Reflections on what might have been
When those of us engaged in the bottom up, democracy space complain bitterly about those in the top down democratic organisations perhaps we should remind ourselves about political mandate and statutory function. Hierarchical local government organisations will focus on those things for which they can be seriously held to account: a vulnerable youngster left outside a school because their transport didn’t arrive, an elderly patient left lying on the floor of their home because the care worker didn’t turn up or a child at risk not taken into care and being seriously harmed. While the day to day irritants of life that result from the inefficiencies or failures of local government cause the majority of us the maximum grief the local authority will focus its efforts on the biggest users of its services (with good reason) and we will be left raging against the storm.
None of this is to say that local government shouldn’t be responsive. Nor should it mean that those with the political mandate to deliver those services in a particular way should be allowed to hide behind the wall of officialdom. Far from it, but the conversations are taking place in different spaces. What then are the dynamics that change the spaces? Social Media should not be about instant referendums; precisely how they implement the “Public Reading” proposals outlined for the Conservative Conference will be interesting. Social Media should be about conversations between individuals in communities and the creation of consensus. A political understanding arises from the conversation and it is the consensus of the crowd that moves us to a place where we can influence government. We may have to use the other channels, the official ones, but we do so with the strength and conviction of a community. Once a consensus exists it also becomes a powerful vehicle for consultation and then the top down space starts to merge into the bottom up.
I finally had time recently to read some of “Rebooting America” the collection of essays put together by Allison Fine, Micah L. Sifry, Andrew Rasiej and Josh Levy. The very first piece by Zach Exley struck a chord with me; “Democracy is communal”, a theme taken up by David Weinberger in his piece on Echo Chambers where he says that conversation shapes democracy.
Social media exists in different conversational spaces. Where you are having the conversation will dictate the kind of response you get. Here, the conversations are where I think they exist, I hope that others will put them elsewhere and articulate their case for so doing.
Participation can be democratic or it can be subversive. It can be bottom up or it can be top down. Local government exists in the democratic, top down space. Social Media can exist in the democratic bottom up space. What matters is that we understand that the conversation spaces are more varied. We rarely think about astroturfing but in the political influencing stakes it’s a powerful weapon. In the on line world hackers can make their voice heard in very subversive ways. How should we consider the Googlearchy? If the voices of communities cannot be found, they cannot be heard, does this make the Googlearchy a subversive force? Where does the power really lie?
“Talk About Local 09” Unconference on Saturday 3rd October wasn’t Woodstock but it was an event. Excellent workshops and spontaneous presentations with lots of passion. Social Reporting is defining itself as a particular group that is demanding a status in respect of mainstream media. There are sound, practical reasons for this as well as an expressed desire for legitimacy. The day also reflected the other side of Social Media, the participatory, activist, cohesive communities side. The elements that make up these communities of practise can complain bitterly about the institutional deafness that local authorities exhibit when confronted with their failings. It may just be that the conversations are happening in the wrong place. The power of social software in a networked world to build social capital, articulate consensus and create innovative solutions means that this could, some would say should, become one of the means to achieve the duty to inform, involve and consult because through consensus it empowers communities. That being the case then the digital inclusion agenda becomes even more crucial if we are to involve the biggest users of locally delivered services.
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