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Democracy & the healthy society: The chicken and the egg. [Aug. 1st, 2011|03:15 pm]
Paul Evans

Chad. High disease prevalence and not much democracy

Amartya Sen has powerfully made the case that democracy brings with it guarantees of social justice.

Summarising for speed, Sen has argued that democracies don’t have famines, that they provide regulatory minimum standards that ensure that earthquakes don’t result in huge death-tolls as poorly-built structures collapse, and so on.

In a democracy, we are very likely to have better, universal services compared to non-democracies.

It’s a familliar argument, but one that was recently subject to a fascinating twist. In a recent New Scientist [£] article, evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill makes the case that democracy only emerges in societies in which there is a relative absense of infectious disease.

In summary, societies with a high prevalence of infectious diseases tend to an understandable level of xenophobia. Epidemics, after all, are often the consequence of population movements, therefore, outsiders are treated with a good deal more suspicion.

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Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Politicos meeting gamers – a few preliminary thoughts [Jul. 20th, 2011|12:57 pm]
Paul Evans
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Through the Political Innovation project, I’m helping to promote a meetup tomorrow evening between people who have experience and interests in gaming, and those of us who are very focussed on political issues.

As I’m one of the hosts, I thought it worth dropping a few conversation-starters in the mix. Issues where politicians seem to have reversed themselves into a cul-de-sac. Issues where a game-change could make a difference.


Like most people, I have prejudices as well as arguments – please take all of these examples (listed in no particular order) in this spirit – I’d like to focus on the gamed nature of politics rather than specific evidence on these issues:

  • Sentencing policy: Whatever you think to the way we handle criminal sentencing, it seems to be subject to pressures that don’t have much to do with reducing reoffending. Does the tension between evidence-based approaches, newspaper versions of the problem and electoral horizons and timescales resolve itself well? I don’t think so.
  • Immigration policy: A similar problem – moral questions of freedom of movement, economic ones around the flexibility of the economy, sociological ones around social capital and the effect upon communities of the kind of churn that flexible economies bring
  • As I was writing this, my friend Tim Davies forwarded this post on gaming and climate change (among other issues) from Duncan Green of Oxfam, so that’s another one to add into the mix.
  • Then there’s the related question of participatory budgeting and the potential extensions we can apply to the idea? How can choice-games be used to improve efficiency in public management (a friend working at a local PCT said to me recently that he believed that doctors often find it harder to under-prescribe or under-refer patients to hospitals because of the way their work is structured.

Then I’ve a few personal hobby-horses:

  • Participation – how do we strike the balance between getting more people involved in policymaking, but balancing the need to ensure that segments of the population aren’t over/under represented, while ensuring that we get the benefit of expertise, experience, creative thinking and the practical input?
  • Representation – how do we incentivise politicians to play their role in a more participative democracy with the public interest as their main focus?
  • Journalism – (particularly relevant this week): journalists almost have a constitutional role as well – they refer to themselves as the fourth estate often enough. How do we incentivise them to behave like decent intelligent human beings? How do we strike the balance between the need for diversity and pluralism in the provision of news while recognising the fact that the business model has a lot of uncertainty around it? Good journalism is literally worth billions in terms of the value that it adds to the economy – but no-one’s prepared to pick up the bill.

Also, aside from the potential for positive social change, there’s also the question of education – how far does addressing these problems increase or challenge the legitimacy of the structures that exist to tackle them?

Enough already! Here’s a re-run of a Ted talk that I linked to here a while ago – it makes the case for this approach better than I can.


If you’re coming along tomorrow, please try and think of any games that could be changed?



Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Butterfly-minded representation [Jul. 4th, 2011|02:58 pm]
Paul Evans
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Since I looked at the calculations from We Love Local Government on Councillors’ iPads the other day, I’ve had a few conversations with people working in democratic services at various local authorities.

Click pic for credit

It seems that the big worry is less that Councillor’s iPads will cost/save money or have any productivity/accountability gains, than that Councillors will spend council meetings futzing with their new toys instead of paying attention to procedings properly.

A few quick thoughts on this:

  • Are we worried that tweeting councillors will be interacting with the public when they should be focussing only upon the views of other elected members? And aren’t the more savvy ones doing this already with their phones?
  • Is there an upside to Councillors being able to do quick lookups and on-the-hoof research during council meetings? Will the quality of deliberation go up?
  • Are there small-c constitutional issues here? An elected councillor has legitimacy that unelected interlopers don’t have. Should it be that the only evidence that could/should be considered at a council meeting should be tabled by – or through – an elected councillor? Do councillors have a quasi-jurist role (not a new suggestion around here)?

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    Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Douglas Rushkoff on transparency [Jul. 1st, 2011|03:57 pm]
Paul Evans
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It’s late on Friday afternoon – here’s some brain-candy to chew on over the weekend.

Here’s Douglas Rushkoff – one of the most established commentators on interactive communcations explaining the cost of transparency. It’s liberating stuff – yet a lot of it seems so straightforward in Rushkoff’s hands. It often reads like the bleedin’ obvious. A lot of it is aimed at the individual, discussing their rights and the way they are manipulated and exploited.

