Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The electors of Bristol

This is a bit of an odd one; Bristol City Council are planning an event entitled: "Activists and Authorities: Can Councils and Community Activists Work Together Effectively?"

The publicity starts thus:

"Should local authorities encourage grass roots campaigns, or by doing so are they simply creating sticks with which to be beaten?"

One part of the publicity stands out: Among the list of speakers, are there any Councillors? Or anyone who has been elected?* You would have thought that this may be a priority for the e-Democracy team at Bristol?

So. No Councillors. Maybe they're all busy? And who does the e-Democracy team at Bristol want to facilitate a dialogue between? Answer: "..Councils and the Communites."

Not Councillors specifically. They can watch I expect?

Back to the blurb: Without prejudice to any conclusions that people may draw from this discussion, it goes on to say:

"The conference will also include the national launch of CampaignCreator, an online campaigning toolkit which is to be available to members of the public for free. Aimed at encouraging community campaigning, CampaignCreator offers advice on all aspects of campaign management.

Users can also create their own campaign websites, produce their own posters and manage their own mailing lists. The scheme has been piloted in Bristol and achieved 160 registrations in the first three months. "

I suppose the 160 in three months figure should give some cause for comfort. Publicly managed websites often aren't very good at getting people to actually use them - with a bit of luck, CampaignCreator won't buck this trend.

But the conclusion would appear to be that the Council should be handing out the sticks to all and sundry. I wonder if a speech made a while ago - in Bristol, as it happens - will come up at all during the day?

(*OK, I admit, I've nicked this line of criticism from Cllr Bob's post on The Power Report).


Shane McCracken said...

To be fair to Bristol there are some points in your post that need addressing.

Before I do though I need to say I am biased. CampaignCreator was my idea and together with Bristol City Council (BCC) we successfully bid for funding from the ODPM e-innovations fund. We're not marketing it for them though.

1. BCC have had support from Councillors for the project but in order to improve uptake from campaigners they have tried to avoid "owning" the project and preferred to brand it as supported by BCC. The choice of speakers at the launch is probably trying to build upon the independence of the tool.

2. The figure of 160 probably refers to the number of campaigners registered which is not a bad figure. We originally were aiming for 50 maximum.

3. The aim of the CampaignCreator is to allow campaigners to create websites and other publicity material for their campaigns. These won't be "publicly managed" websites and I hope they attract lots of traffic.

4. I don't get your line "with a bit of luck, CampaignCreator won't buck this trend". What do you mean?



Paulie said...

Hi Shane,

(*gulp* you're not going to like this, but....)

When I say "with a bit of luck, CampaignCreator won't buck this trend", I mean that I'm not desperate for the project to succeed.

Sorry. I can understand that - as someone who's worked on it - that this is not a particularly welcome message, but you'll see that a recurring theme on this blog is the worry that public money is being used to fund the rivals of elected representatives.

I know that you are also involved the 'I'm a Councillor - Get me out of here!' project. To my mind, one of the most important and undervalued projects around in that it focuses on improving the way that elected representatives interact with the public.

I'd much sooner see every Council in the country getting involved in that project rather than even one using CampaignCreator (or at least CampaignCreator as described in the blurb referred to in this post).

Why? Well, we are, apparently, living in an age when the public are being turned off from traditional democratic engagement. Personally, I think that this view is overstated, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that there is something to it. If people are disillusioned with local democracy, how much more disillusioned will they be if vocal minorities are actually encouraged (and funded) to network more effectively? How much more disillusioned will they be if the demands of these minorities are amplified using publicly funded tools? And how much more disillusioned will they be when these demands are rebuffed by the people who have been elected to represent the interests of the public as a whole - and not just noisy campaign groups? This is why I mentioned Edmund Burke and his speech - in Bristol.

So, unless you can give me a counter-argument, I'd suggest that this project could actually increase public disillusionment with local democracy. This is not a good thing.

One of the most worrying aspects of the whole 'e-democracy' debate is the assumption that - because the current settlement has its flaws, that new technology can be used to offer an alternative. That it can replace the current democratic model instead of fixing it. I’ve sat in on these discussions. There are plenty of people spending public money whyo broadly take the view that the only reason that we didn't become a direct democracy in the first place was because it was thought to be impractical. You can check the level of discussion around the blogosphere if you like – you’ll find plenty of takers for the view that - because online tools can remove a lot of the rigidities around public policymaking, we should revert to 'real' democracy instead - now that it's possible.

To pinch a line (credited elsewhere on this blog), direct democracies make great thinkers drink hemlock at the whim of the masses. No-where in this debate will you ever get advocates of direct democracy to discuss the quality of policies. Sure - popular policies can be adopted. Policies that please vocal minorities.

But democracy only works if it's the best system of government. It's about more than just 'giving people their say'. And that's why representative democracy is more suitable, at every level.

