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Hello, I'm not updating this blog anymore but you can still find me over at Medium or on my website. Cheers for now.

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Thursday 9 February 2017

101 Thinking out loud about democracy

So, this is the last post of the localopolis blog.  I'm writing it just before the 2017 version of the notwestminster event.  I’ve got a new project to get started and so now seems to be the right time to conclude.  Also, to be fair, I did say I would write 101 posts and that is just what I have done (and it only took me…. seven years!).  I'm still writing over at local democracy geek of course.

I’ve called this post ‘thinking out loud about democracy’ partly as a description of what I have been doing and partly because I think, generally, it’s a good idea.  Democracy is not carved in stone and handed down from the mountainside.  It is in a constant state of change and is the result of choices that people make.  Just look at the last 2,500 years of history if you don’t believe me.  Sometimes things change because of crisis and necessity.  But sometimes things change because someone hears a new idea and thinks ‘yes, we should do that’.  It’s good to share these ideas because they can make things better.  We don't need to do things simply because that's the way they have always been done.

In this blog I’ve written about ideas for improving my practice, ways of changing the system and even fanciful notions about how democracy might be completely different.  Sometimes I have just shared an idea I have liked, sometimes I have written lists of tips and sometimes I have put together two previously unconnected things to make something new.  I have tried to connect the academic world and the world of practice where I can - I’ve posted a couple of things from my PhD and I’ve enjoyed pointing to the great thinkers of the past where I could (Rousseau’s the man - did I mention?).

I can’t claim that this blog has changed the world, or even that it has been particularly well read, but, if it has sparked a thought that led to a small change for the better then great.  No harm done anyhow.

Of course writing a blog like this has benefits for the blogger.  I recently read ‘Working Out Loud’ by John Stepper.  One of the arguments that he makes is that sharing your thinking in public can help you make new connections and start productive relationships.  I’d say that this has certainly been true for this blog and I have made a number of links with people that I would not have done otherwise - through comments on the blog or via twitter.  

Linked to this, another benefit is that many of the ideas the ideas have been improved by comments and feedback.  I have also learnt about a lot of things that I wouldn’t have found out about otherwise.  This post about the citizen’s chest is a great example.

Thank you so much to everyone has commented, shared or otherwise contributed.  Turns out that blogging is as much about the stuff you get as it is about the stuff you give. Thanks, and I really mean that.

The blog has also served as a handy noticeboard.  Ask me about how we do the wellbeing assessment in Swansea or what I think about scrutiny support and I can just send you a link.  

On a personal level I would say it has been almost therapeutic - certainly it’s been good to get the ideas out online when they don’t really have anywhere else to go.  

So, my last post yes.  But, if you have read this and you think that thinking out loud about democracy, via blog or some other way is a good thing to do.  

Just do it.

And if you do let me know.  

I would love to read it.


Friday 3 February 2017

100. The wiki constitution

Constitution of Athens, British Museum Credit

Ok, so only one more of the 101 localopolis posts to go after this.

As this is 100 I thought it would be cool to link back to my first in April 2010 (!!).  In that post I suggested that the messy complexities of local accountabilities could be sorted if only we had a single local constitution for the area.  This would cover the council and all of the public service providers in the area as well partnerships, community councils etc.  I think it has some things in common with the idea of a local public accounts committee since promoted by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

The other thing I did in that post, which I've occasionally tried to do in other posts since, is to underline how few ideas are truly new.  In this case the Politics by Aristotle could be seen an early discussion of the local constitution idea.  Always worth checking if the Greeks got there first.

My suggestion here is to go one step further and make the local constitution open source.  In fact it doesn't have to be an all embracing local constitution - why not make council constitutions open source as a first step?

Constitutions are the operating codes for local democracy so why not open them up to citizens to edit and improve?

The technology is out there and it is easy.  Wikipedia provides a model that works and that everyone understands.

Of course there would have to be some editorial control - if we are talking about a local council we just need a small weekly committee to consider any edits that have a minimum set level of support by citizens.  So maybe this committee wouldn't agree everything but it would be in public and the very fact that there was an open conversation would so much better than the closed legal process we have now.

I was going post this anyway but I think it fits really well with this James Smith Open Source Democracy workshop at next week's Notwestminster event.

This is one suggestion about open source democracy - there must be many others.


Friday 13 January 2017

99. Local policy by jury

Juror #8:  "It’s not so easy for me to raise my hand and agree a new residents parking scheme for the town without talking about it first"

I've touched on the idea of citizens juries before but never dedicated a post to it.  Of course it's something that has been widely discussed and tested - it's a type of participatory initiative that incorporates some of the principles that we associate with legal juries but not all.  My idea here is to use the jury system exactly as it and adapt the policy process instead.

