Category Archives: politics

Introducing Lobbi – with bold aims to change politics locally and globally

Downloading Democracy 2013 – Archived Live Stream from John Popham on Vimeo.

Earlier this week Lobbi, a new initiative promoting citizen engagement and action through social media, hosted a Downloading Democracy event in London. You can that see that it was a well-informed and lively affair from Mick Fealty’s excellent report, the live stream recording and Storify from John Popham.

As well as convening the event, Lobbi is developing a new online platform, outlined in this interview with Mick by the founder and initial funder of Lobbi, Hussain “Hoz” Shafiei.

As he explains on his Linkedin profile, and the interview, Hoz is “an Iranian by blood an Arab by birth and an Englishman by upbringing” with a passion to revive UK politics with an demonstration of what might also make a difference to other nations and cultures.

Hoz writes:

I returned to the UK in 2011 and decided to no longer work in a commercial industry and started on my journey to enhance global democracy. It is for this reason that I started Lobbi a project that will allow a real time connection between the electorate and their elected representatives….

Lobbi is an innovative and unique method of engaging the electorate to become re-enthused and involved with politics on a long-term basis. This is created through the ever-growing power of social media, with a Facebook/Twitter-esque interactive forum and information portal.

Lobbi provides the voting public with the means to discover current issues that affect them – instantly – via their smart phone, tablet or computer. In addition, they can get their own views across in the same way as they’d post on Facebook or Twitter. But more than this, it’s a two-way street, as politicians and elected representatives also interact, giving them a vital link to the public mood on a ‘real-time’ basis.

In short, Lobbi brings politics into the 21st century – and about time too…

You might ask, what’s new? I’ll come to that … but first, what’s not.

You can find a free event most months in London about how we need to revive democracy, and fairly frequent discussion of the role of the Internet.

We are still asking Is e-democracy now a reality? as the BBC reported in 2007, with periods of excitement around the role of social networks in the Arab Spring and the success of the Five Star Movement in the Italian election.

What’s certain is that we have plenty of online spaces for general campaigning, and specific systems for civic engagement, whether developed for citizens by mySociety or agencies like Delib.

Consumer Focus has sponsored a Digital Engagement Cookbook with 68 recipes, and Helpful Technology offers a Digital Engagement Guide of practical help and ideas.  For a wider perspective, just look at the programme for Personal Democracy Forum in New York next month. For advice on what’s worked or not, check in with Steven Clift who coined the term e-democracy in 1994 and has been promoting it globally ever since.

Steven is particularly informative on the hard slog of achieving an inclusive approach, which may come more by knocking on doors and using email lists than new social tech functions.

So how might Lobbi make a difference? At this stage I should declare an interest, because I’ve been engaged in discussions on a Lobbi Linkedin group over the past few months, and also invited to join a smaller group next week to help inform strategy. I’ve worked with Steve Moore, who is leading Lobbi development, on a number of projects, including in the early days of Big Society Network.

Steve is now developing Britain’s Personal Best (BPB) “which convenes thousands of organisations and millions of people to achieve a personal accomplishment over the course of one weekend each year”. He’s a man with the ability to carry though a big idea.

I don’t know what the Lobbi strategy will be. That depends in part on discussion next week. As Hoz indicates, a mobile-friendly system is under development that could, potentially, connect elected representatives in an area with citizens there, enable reporting of local problems to agencies, and encourage neighbour-to-neighbour cooperation. However, old hands in this field will warn that tech doesn’t do it alone.

Firstly, just build it … and they probably won’t come. Why should citizens embrace a new system  if they are happy with Facebook and its scope to create groups, pages and networks? Why should politicians and officials engage in a system that may not integrate with the ones they already have in-house?

Secondly, local politics and community action requires a blend of online and offline activity. That’s not just because a third of people may not be online – a point made by Chi Onwurah MP at this week’s event. Or that, in my experience, relatively few community activists are enthusiastic online activists. It’s also that getting things done, once you go beyond Clicktivism, involves building new relationships and trust, working through ideas and options, and making decisions in complex situations. Online isn’t enough for that.