Douglas Rushkoff: The Future of Transparency from Applied Brilliance on Vimeo.

There’s not much in here that seems directly aimed at a local government audience (indeed, nothing expressly) yet I’d suggest that it’s hugely important to grasp the power-relations that effect us all – and Rushkoff is great for that.

One possible lesson though: how important it is to engage all council employees more in engaging with local people.

Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Should local Councillors be given iPads? [Jun. 24th, 2011|09:33 am]
Paul Evans
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It’s a good question that tells us a lot about some of the bigger issues in local government.

The London Borough of Havering are doing it, and the argument for this is that it will cut printing costs. The good people at one of my favourite blogs We Love Local Government have done some sums:

“…over that four month period, on average, the Council spent £398.48 per month to provide 17 printed copies of the Cabinet Agenda to the Councillors. This, I think, means that in a year the Council could be spending £4383.28 on Cabinet agendas”

So. For the sake of argument, with no bulk discounts, 17 iPads at £400 a pop (the lowest priced option with only WiFi & no 3G – lets assume that there’s one or two WiFi signals available in the Council chamber!) comes to £6,800. The £500 option (with 3G)? No problem – that’s £8500 for 17.

So assuming they don’t all lose or break them, and assuming they can all actually get them to work in the first place, we’re looking at an idea that will be in the black after six months or so.

This also assumes no productivity savings and no efficiency gains. It assumes that there is going to be no positive cultural shift and that using a new medium will add nothing to the capacity of councillors to use a new medium in new ways – to improve their representative skills. I’ve spent long periods of time working with Councillors on their use of online communications tools and the two biggest obstacles we kept hitting were this utilitarian approach to kit and training, and (or course) the outdated rules on use of communications tools for political purposes.

For me, it’s a slam-dunk. Place the order now! However, WLLG still aren’t totally comfortable with the idea and have four observations at the end of the post:

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Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Data, visualisation and the talking cure for local government [Jun. 23rd, 2011|01:01 pm]
Paul Evans
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Toby Blume – my co-host of the session on data visualisation at Local Gov Camp (last Saturday in Birmingham) – has posted his observations from the session here. In addition, Nick Booth has been busy with two posts on the subject.

A few standout quotes: Firstly, here’s Nick:

“…there’s a false expectation that visualising data is easy. The JFDI attitude prevalent in other areas of digital tools for local government may have created false expectations on ease of access to visualisation.

Other digital tools in the social web made for publishing content – such as free blog platforms, Twitter, Facebook Pages or sharing video on YouTube – are relatively straightforward to get started with and local authorities are using these tools to great effect already.

But ease of access to tools, having the ability to publish or the skills to find your way around a blog platform doesn’t necessarily mean you can communicate effectively. Also, you can’t learn to write well or communicate with other people by spending an afternoon reading blog posts on the subject. These are skills that take time to build up and are achieved through practice, experimentation and, frankly, well… work or experience.

Making an effective data visualisation of a civic issue or communicating policy ideas visually to help other people understand the issues is an involved process…”

And Toby brings something else to the table here that slightly jars with Nick’s line:

“Data visualisation is very different to policy visualisation – using data presents all sorts of particular issues and challenges, relating to how you collect and manage data, design and communication skills, corporate culture and practice and purpose.

Policy visualisation – that is, presenting policy in a more visual and accessible way – is, I think, simpler to do. It’s about communicating potentially complex information in a friendlier and more inclusive way. It is helpful to bring good quality design skills to the process, but it’s not essential (at least my experience suggests this is the case – given the positive feedback I’ve had, despite being a design novice).

As important as the end product (ie the visualisation) is the deliberative process of exploring the issues and ideas, reflecting different perspectives and ultimately increasing understanding of the issue [my emphasis]. This is consistent with the learning from Visualcamp – that bringing together designers, policy makers and practitioners (or ‘users’) and arming them simply with pieces of paper and pens, the process of developing a visualisation led to a rich and open discussion about the policy in question.”

If there’s an argument here (and to be fair, there probably isn’t), I’m with Toby. This is not about corporate communications – it’s about the process as much as the outcome. It’s also about the small-p politics of the thing, as I outlined in this post on my work-blog the other day. This is something that councils should be wanting more of.

Sure – there’s a place for a really professional description of the problem as a conversation starter – my friends at ThinkPublic do this beautifully.

But it’s not a professional-doing-it-properly vs social-media-bootstrapping opposition here.

It’s the thing that we often forget about what the blogosphere has brought to public life. We focus – understandably – on the noisy activist bloggers who’ve done big game-changing things (Guido / Taxpayers Alliance = anti-politics, Liberal Conspiracy = new convened voice for the left, MyDavidCameron & 38 Degrees = social-media-as-campaign-vehicle, etc). The sociology of the Westminster Village may be different (even worse?) as a result.

But there’s another dimension. The blogosphere – in it’s widest incarnation – is also a low level conversation. It’s another dimension to the conversational politics question that I posted on earlier today. A talking cure in which issues are discussed and (I beleive, but can’t prove) participants rationalise and learn. Bloggers make new contacts and synthesise new ideas more quickly. And (my personal motto), ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ (OK, disclosure: that’s Flannery O’Connor’s line).

