Damien's site....

Andrew's site is worth a visit, by the way. He's very unusual, in that he is an elected Councillor (a Labour one) but he uses his site in a very non-political way. Instead, he presents the public with a portrait of what it's like to be a local Councillor - the work he does, the conflicts of interest, and so on.

Andrew and I differ somewhat as a personality type: I like an argument, and I've always believed that the best way to conduct one is to overstate your case - prod people into engaging with the things you want them to in the first place, and into disagreeing with elements of your argument so that they end up agreeing with a sensible version of the initial provocation.

It sometimes works. More often, I suspect, people can't be bothered to argue and they, instead, make their excuses and leave.

So, for instance, Tom (who works for a pressure group) recalled a post of mine in which I described Pressure Groups as "a job-creation scheme for the self-righteous".

The sober version of my argument is that pressure groups have an unfair advantage in the rivalry they have with elected representatives.

That Andrew can put an argument in a measured way illustrates that he is much more suited to the task of representation than I ever could be.

As always, I left the pub shrouded in the self-doubt of someone who thinks they are a bit OTT and over-argumentative. But it can't have been that bad - Pootergeek felt able to talk to strangers again within a day or so...

Frivolity aside, I've argued before that there are plenty of people who would be freaked out by being placed in an enclosed space and encouraged to talk to strangers wearing a 'I'm Up For A Chat On The Tube' badge. Pootergeek's mate may think that this is 'southern reserve', but I suspect that this is often another defence mechanism.

Footnote: Pootergeek rations links from his site. So he should. A link from him (in one of his posts) can double most bloggers' site traffic. But Jah Jah Dub must have taken in a bit badly....

Friday, February 17, 2006

All change

Last night, I the news about Gary Megson's demise (er... thanks Andy) was brought to me while I attended the launch of a book called 'Post Party Politics' (which can be downloaded from here)

I met David Wilcox there who has written it up nicely

Reading the book, on my way home, I realised what an elephant trap blogging is. There is hardly a chapter in the book that isn't the kind of thing that I want to respond to. But I have a day-job to do.

My first response, however, is that so much of what is being talked about springs from a desire to manage society differently - and the way that the web (now web 2.0 doncha know!) changes the way we interact will provide the catalyst for all of this.

I have a good deal of experience in developing on-line projects for organisations. Generally, if they are good at communicating, have good ideas and dynamic people, and have their internal processes tidied up, the website that we develop for them will be a success. And vice versa.

An awful lot of money has been wasted on projects that aim to route around organisational failings with some whizzy application.

I would suggest that - in re-inventing democracy, this will also be the case. And I can't see why people find this so complicated to grasp. Representative Democracy - in this country (UK) - works reasonably well. It simply isn't the disaster area so many people say it is.

Sure, pressure groups are too powerful, parties are too powerful, the media present too much of a rival to elected representatives, and so on.

But if those representatives can improve the way that they interface with the public (and web 1.0 CAN help them to this!) then many of these failings can be redressed.

There may be an article in the book that I've not found yet that supports / rebutts my argument here (I'll let you know).


Other stuff in the swelling inbox: The IDeA have published a paper on the role of the Ward Councillor in the context of the Neighbourhood agenda. (via Kevin Harris)

And also from Kevin's site, "retailers under-estimate the importance of pedestrian travel and over-estimate the significance of cars." (from the 'Graz Study', published by Sustrans).

... and 'in praise of the cul-de-sac'. Sometimes the only way to design something is to involve the people that will use it. But sometimes, people just accidentally have good ideas.

Situation filled

For some strange reason, neither Nigel Clough, Brian Laws, Paul Hart, Stuart Pearce or Roy Keane could be reached last night to be on the receiving end of the job offer of the century.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


"Council leaders must talk to property developers at a much earlier stage to help build communities, not soulless expanses of brick, local government leaders have warned."

More to the point, perhaps, why are property developers being allowed to develop anything without involving the people who have to live there?


David Wilcox & Lee Bryant:
"Power is derived most obviously from being able to choose and frame the questions and the type of language used [in consultations]; but it is also important to consider who is asking the questions, when and how they are asked, and of course who can answer."