So, let's start with citizen juries.

Graham Smith, in his wonderful report Beyond the Ballot  - 57 Democratic Innovations from Around the World, describes Citizens juries as initiatives that 'bring together a small group of citizens to deliberate on a particular issue'.

Of course it is this idea of deliberation that is the most important part - citizens debate an issue until they (hopefully) reach a consensus.  An opinion is formed collectively - not by an adding together of separately formed individual opinions as with an election or referendum.

Although they have some things in common with what you would recognise they also include adaptations to make them more suitable for contributing to the policy process. So, for example, they may:

  • include more than 12 people
  • be selected to ensure diversity
  • pay a small honorarium to people for participating
  • allow citizens to cross examine selected experts
  • be run by an independent organisation
  • have a facilitator
  • end with a set of recommendations in the form of a report that a public body is expected to respond to

Now I'm not arguing against any of this - citizens juries are a brilliant way to engage citizens and to ensure some real public deliberation in the policy process. 

But what if, as an additional alternative, we used the existing model of juries for policy decisions?

There are three big advantages I think.

  1. This is a process that everyone knows and understands.  People don't need to have it explained to them much - they can just fit right in.
  2. This is a process that people have confidence in.  It's been around for a long time and people know that it works.
  3. The machinery is already there.  The means of selecting citizens, granting exemptions and paying compensation is already in place.  We have the processes and the facilities and the people with the experience to make it all work.

There are also some challenges of course.

Policy questions would have to be formulated as either yes or no - isn't this too simple?

Actually I'm not sure that is so hard.  Policy juries would act as a gateway for proposed policies to determine whether they should go ahead or not.

Juries don't give reasons for their decisions - how would we know why something has been refused or agreed?

No, but here is the role for the judge.  They would give guidance before deliberation and provide a summing up afterwards.  They could also provide a 'sentence' and give a minimum time before the policy could be considered again.

What about the vested interests and prejudices of jurors?

One of the greatest films ever made is 12 Angry Men.  At one point one of the jury members says:
We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are…ummmm… what is the word…Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.
That for me is the attraction of a jury, in theory anyway, that 'we have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict'.

This is really important of course and so it makes sense that a system like that in the US is in place where the attorneys for either side can challenge the inclusion of jurors who they feel do not have an open mind.

So, here it is. The idea is a simple one to grasp.  We set up part of  our policy process so that it works like our jury system.  We invite citizens randomly to attend court and to make binding decisions about local policies.  In other words we trust our peers to make decisions about local policies in the same way we trust them to make decisions about someone's guilt or innocence.

Friday 6 January 2017

98. The Citizens Chest (and Community SOUP)

[I said when I started this blog that I would share 101 ideas.  I'm now getting near the end so I'm having a final push.  I found this in my drafts and thought it was worth sharing - so here it is.]

Turns out that the Community Chest on the Monopoly board relates to an actual thing.  An actual thing that has been around for a while in the United States where community chest means a general home for charitable donations that are then allocated to worthy community causes.  I suppose the nearest thing we have to this in the UK is something like the Big Lottery Fund.

I think the idea is an interesting one as it sits somewhere between taxation, where government makes decisions about what you give and how it is spent, and philanthropy, where it is the individual that makes those decisions.

Hence you could either think of a community chest as voluntary taxation or civic philanthropy (I prefer the former as a concept).

One way I would like to see the idea developed is to add the dimension of participatory budgeting.  At the moment (as far as I can tell) community chest funds are allocated to good causes by a board or committee. Imagine if the funds were allocated by a participatory process involving all citizens instead.  There are participatory budgeting schemes that use a 'community chest' approach but, as I understand it, the money for these schemes comes as a lump sum from a local council or parish and not from individual citizen donations.

The idea of the Citizens' Chest then is a linking together of the idea of community chest and community based particpatory budgeting schemes.  Not only would this be a great way to expand participatory democracy, engaging people in debates over what should be funded and why, but it would also be a much more democratic way of allocating funds. 

I wonder whether giving people the right to participate in the allocation might also nudge people to donate.  As I've blogged before, people might be more comfortable about contributing if they have a better idea about how the money is being used.

Update:  John Popham has pointed to a rather brilliant scheme that captures the community chest idea in a nutshell - 'Huddersfield Soup' is an evening where you pay to get in, get fed soup, hear pitches from local projects and help to decide who gets the door money.

Here is the video:

Update 2: Turns out that SOUP is an international thing.  See this news piece for example.  Thanks to @helencammack for pointing out on twitter also making the point that there is room to do this on a larger scale, in other words, scope to scale up the soup.  Here is the Guildford SOUP website also via Helen.