Thirdly, if you do manage to get a lot of people online in the same place, you need to put a lot of effort into facilitation and site management. That’s a skilled operation.

The more ambitious you are, the more the costs and management issues increase. Where will the revenue come from, not just to manage and develop systems, but to fund the offline activity?

I suspect that in further discussions to refine Lobbi, those experienced in the field will suggest either focusing on one activity that current platforms and programmes are not offering – and do that really well. Or aim to connect some of the very disparate online activities currently underway. And to be agile – try stuff out small scale, revise and redevelop.

My hunch is that given Hoz’s passion, combined with Steve’s contacts and convening skills, Lobbi might do well by aiming to be as much a movement and community as a new platform. What was very evident at the Downloading Democracy event was the number of people who’ve been around the scene in the last six or seven years welcoming the chance to meet up for a chat. After a burst of activity in 2007-09, and the failed hopes for Big Society, we’ve rather lacked the social spaces to bring together social techies, community activists, new-style democracy advocates … well, forget the labels, I mean people who want to do good stuff locally using a mix of methods new and old.

At local level, there’s general accord that it makes sense – particularly in hard times – to go for an approach that makes as much as you can from the strengths of local people, projects, and buildings before developing new initiatives from scratch and seeking funds that might otherwise support existing initiatives. Map existing assets and networks, and concentrate on community building. Social technology can help in that process, as I’ve explored here and here.

Maybe there’s a couple of new angles for Lobbi: one focused, one more open.

First, if looking for a niche, consider focusing on how to digitally enable the enablers who help build communities. What help do they need in the personal use of technology, how can they help others, how can they enable their organisations. Go person-centric.

Second, take an asset-based approach nationally. Map who is doing what in this first, and aim to build connections both personal and technical. Use that knowledge both to advise and build kits for the enablers, and to create a strong community and movement for technology-enabled social action.

Hoz and Steve have been generous in bearing with the challenges that I and others have raised during earlier discussion, welcomed new ideas and connections, and remained determined to press ahead. With that sort of spirit, Lobbi could be a catalyst for a fresh approach to politics and local action.

As Mick Fealty puts it more eloquently in his report:

There’s a term in evolutionary biology called punctuated equilibrium which suits the uncertain times we are living in. The gist is that big changes in living organisms largely occur in short episodic bursts when their external environment undergoes some form of drastic change. In such terms, the current multiple crises in democracy is being driven by sudden and rapid technological advances in human communication.

The resulting uncertainty is a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and practices for how we might functionally respond, both as collectives (nations, communities, sharers of a global environment) and individuals (politicians, priests and citizens). None of us really know where any of this is taking us, though we can see and feel seriousness of the deficits that arise as a result of the disruption of ‘business as usual’. There are no road maps.

When life isn’t business as usual, we need people like Hoz and Steve. If only to get me blogging about this stuff again.

Local democracy is important: but will we vote for it?

It’s a good time to talk about local democracy – whether the type you vote for, the type you get involved in, or both – and so I’m looking forward to the Create a Council event in London tomorrow evening.

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – which represents parish and town councils – argues that that “if local people are elected by their community to influence and make decisions that will affect their own area, it will have significant impact on improving lives throughout the capital”.

In their media release of October 17 NALC suggest the engagement of people after the recent riots, in helping clear up their neighbourhoods, could be supported by new, small, local councils.

The creation of new local councils in London would give communities a voice and this in turn could help address some of the underlying causes of the recent London riots. Local councils have already been created in urban areas such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Milton Keynes and have helped address social issues caused by deprivation by providing community leadership and brokering relationships with Government at large.

Localism and the Big Society have been much heralded and discussed by the Government and the Prime Minister himself, prompting much debate from Whitehall to town and village halls. What better way to ensure local ownership of decisions, control of assets and to get people involved in their area than to genuinely give power to the people.

Of course, electing representatives is just one way of engaging with the civic sphere.