Apropos of the previous post about ‘misunderstandings’, surely the real question is one of difficulty many people find in communicating with those around them?

Here's an experiment that everyone can try at home. Ask someone that you deal with regularly (friend, neighbour, colleague etc) to get in touch with someone else (anyone!) to explain / ask / query something.

Almost every time, your request will not be carried out. Not because of laziness or poor faith, but because most people will not admit that they are nervous about communication.

"Phone them up" you say. Promises are made. A day later, "oh, they weren't in". "Send an e-mail" you say. The excuses lengthen. Contact is never made. Where it is, little by way of useful information changes hands. Often, the problem isn't the person you have asked to initiate contact - it is the person who is contacted that is unwilling to engage.

But either way, if two random people are asked to communicate with each other, the likelihood of one of them lacking the confidence to do so is fairly high.

Extracting information from other people is as tightly demarcated a task as a production-line job was at Fords in the 1970s. But this time, it isn't stroppy Unions drawing the lines: It's the secret phobias of a sizeable slice of the population.

Educationalists tackling dyslexia have recognised the lengths that people go to in order to build an avoidance strategy. Perhaps it’s time that we recognised how much many people dread having to talk to strangers?

None of this is very original, of course. Focus groups wouldn’t exist if people were confident and assertive about stating their preferences.

But, in framing questions, if people can discuss and agree a set of priorities, then government bodies can stop taking a lead altogether. The real problem is the facilitation of these discussions.

As far as I can see, a lot of the effort and money that is being spent on consultation or e-democracy is intended to route around the lack of interpersonal skills that are to be found in the various branches of the civil service. If this could be improved, perhaps the need for formal consultation would fall dramatically?

Doctors are now being assessed on their ability to communicate. Perhaps other professions should follow suit?


I argued yesterday (paraphrasing) that civic misunderstanding is often a bigger problem than we realise.

Pootergeek reports:

"The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner.

The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time."

Not easy, this explaining-stuff lark, is it?


A pro animal-testing pressure group to even the equation up a bit.

Here is a review of their site from an organisation called 'Speak - the voice for the animals'

"It seems that the latest in a long line of anti-vivisectionist haters has muscled in on the Oxford lab debacle to try to rise above the mediocrity of his worthless, puerile existence in becoming the organiser of a new pro-vivisection lobby called Pro-test.

Sadly – for him, that is, not for us – his ego is seriously over-inflated – ironic, since the only way he appears to be able to get his rocks off is through self-abuse and pornography.

Evidently that which he has little of in the ‘gonad’ department, he makes up for with self-aggrandisement. But perhaps pity should be what we should feel for this sad individual, rather than stoop to personal attacks. He is after all, a child of the system, and as such, loyal to it, without the capacity for a single individually generated thought."

"....rather that stoop to personal attacks"??!!?!

They say "show me your friends, and I'll tell you who you are."

Well surely the same goes for "show me your enemies...."?

(via Antonia)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Loosen up

Over at Harry's Place, Marcus thinks he's got Madeline Bunting bang to rights.

He quotes extensively from Bunting's review of the update on Young and Wilmott's 'Family and Kinship in East London', ('The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict' by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young) and suggests that Ms Bunting is hearing a penny dropping as she writes.

Marcus then goes on to argue that Tony Blair has taken the trouble to listen to all types of people, and not just self-styled experts, and has responded with an agenda - the Respect Agenda - that recognises those concerns.

I'm not sure that the liberal left have quite as much guilt to trip on as they think over this one. There has always been a section of the Left that has argued for greater involvement of ordinary people (as opposed the the politically-correct paternalism of professionals) in shaping their lives.

New Labour's evidence-based policy, and it's willingness to use focus-groups in order to trump the stance of the liberal establishment may have led it into a focus on anti-social behaviour. But this approach often simply allows policymakers to address symptoms, rather than causes.

The great Colin Ward could probably have written Dench, Gavron and Young's conclusions for them, twenty years early. I suspect that he would also conclude that, since the mid-1990s, focus-group managers, think-tanks and other high-priced wonks have simply replaced the liberal professionals that buggered up the post-war experiment - without addressing the cause of that failure.