Getting school pupils to think about what information is available and how it helps them to describe what government is brings us into the realms of co-creation and co-design. We learn thing we didn’t know – and we’re asking people to describe the problem rather than getting unelected people to tell us what the solutions should be.

It’s playful. It’s educational (for all concerned). It’s also less problematic from a democratic point of view.

I’ll conclude here by re-posting the conclusions people drew from the session (they were buried at the back of the slideshow last time) – I think they’re a good roundup.

  • Review required skills for LocalGov employment
  • Co-ordinate visualisation skills within local government better
  • Lower expectations on corporate style – go for authenticity rather than branding
  • Encourage people other than formal employees to present information – it’s more authentic – enable and curate rather than ‘just create’
  • Make a clearer link between participation and decision making
  • Make organisations more permissive in comms terns – making everything go through the corporate filter doesn’t work
  • When we inform – say WHY we’re informing
  • Curate walk-throughs of how people do good data visualisation – dotgovlabls/skunkworks
  • Visual media surgeries!

Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Conversational politics, and how we argue ourselves into positions [Jun. 23rd, 2011|09:51 am]
Paul Evans
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I started to write a second follow-up post on the Local Gov Camp data-visualisation session (I’ll probably finish it later today) when I stumbled on this post on conversational politics (in a very wide sense of the term) from my favourite US blogger – it made the point I was inching towards better than I could:

“It turns out (from a study of ethics rather than our topic, politics) that people “have a hard time offering an account of their moral reasoning that contains consistent substantive content.” They are “largely incapable of articulating their moral decision-making process in substantive, propositional terms.” Often, their responses to open-ended questions are rationalizations of what they have done, not reasons that will guide what they do.”

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here on some of the thinking that casts doubt on the suitability of voters to …. er … vote – a sort of briefing for a ‘devil’s advocate’ – and I’ve been looking for way of articulating any of the powerful reasons why the political process matters.

Do read the whole post because it’s very interesting on the way we respond to multiple choice questions and how easy it is to predict our conclusions. But something else occurs to me.

Peter concludes:

“We ought to give good reasons to justify (or criticize) our own actions. We should be interested in other people’s reasons and their reactions to ours. The act of interpreting the public thoughts of working-class urban youth thus has a moral motivation, even if those reasons are not strongly influential in their own lives. I don’t think that current psychological research precludes the hope that good arguments can change people’s implicit stances or premises, which then affect their behaviors.

In short, we should strive to understand other people’s arguments in case they are right and to decide how to respond effectively if they are not.”

Surely there’s a bigger opportunity than understanding how people articulate and assert their political preferences? I’m really interested in the way that people go beyond this and collectively describe the problems that they face – particularly ones that aren’t well-trodden arguments that have gone mainstream.  It’s one step further away from the politics that Peter is writing about – but currently one that is monopolised by the small number of social forces that shape our perceptions and define our options so effectively.

Can’t think of a word for that collective entity – can I just refer to it as Babylon seeing as I’ve got Bob Marley playing in the next room at the moment?

Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Filming council meetings – for and against [Jun. 20th, 2011|10:45 pm]
Paul Evans
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Someone (not sure who) has set up a Wrangl board on the pros and cons of filming council meetings. Have a look!


Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Local Gov Camp session on what data visualisation is for [Jun. 20th, 2011|11:38 am]
Paul Evans
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I spent Saturday at Local Government Camp in Birmingham – there’ll be at least one post along here shortly based on things I learned there. But this one is here to host the slides I used at the start of the conversation (sorry – Slideshare is being a complete pain today and I can’t embed the slides for some reason):

Along with @tobyblume, I initiated one that was intended to be on data visualisation and how schools could be more effective partners in this. It was based on the idea posted here the other day.

We kicked off the session identifying what visualisation is intended to achieve – at least in democratic terms (the slides – above – are based on this post that I wrote for my business blog) – and in the end we didn’t get much beyond this issue and it’s implications for local government’s corporate culture, but I think that the observations that came out of it were very useful indeed.

The conclusions the group reached can be seen on the final slide. I’d be interested to know if you think that there are any obvious lessons that we missed?

Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


Towards a local authority-wide schools data-hack project [Jun. 16th, 2011|10:39 am]
Paul Evans
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It’s a regular theme of this blog that transparency and open data – while undoubtedly being good things – can often create situations in which democracy is diminished rather than enhanced.

The other day, for example, I posted my misgivings about guerilla webcasting of council meetings. (Shorter version: can result in selective reporting, poorer press coverage and increased power for small heavy-preference pressure groups – boo!)

Looking at it from the point of view of a local authority (particularly the communications team as well as the councillors) transparency and open data seem to have created a situation where the amount of time spent dealing with the angriest local residents goes up.

That the armchair auditors – far from being constructive partners – are non-neutral political activists [this post makes this case in more detail] who are selectively disrupting the aspects of the local authority’s work that they don’t like.

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Originally published at Local Democracy. Please leave any comments there.


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