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Voluntary sector 'ultras' gear up for post election campaigning

I’m interested to see that the National Coalition for Independent Action is taking on its first member of staff (details below). Just another voluntary sector post? Not really, because Coalition members have been campaigning for some years against the Government contract and funding culture which, they believe, has drawn many nonprofit organisations into a close and unhealthy relationship with the State, where their independence is compromised by tight targets and monitoring.

All rather relevant in the context of Conservative proposals for The Big Society, with its “radical revolt against the statist approach of the Big Government that always knows best”. Hmmm, any similarity of concern? Here’s NCIA, who acknowledge they are sometimes known as the “hypercritical ultras of the voluntary sector“: read more »

Making the best of the Big Society debate

After some “whatever happened to the Big Society” comments last week, I think we’ll hear more this week from David Cameron because the Conservatives need some serious “time for a change” narrative to reclaim ground from Lib Dem advances, following Nick Clegg’s Leaders’ Debate performance. It has started with a Big Society versus Big Government speech today, where Cameron says he is going to “redouble the positive” in the election campaign.

“The old top-down, big-government approach has failed in Britain”, he said, adding that even if you still believe in it there isn’t any government money left to try it with: “Gordon spent it all, it’s all gone”.”So we need something different, and that is where our big idea comes in. The idea of building the Big Society, the idea of saying: if you want change, then we have all got to pull together, work together, come together, recognise we’re all in this together, and that’s how you get change.”

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Activists approve Tory Big Society, taxpayers object. Must be interesting


David Cameron seems to have successfully pulled off the first part of his launch of the Big Society – focussed on neighbourhood-based voluntary action – by getting broad approval from a Guardian commentator as well as the Telegraph, a seasoned community development specialist, and even in part a Labour List blogger.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance was hostile: The Conservatives plan to flood local politics with thousands of taxpayer funded radical activists … perhaps missing the point that the 5000 local organisers will also “have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries”.

But the Alliance were right to be amazed that a Tory leader now should endorse the local organising tactics pioneered by Saul Alinsky. It surprised my friend Kevin Harris too, who blogged Let’s hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society.

So there I sat, listening to a potential Conservative prime minister say that the role of the state is to agitate for community engagement (speech here). And I remembered the day in 1997 when I heard a representative of the brand-new exciting-new socially-dynamic Labour government say ‘we know things can’t all be done quickly, we’re planning for ten years’. I rushed back to my colleagues at Community Development Foundation with the message – c’mon, c’mon, we’ve got ten years to prove community development works.
Well, we didn’t. Now I reread the phrase in today’s document: ‘We will encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects’ and it seems to me this is another chance; because the welfare state and a society of institutions are things of the past, and you can’t do without support for local involvement.

Further details of the plan below, and more mainstream coverage here.

I sat through three hours of the Tory seminar yesterday, followed by the launch the independent Big Society network (about which more in a later post) and was pretty impressed by both. Well, the substance of the seminar if not the style. Empowerment is substantially about attitude and trust, and talking at your audience for three hours with short breaks, few exchanges, and without even the relief of Internet access is not very empowering. Were phones blocked, or was it just the concrete in the Coin Street Community Centre? Not very smart comms either, since it meant no chance of live blogging or tweeting to spread the word. Maybe they were nervous, so we ended up with big lights, big cameras, not big conversation. Next time, trust the audience.

Despite the traditional event format, I felt like Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph that a set of well-developed ideas had been put together into a coherent narrative. Not new, but new for Tories. See my earlier post for background.

What’s going to be much more tricky is the second part – the detail. Organising at local level is messy and difficult. People disagree, and volunteers need a lot of support. It’s a point made strongly in the Labour List piece by Alan Painter and also by Will Horwitz at Links UK, who adds:

… many of the powers Cameron would like to see local groups exercising are notoriously complex, and without a lot more detail it’s hard to know how much would change. He’s not the first to have tried to engage local communities in local planning decisions, for example, and there’s no detail on how he’d do this differently from previous governments. Furthermore, we’d be the first to point out that local community groups complement rather than replace the role of elected officials and the state, both locally and nationally.