The real answer may be for professionals to, instead, focus on removing themselves from the equation altogether, and allowing people to take control of the design of their surroundings. Or their schools, come to that.

Actually getting people speaking to each other in a constructive way is a skill in itself - and one that isn't abundant either in the public sector, charities, or in so-called 'social enterprises.'

So much public money seems to go on routing around this inability to communicate. It may keep lots of counterproductive projects in funding. It may even have a positive effect in Keynesian 'burying money down a pit and selling the contract to dig it out' terms.

But it's time that political parties of all stripes started to encourage public dialogue. At the moment, they either don't do it at all, or they have highly structured 'big conversations.'

Friday, February 10, 2006

Cartoons: Islam, anti-semitism and The Left

If there has been a better article written by paid writers in the mainstream media on the Danish cartoons episode and the questions it raises, I'd like to see it.


"a liberal democracy cannot function without allowing for the possibility that what one considers sacred will be profaned."

Parkinson's Law: Update

I missed both of these the first time around:
"The survey (of ODPM civil servants) also found poor staff morale and a low opinion of senior civil servants running the department, among the rank and file.Only 59% of staff understood how their work contributed to Mr Prescott's five-year plan for the department. And just 20% believed that the board of the department had provided effective leadership."

Polly Toynbee on the CMA principle:
"...every department is snowed under with individual cases that should not be handled by amateur politicians.... but a risk-averse civil service dumps ever more into ministers' red boxes, on what Whitehall calls the CMA (cover my arse) principle. No wonder ministers' workloads rise, as does the risk of missing what matters. Ministers no longer trust the civil service as they did, fearing incompetence more than conspiracy"

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Beautiful progress

This may look boring....

"While touch sensing is commonplace for single points of contact, multi-touch sensing enables a user to interact with a system with more than one finger at a time, as in chording and bi-manual operations. Such sensing devices are inherently also able to accommodate multiple users simultaneously, which is especially useful for larger interaction scenarios such as interactive walls and tabletops."

...but click here (and watch the video) to see why it's about the coolest technical development for years.

Just think about the possibilities for a moment.

And, less ambitous, but almost as lovely: The touch-sensitive dinosaur.

Send me some money please? I'd love to buy one of these (ahem) for the kids, of course.

And while we're on interfacing, this one's for all those DJs out there (you'll need your speakers on for this)

Finally: teasing Germans

There are nice ways of joking about Germans.

Hat tip for all of these to Charlie (apart from the scratching - thanks for that Benjer)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cultural Exception

For a while, I've thought that one of the more depressing things about the blogosphere is it's attraction for anti-BBC types. And many of those that don't fall into this camp believe that being seen to support the BEEB would damage their anti-establishment credentials.

Vain bastards, the lot of them.

Look at the evidence:
  • The Brazilians do football better than we do.
  • The Australians and New Zealanders usually generally stuff us at Cricket and Rugby respectively
  • The French out-NHS our asses at every turn

But there are two things that we still lead the world in:

  1. Being beastly to the Germans
  2. Public Service Broadcasting
Everyone should learn from us on this second point.

Thankfully, Nosemonkey is bucking the trend:

"The anti-license fee thing - for all its high moral claims about monopolies and choice and so on (which I can see the case for, honest) - seems largely to be an objection to the very concept of state-funded anything. If so, fine - let's take it to extremes and scrap universal funding for the BBC, NHS, comprehensive schools, university funding, road maintenance, rubbish collection, street lighting, the national parks, the armed forces etc. etc. and replace them all with pay for usage instead. It'd suit me fine. But the entire country would go to shit through under funding within six months."

I'd add something else here. It's about culture. Culture is different. I've no objection to importing, say, 100% of our rice from Asia*. But a progressive policy that can create the level of cultural investment that the BBC does is incompatible with standard global 'state-aid' rules.

*there must be an analogy that is less crude, but I can’t think of it at the moment. Even Vodka isn’t a Russian monopoly…

No improvement possible

I mentioned that one of the reasons that I don't yet fully understand Jo Twist's take on gaming as a social tool is that I've almost no recent experience of gaming.

As far as I'm concerned, Galaxians was so perfect, I don't understand why anyone ever wanted to improve on it.

