Just as a byte is a unit of digital information so a democracy byte is a unit of digital democracy.
If we want to make traditional representative democracy more open, engaging and vibrant by digitising it (and we do) then we need to be clear, conceptually speaking, about what the stuff of democracy actually is. Democracy bytes are that stuff – democracy, broken down into its constituent atoms, so that it can be digitised and shared.
The argument here, which is about how we use digital to enhance local democracy, comes in four parts:
- We should be talking about the local decision making process rather than meetings, organisations or even elected representatives although they are all relevant and important of course.
- The local decision making process can be broken down into many separate democratic conversations that lead to decisions.
- Democratic conversations can themselves be broken down into four basic and distinct types of democratic statement; questions, opinions, proposals and decisions.
- Democratic statements can be digitised and shared with citizens as democracy bytes.
This post is a development of the ideas I’ve previously shared on Social Council Decision Making and is an aspect of the wider Digital Democracy Framework developed with Carl Whistlecraft. Carl and myself are part of the Localgov Digital Steering Group, where we are majoring on ‘redesigning local democracy in digital world’ and this is a part of our contribution to that work.
If we want the public to be engaged in the local decision making process then we need to offer people simple routes into the decision making conversations that interest them. One big problem with the process at the moment is that local politics is, without an investment of time and effort, a mystery to most people. Lawrence Pratchett uses the metaphor of jazz to argue this point:
The argument here is that the institutions of local politics have become like jazz: without a high level of concentration they are incomprehensible to most people.... This is not an argument that says that most people are stupid and that politics needs to be ‘dumbed down’. Rather, it is an argument that most people are too busy doing other things to worry about the institutions of local politics: they do not want to work that hard to understand something that is often deemed peripheral to their lives (1).As Pratchett notes, Jazz was effectively superseded by rock and roll, a form of music that ’stripped back this sophistication to a much simpler sound that was easier to follow and understand’. Not that Pratchett is arguing for simplification at the expense of the necessary subtleties of a political system but rather that the answer might lie with intermediary bodies such as the media or voluntary groups who might act as interpreters.
To define a democratic conversation we have to break it down into its constituent parts. In short we can say that a democratic conversation starts with a question, ends with a decision and includes opinions and proposals. Questions, decisions, opinions and proposals are all basic types of democratic statement where:
- Questions are the start point of conversations. They are a statement of a problem and an invitation to an audience to participate (they may not always have a question mark). They can originate from anywhere but must be adopted by a decision making individual or group. Examples would include scrutiny topics, consultations or planning applications.
- Opinions are statements that set out the view of a particular person or body in respect of a question. They will normally be supported by evidence or at least clearly stated reasons. Opinions belong to a named individual or group (e.g. Citizen, Cabinet Member, Council, Scrutiny Committee). They can be presented anonymously as part of a conversation but somewhere it must be known that they are owned by someone entitled to present them. ‘Facts’ enter the process as opinions, partly as every ‘fact’ has some element of subjectivity but more because the relative importance of a ‘fact’ for a question certainly is down to opinion.
- Proposals are statements that make a recommendation about what an individual or group, responsible for a decision should do. They are directed to the specific individual or group who has the power to make the decision. Proposals are promoted by questions in as far as closed questions limit the range of possible proposals down to a minimum of two whereas open questions are less prescriptive.
- Decisions define the ends of conversations. They are statements about what the council will do and relate to policies and services for which the council has responsibility. Decisions will be taken only by the individual or body that has the legal responsibility for that decision – the decision maker.
This is of course pretty much how it works already just stated in a more generic way. The intention is to define a language that applies whether we are talking about cabinet, planning, scrutiny or any other council function. Cabinet ‘conversations’, for example, operate within a clearly defined policy framework. Questions, often triggered by officers, lead to consultation processes that gather opinions and proposals before decisions are finally taken. Scrutiny inquiries follow the format of questions, evidence gathering, conclusions and recommendations. For planning process, applications are questions, objections are opinions, proposed amendments are proposals and decisions are, well, decisions.
The idea is that, by using a common language across all of these processes, we can generate one single flow of democratic conversations before providing them to citizens in a bespoke way; we can move from an approach that is committee centred to one that is citizen centred.
Democratic statements linked in democratic conversations and made available digitally in a form that people can share and comment on, become democracy bytes. In one sense we can say that these are ‘digital minutes’; they are the open data of local democracy (the word minute actually means ‘chopped small’, which is exactly what we need the decision making process to be if we are going to make digestable it to the public).
How democracy bytes are shared is a matter for local debate – it could be a single site or a range of apps. Great examples already exist of course. Check out Ask Bristol or the Friction Free Democracy project for example.
By clarifying what democracy bytes are we can at least have a common understanding of what the stuff of local democracy actually is and a clear assignment for developers to work with. The challenge for local councils is to find the technical ways in which these democracy bytes can be shared. The day to say sharing of a democracy bytes will be, in the first instance, a role for democratic support staff. No, actually this will be an entirely new role for democratic support staff but that sounds like another post.