Making it all work will require development of these policy outlines into procedures, by diligent civil servants, and sympathetic local authorities. One wonders what’s going to be in it for them, when quite a few will be worried about the impact of spending cuts on their jobs. Still, that’s always been a problem, and I sense most community organisers would rather have the Prime Minister on their side, of whatever party.

Here’s the main new policies announced as part of the Big Society plan:

  • Neighbourhood army” of 5,000 full-time, professional community organisers who will be trained with the skills they need to identify local community leaders, bring communities together, help people start their own neighbourhood groups, and give communities the help they need to take control and tackle their problems. This plan is directly based on the successful community organising movement established by Saul Alinsky in the United States and has successfully trained generations of community organisers, including President Obama.
  • A Big Society Bank, funded from unclaimed bank assets, which will leverage private sector investment to provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies.
  • Neighbourhood grants for the UK’s poorest areas to encourage people to come together to form neighbourhood groups and support social enterprises and charities in these poorest areas.
  • Transforming the civil service into a ‘civic service’ by making regular community service a key element in civil servant staff appraisals.
  • Launching an annual national ‘Big Society Day’ to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action projects.
  • Providing new funding to support the next generation of social entrepreneurs, and helping successful social enterprises to expand and succeed.

Full speech and document here

Clay Shirky: online crowds aren't always wise

Clay Shirky, leading commentator on internet technologies and author of Here Comes Everybody, last night backed away from his earlier enthusiasm for the online wisdom of crowds in democratic decision-making. He suggested that Government use of social media should focus more on “small groups of smart people arguing with each other”, than national-scale engagement online.

We’ll, that’s my interpretation. You can listen for yourself … and find more on Twitter from last night and today’s at ICA.

A few years back Clay said that the ability of groups to organise online and challenge conventional engagement was “the glory of this medium”. He now believes we need more checks and balances.

When speaking at LSE, he was asked how he would now advise government on the use of social media. Earlier he had highlighted how a group pressing for legalisation of the medical use of marijuana had made this a prioritised item to be addessed by the new President Barak Obama, on his official transition website change.gov (see video above).

I would not be concentrating right now on the kind of large legitimating moves …. precisely because of the hijack model because in a way, even with new tools … tightly interested groups have a way of throwing issues higher up the charts  … I would be worrying instead about how to get good ideas out of small groups.

If you want to know where new interesting useful idea are going to come from, don’t look at crowds and don’t look at individuals, look at small groups of smart people arguing with each other. Historically that’s been a big source of change, whether you are talking about the Invisible College or the French Impressionists. Instead of having Government scale, or social scale initiatives, kind of have your say stuff  …

(Here Clay breaks off to quote an early negative example of online crowds how UpMyStreet – mainly devoted to postcode-level activity – was taken over by racist ranting when offering national-level discussion. I found this post by one of those who developed the UpMyStreet site via David Brake’s blog. David there cites Clay’s earlier views that occasions when online polls come up with results that are unrepresentative  are part of “the glory of this medium”).

Clay went on to say of national-level discussions that these problems are hard, bordering on intractable. He suggests (I assume to Government) putting together small groups of people who have some common appetite, for example networking ombudsmen in government departments as a community of practice to share what they hear from interactions with the public.

We are not ready for “massive legitmating moves of unstructured participation across the larger issues. That’s the first time I’ve said that in public.
I have for years believed that, and now I find myself saying that if it is all about a group of potheads trying to gain a position I’m less interested than I was.

Clay’s views may get some attention in UK Govenment because the question was asked from the front row by Cabinet Office Civil Servant William Perrin.

Since the question was about what advice Clay would give to Government, his remarks are as interesting in the context of Government online public engagement, as they are in the legitamacy of online campaigning.

Charlie Beckett, director of the journalism and society think tank Polis, chaired the discussion, and here underlines the issue of legitimacy raised by Clay.