(I'm prompted to write this because I found this)


Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "We are constantly apologising, and we don't notice how much abuse we're taking." (via Mick Hartley)

Pootergeek: "I hope this hasn’t offended anyone?"

Changing the subject slightly, my (arabic-speaking) Iranian friend insists that the name 'Ayaan' translates as 'Obvious.'

I pressed for a better tranlation, and got 'simple','plain' or 'what you see is what you get'.

Monday, February 06, 2006

More on e-democracy

"If there is one thing I’ve noticed in the UK, right down to the local council level, is the disconnect between the strong party line and elected officials with the ability to say something interesting online. Those elected officials that blog, actively use their e-mail newsletters, or participate in online forums, seem to be the rare breed willing to talk first and ask for permission later."

From here.

The author probably doesn't realise how many petty rules there are that make this the case. I've argued before that there are way too many regulations.

We could start putting this right by scrapping The Standards Board.

In the same post, Steve Webb (a Lib Dem MP) provides an account of how he asked his constituents to frame their concerns on a particular issue (in this case, the replacement of Trident). Steve doesn't play a numbers game and makes no committment to any of his constituents to do anything other than weigh up their views and reach an informed conclusion in due course.

This seems to me to be a sensible use of simple electronic tools to enhance democracy. Steve hasn't needed to access any of the fabulous (incomprehensible) advice currently on offer from the £4m E-Democracy National Project.

Further to this post about Policybrief, wouldn't it have been wonderful if his constituents could have provided him with a summary of the published research on the subject?

(via Designing for Civil Society)

No way José

"I would sell my very soul for blobby stick!”

Pootergeek, as ever.

It waddles like a Duck, and quacks like a Duck, but that ain't no duck...

Simon Jenkins says

"To defend free speech we mustn't be excessive in the use of it."

Like so many of Jenkins' arguments, it's a quiet creeping authoritarianism masked in liberal handwringing. If only Christopher Hitchens had read it before he wrote ... (in 'Slate')

".... let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these [pork, alcohol, music, dancing]. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say."

Now, we know that Hitch's brother Peter is obviously a right-wing journalist. So is Bruce Anderson or Richard Littlecock, to name but a few.

But because of his ability to sneak up on the less mentally-agile liberals, Simon Jenkins must - objectively speaking - be the most reactionary journalist writing in the MSM today?

Always interested to hear other nominations though...

You may have already seen...
Religious Policeman: Memo #1 and #2

Local involvement in planning

I’m no architect, but I do know a bit about the way that local government procure other services – once that involve a degree of creativity, usability and accessibility.

So when I saw the following paragraph on the website of an organisation called School Works, it rang a bell:

Issues with Current Procurement Methods
Designs for new school buildings are often created without reference to changes in education or wider society. In addition, funds for school buildings are often made available in a way which encourages schools to take the 'least cost' option for short-term gain.

Although the PFI process encourages the consideration of the lifecost of buildings, it can inhibit the involvement of school communities in the design process.We ask how funding regimes and procurement methods can be adapted to enable the creation of beautiful, functional schools.

I’d suggest that changing the procurement methods would not be enough though. Our real problem is that local government hasn’t learned how to communicate with people. It hasn’t developed the communications skills of the people who are expected to communicate and reflect upon their Council’s policies. And people that are unable to develop these skills are not given any incentive (carrot or stick) to improve those skills.

I know that my own Council (London Borough of Barnet) are in the middle of a massive school refurbishment programme. But, unless they can involve local people in the design of those schools, it will become yet another example of the current government's aimless keynesianism: Loads of public money spent / people put to work / money going around the economy, but little noticeable improvement in the quality of public services.

I don’t know anything about School Works as an organisation, but if their role is to partner Councils in carrying out communication projects like this until they learn to do it themselves, they can only be a good thing.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Policybrief: what might have been

A few nights ago, I suggested that a lot of e-democracy tools may result in a bullying of politicians. I should qualify that (in the case of They Work For You) with the acknowledgement that this is not the intention, and that the people involved in that project have been aware of this view and have tried to shape the project to avoid it being used in this way.

However, I've worked on lots of on-line projects, and I know that the biggest problem that usually occurs is when the people responsible haven't fully decided what it is supposed to do. I think that this criticism could be applied to HMS E-Democracy as a whole, and I think that it's time that this was rectified.