I'd argue that new technical developments can fix the flaws of our current representative democracy - not be used to replace it with an untried - and dangerous - alternative. Again, this will probably bore regular visitors to this blog, but I'll repeat them.

I'd argue that the flaws in the modern democratic settlement are that...

- The Main-stream media are a distorting influence - a functioning democracy relies upon reliable information, not gossip, innuendo, rumour and the f***ing lies that constitute a large slice of daily reporting. In some ways, the blogsphere is providing a wake-up call to the MSM - one that could improve the media (though I sometimes have doubts about this)

- Political parties are too powerful. They are a centralising influence that have gathered power in parallel with the media - largely because the public are less willing to engage with local represenatatives. I'd argue that the massive national centralisation of power is a consequence of this, but that - until someone can come up with a viable replacement to Parties, this will continue to be a problem.

- That pressure groups are too powerful - that sectional interests are well-funded and amplified, and that they are increasingly able to mandate fearful representatives (again, see Burke's view on mandates).

- The Civil Service are not responsive or bound by the demands of elected representatives. As they say, it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.

It strikes me that CampaignCreator is a tool provided by Civil Servants to help pressure groups. Central to Burke's argument on representative democracy is that - when a policy is advocated, it doesn't become better because it is undersigned by a lot of people. If it were a tool that enabled the public to come together and understand representative democracy - and the need for responsible well-researched policy proposals - then it would be a good thing.

And maybe that's what it does? But if so, it doesn't say so in the blurb that I read.

Shane McCracken said...

Wow. What a response!

Firstly, I'm with you on getting Councillors to interact with electorate more.

Secondly, one of the reasons for creating CampaignCreator (CC) was to help Cllrs help the people in their ward. The thought process was something along these lines: Bob thinks traffic goes too fast down his road, Bob wants speed humps, Bob tells Cllr, Cllr says you need to demonstrate that other people in your area want them too, Cllr tells Bob about CC, Bob starts his campaign, Bob gets support from his road, Council investigates and acts, Bob is happy, Cllr is happy.

We were also very clear that CC wasn't just about campaigning for or against the local council. Indeed one of our reference pieces was the campaign against the Mountfield Incinerator in East Sussex where the people of Mountfield had the support of their local council in their campaign against their County Council.

Next: As per the example of Bob, CC was set up with the new campaigner in mind. It has not been configured specifically or even with established pressure groups in mind. For example you can't import your existing mailing lists, you can't import your existing designs. It is for new campaigns. It is NOT about making pressure groups more powerful. It is about giving a voice to those who don't normally have the tools to make themeselves heard.

Finally, in addition to the CampaignCreator there is also the CampaignGuide which should help campaigners understand representative democracy. It should advocate the need for a power analysis at the outset of a campaign to direct the campaign at the right levers of power within the scope of the campaign.

CC was designed to help give ordinary people a voice. If, as may be the case, you believe the people should only speak at elections and then only let their elected councillor speak for them, then CC will not be for you.

And that's another massive discussion.

Andrew Brown said...

I've been doing quite a lot of thinking about how councillors and community activists interact. By and large I see a lot of positives being developed through working with groups of residents to achieve their aspirations for their areas, and most of the time it doesn't damage the authority of the elected representative.

I'm quite grateful for the active citizens in my ward and beyond, they give me a structured way of engaging in a conversation that is otherwise quite difficult to engender.

That said the interaction between campaigner and elected representative can sometimes be tense; particularly where positions become entrenched. I've certainly lost patience with some campaigners I've come across - particularly where they have been rude about me or my friends or indulged in the usual anti-politician fantasies ("your all in it for yourselves" "your all the same" etc.).

I'm sure the same is true for campaigners when I disagree with their analysis of a problem.

Will the CampaignCreator make a difference?

I'm not sure; most community campaigners I come across have - or quickly develop - many of the skills that are second nature to the more organised sector that Paul is worried about. They produce newsletters, send out emails to their members/supporters, get themselves in the local press as and when.

There are I think two bear traps that I've seen some campaigners fall into. One is that they don't develop their evidence in ways that are convincing; anecdote it twice as powerful when allied to empirical evidence. The second is they think that force of numbers is enough to secure victory. The ability to mobilise people is a powerful persuader, but its often not enough on its own.

Shane McCracken said...

It would seem that Bristol City Council read your blog ;-) I received the programme for the event just now and Cllr Barbara Janke, Leader of Bristol City Council is speaking at 11.45!

Paulie said...

The mighty hand of NTaH reaches out and the elites quake! Again!

Andrew: I wonder if you were thinking of anyone else when you said "...they don't develop their evidence in ways that are convincing; anecdote it twice as powerful when allied to empirical evidence."


MatGB said...

What's a good socialist such as yourself doing quoting a Tory like Burke? Especially one who lost that election because the voters disagreed with him?