But how do you distinguish between the campaign by Mysociety against MPs who tried to cover up their expense claims, with a bunch of potheads trying to get their spliff decriminalised? In Clay’s words, we “need to find an algorithm that works”.

Here’s the link on the MySociety campaign, where Tom Steinberg blogged:

The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!
In other words – we won!
This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.

Judith Townend has an interview at online journalism news:

Shirky says he previously made certain assumptions about the result of what he calls ‘crowd wisdom’ and its positive impact for democracy. Now he believes that public pressure via the internet could be ‘just another implementation layer for special interest groups’.

It is ‘not fair’, he adds. There is a need to redress the political checks and balances in place in order to control the influence of such groups, he explains.

For example, during the Obama campaign, he watched the campaign for legalisation of the medicinal use of marijuana become a prioritised item on the Change.gov website.

But, Shirky explains, while this type of online phenomenon is a ‘net positive’ for democracy, it is not ‘an absolute positive.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean these representational tools are a replacement for the vote, he adds.

“Are we really going to let a Digg-style voting algorithm commit the federal government top issue to the ‘wrestling with medicinal use of marijuana’?” he asks.

Shirky hopes to open up the debate on this issue: “There needs to be some mechanism by which executive or legislative branches can say we are taking this under advisement, but we are not taking dictation [from special interest groups].”

“It’s clear that it’s yet another environment in which special interest groups have to have some kind of check and balance against them,” Shirky says.

He doesn’t challenge the value of the mySociety campaign on MPs expenses: it alerted people to what was happening.

“It was classic news cycle timing,” he says, referring to what some said was a government tactic of a ‘good day to bury bad news’.
“What MySociety did is break that cycle and and publish it in media that doesn’t have a cycle. There is a new mechanism, in addition to referendum and political representation, which is not the same as casting a vote,” he adds.
“It is democracy in action, at such a young stage that we don’t even know how to integrate it into the rest of the democratic mix.”

Benjamin Ellis has a long and thoughtful analysis of the presentation: Mass collaboration – snow joke:

Clearly mass collaboration isn’t going to solve every problem. For the first time in public, Clay said, “I don’t think the technology is ready for the mass legitimisation of initiatives… …There need to be checks and balances applied”. That is a big, and wise, shift from his previously utopian view of what could be achieved. I’ve posted about crowds not providing the wisest answer for every situation before. When we think about the idea of direct access into the political process, we might want to think carefully about what exactly we are wishing for. The tools are fantastic for gathering feedback and generating content, but decision making requires a degree of sophistication that the tools do not provide, yet.

Update: full video of Clay at LSE here

Previously, Clay Shirky on:

Should politicans blog? Would Machiavelli?

Paul Evans at Local Democracy thinks it may not be such a good idea for all politicians to get into blogging. Some are made for it, some should do it under another name suggests Paul. “Machiavelli didn’t publish his work during his lifetime (he dedicated
it privately) – not because he didn’t want the message to be read, but
because he didn’t want challenging ideas associated with himself.”

Could blogging bosses '08 become social artists '09?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA,  is writing about new progressivism in a series of blog posts this week. I particularly like the suggestion that he makes for greater focus on political ends instead of means, and a shift in the nature of debate. I believe that the 27,000-strong membership of the RSA could be an excellent testbed for the social artistry needed to achieve this. read more »

Join Stephen Coleman on a Bristol blog

Stephen ColemanStephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication and Co-Director of the Centre for Digital Citizenship, is brilliant on the sounds bites for any video blogger (as well as main stream media) as you can see here when he talks about TV voting scandals, and here at an e-democracy conference in Bristol.

However, Stephen doesn’t blog himself, so it is a delight to find him available for discussion back in Bristol – virtually at least – guesting at Connecting Bristol.

I’m grateful to Shane McCracken for pointing this out, and neatly summarising the issues Stephen is highlighting about the changing nature of politics and citizenship: read more »