Here is an attempt now.

On the question of how new technologies can improve the way that we relate to The Man, and how it can improve democracy, I'd say that the starting point should be to come up with a definition of how you would like to see people behave - regardless of the technologies used.

I've made the case here plenty of times before (scroll - go on!) that pressure groups / journalists / civil servants / party bureaucracies are too powerful, and that anything that allows them to conspire with the general public against elected representatives is a bad thing.

The best recent definition of representative democracy that I’ve seen was Roy Hattersley’s evidence to the Nolan Enquiry in the mid-1990s (can’t find it online though). He said that MPs should represent their constituents, their party and their conscience in no particular order.

On this basis, opinionated citizens are not rivals to elected representatives when they bring them good evidence. Instead, by interacting responsibly, they provide valuable help in allowing MPs to clarify where their conscience points them on a particular issue. They provide MPs with the arguments that they need to challenge their political party’s near-monopoly on policymaking.

They also provide MPs with clearer evidence of what is in the material interests of their constituents. They offer a more decentralised source of information for policymakers than the lying liars that write for our newspapers.

This should result in less centralisation, more deliberation, and better policy outcomes all round.


People start to become rivals to elected politicians when they threaten to mobilise public opinion, to generate negative press-coverage or voter-revolts in support of single-issue campaigns. I would suggest that this could be an unintended consequence of the ‘They Work For You’ project. Whre the general public will do it badly, pressure groups will do it better than they could have done before.

Where they all have their CRM systems in place, the best that most of us can come up with is a contacts list in Outlook.

'They Work For You' will, of course, not achieve any of these bad things that I worry about on it's own. But, in the context of a £4m-funded e-democracy National Project that has paid for the promotion of lots of 'e-petitioning' systems and 'e-consultation tools', a potent mix is awakened.

And many of the people that draw conclusions from that project do not have that classical understanding of political science that TWFY's progenitors have. They will be more likely to explore the usual sterile ground of how like-minded individuals can be networked and can use new communications tools to campaign.

I don't know this for certain, of course. But I suspect that not everyone the will study the outcomes of the E-Democracy National Project's work would be able to write a good essay on Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol.

But they may end up spending public money tying up the various tools that are being built in a very worrying way.

"But", I hear you say, "sniping is easy. What would you do instead?"

Well. I'd say, firstly, that I hope that none of what has gone before is seen as sniping. Then I'd start asking people for a bit of help with a project that I've got in mind.

In 2001, I developed a project called Policybrief. It's still there - www.policybrief.org - have a look (the back-end doesn't work anymore though, so nothing's been added for years...).

It was a flawed project. It was built using rigid databases, before Content Management Systems had evolved to the state that they are now in. It was very Web 1.0
It didn't have the ability to spider and search other sites. There is no XML, no tagging, and none of the content aggregation tools that are commonplace now. And I didn't know as much about future-proofing web-projects as I know now. This was not platform-neutral, and 'semantic mark-up' was but a pipe-dream at the time.
But, in its defence, it anticipated the concept of folksonomy, and it made an attempt at coming up with a strategy to get think-tanks and other policy-producers to work together. It had a bloody good classification system that was applied in a very effective way, though I say so myself.
I still think that the basic concept is a good one. It was intended to make it easy to aggregate and access high-quality information - something that would be useful for Councillors, MPs and MEPs, and something that would allow the public to lobby MPs on the basis of good research – not with the threat of various kinds of mobilisations.
Pressure Groups currently do both. And politicians often can't find much by way of high-quality published policy information- even now. Pressure groups often selectively deprive MPs of important information so that it can be used in an ambush when the time is right.

Again, I declare an interest here. I spent tons of my own pocket money on this site, and it ran out of cash when I stopped funding it. It was a non-commerical project anyway. But it was very well received as an idea at the time. I launched it at the ICA and Geoff Mulgan gave a very supportive keynote speech.

Either way, I'd really like to see a project designed to encourage people to become objective allies of representative democracy. And if someone wanted to help me do it, and call it Policybrief, I'd be particularly flattered.

Where Next? - update

That New Statesman event is now available as a podcast.

Cohen. Steinberg. Behan.

A few years ago, Nick Cohen (a columnist) complained* that there were too many columnists, and that newspapers would be better if they replaced them with reporters.

From memory, Nick peppered his article with acknowledgements that he was the beneficiary of this imbalance. And he is almost the only columnist who is routinely prepared to bite the hand that feeds him in this way.

For this reason, come the glorious day of the revolution, he will be spared the blindfold / last fag treatment.

Here he is, doing it again:

"The iron law of the 21st century was that the more often public figures performed for the media the more the public resented them.

There’s a hypocrisy at work here as the media doesn’t apply the same sneering standards to themselves. When Jeremy Paxman behaves stupidly, the clip isn’t shown thousands of times. When politicians do the same, the incriminating footage follows them to their graves."

*Sorry, I can't find this article now - I just remember it


Apropos of this, the New Statesman bunfight was very good for memorable quotes, even by proxy. I just looked Tom Steinberg up. On his MySociety profile. It says:

"Tom doesn't like… a world in which the likelihood of an issue being acted on depends on how well it flukes a position in the news cycle."

Whereas bloggers, on the other hand, have no such ambitions….
A German ad-agency boss says: (via Norm)
Weblogs: "the toilet walls of the Internet"
Dominic Behan once said:

"A man's ambition must indeed be small
To write his name upon a shithouse wall"

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Taking the helm of a large club, the only defence a manager may have is to blame the board. This should be Graeme Souness' next step now that Newcastle have sacked him.

After all, he's spent months blaming everybody else for his own shortcomings. Journalists routinely allow him to get away with blaming referees every time Newcastle under-perform. If not, he blames injuries or other misfortunes.

But blaming Sir Freddy would be the first example of fair comment from Souey since he arrived at St James Park. The astonishment was almost universal when he was appointed - he was about to be sacked by Blackburn, and since then, he has actually taken fewer points per game than he did for the Rovers.

Sir Freddy must have been the only spectator who didn't know how that appointment was going to end.

Brian Clough (peace and blessings be upon Him) used to say that Chairmen should resign when managers are sacked. They appointed them, after all. There is no clearer case than this one. The Toon Army should be calling for Sir Freddy's head in the same way that Southampton fans are (rightly) demanding Rupert Lowe's knackers.

My fellow Forest bloggers never tire of demanding Gary Megson's head. I disagree with them.

Anyone who thinks that Forest's problems are located in the dugout just hasn't been paying attention for the last couple of years.

Where next?

Last night, I met more interesting people that I normally meet in a month at a New Statesman event called Politics and New Media - Where Next?

A few things came up that I'm going to return to in subsequent posts, but before I do that, here's a declaration of interest.

I work on an e-democracy project called Councillor.info. It was largely my idea, and a part of my job and the success of the company that I co-own (it's a smallish co-op) is dependent on it.

I have referred to it a few times on this blog before, but each time, I've partly wished I hadn't because a commercial interest can often reduce the perceived value of any post.

But I'm going to start adding more to this blog about how new technology is likely to change the way the public interact with The Man, and this will include stuff I've learned while working on this project. I want this project to succeed because I think it's a good one, and the posts will reflect that. But the views expressed will be mine alone.

I'll blog about it because I'm interested in it, and anyone who knows me will know that I'd say all of this stuff anyway, even if I didn't have a commercial interest in it.

The reason I've a monomaniacal obsession with representative democracy isn't because I'm working on this project. It's the other way around. I came up with the idea because I thought that the people who we vote for have been the spectre at the lavish feast of e-government, and I wanted to put that right.

So. More on the New Statesman event when I get time. More on Jo Twist's ideas about how gaming will offer new opportunities for people to interact and organise themselves for material ends.

(update 3.2.06: There's a good account of Jo's talk here)

More about the 'They Work For You' project that I had an argument with a few people about (and something that I probably have to do some bridge-building on as a result).

But I'll leave you with a quote from my old mate Bill Thompson*.

"Direct Democrats are worse than the Nazis** - at least with Fascism, you know who's in charge."

* Very nice bloke. But he's needed a haircut for as long as I've known him
**See Godwin's Law - NTaH ibid