After investing £4 million in pilots and a toolkit for e-democracy, the big challenge for those running the UK local e-democracy national project is how to convince more local councils across the country of the benefits of using the Internet to engage with citizens. The project now has funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for marketing. Will it be hard sell, or more, well, engaging? The choice might well be influenced by how attractive the e-democracy 'brand' is, and draw on lessons from commercial marketers.
In public there is optimism that e-democracy will help refresh people's flagging interest in conventional politics. Egovmonitor reported a survey by the project showing:
Just a third (36%) of British adults know who their local councillor is, two-thirds (67%) have never met their local ward representative and only 17% have presented their views to a councillor in the last two or three years.
The Local e-Democracy project believes councils need to engage more with citizens in between elections to increase community involvement and voter participation.
... and quoted Mary Reid, chair of the project:
“New ways of voting may help in the drive to increase turnout at elections in some areas. But the watchword should actually be e-democracy. By encouraging participation in local issues outside of elections, citizens are more likely to consider voting and taking part in the overall political process, be it local or national. Key to this engagement is involvement in local democracy and councils and councillors must do more to support their citizens to take part.”
I think the project has done a great job so far - but then they have been working with pioneering officers and councillors who really do believe in the benefits of public engagement, and are willing to try new tools to achieve that. This may not apply more widely .... and I have some sympathy with our public servants. Technology can be pretty frustrating, public engagement is difficult enough with old-style techniques, and combining the two requires some special commitment and enthusiasm that may be difficult in the face of other pressures.
While there is information in the literature on best practice, there are few objective evaluations of ‘what works’. For example the reports on case studies were often PR focused or provided little concrete information on the successes and failures of the schemes.
In participatory activities, specifically involving the use of e-mail, the need for councils to respond to participants has been cited repeatedly throughout the literature as a key requirement for success...
In other words, if there isn't an underlying commitment to take people serious, technology won't help. This is rather underlined by a survey carried out for the project, available as pdf download, which reports:
Most councils view engaging local residents as one of their corporate priorities (77%) and most have a written strategy in place (76%). This has yet to translate into a similar level of support for e-Democracy, with only one in five (19%) authorities so far having a written e-Democracy strategy. A further third (36%) do have plans to draw a strategy up, suggesting that we are still in the process of e-Democracy being implemented by local authorities.
This leads to me think that the marketing efforts of the national project will have to go beyond "try e-democracy, it's really good for you and local people. They'll love it".
Steven Clift's e-democracy.org offers some core beliefs built on 10 years experience, which may offer some guidelines. I particularly agree with Steven on number 6, for example:
The future of E-Democracy will be Built from the Local Level Up to National and Global Networks - Active citizens will work together when and where they can experience and measure the results of their involvement. The most cost effective investment of time and resources comes from community-based efforts that build from local level on up. Any political website can claim to be national or global, but such top-down approaches have limited value and rarely reach critical mass awareness such that they take on an agena-setting role in governance and democracy. Most are disconnected from the real sense of geography which is the basis of all functioning representative democracies.
However, at present the national project is rather top-down, with the exception of the local issues forums. It has a bag full of buzzy ideas and projects, but many local authorities indicate they aren't very interested because they don't think the public is interested, and anyway they don't have the money. As the survey (above) goes on to say:
The key barriers to implementing e-Democracy are seen to be a lack of budget available (59%), followed by a perceived lack of public interest (39%). There is a link between the level of e-Democracy and whether the authority has a strategy in place or a committee or group responsible for e-Democracy. Those with a written strategy are more likely to have the budget in place and to have officers actively involved in e-Democracy. It should be noted that causality may be the other way, with those with a budget and active officers more likely to have a committee or group responsible for e-Democracy.
I have to declare an interest here, because I put some ideas to the national project a couple of months back, together with my friends at Involve. We suggested a workshop planning 'game' to help local players choose appropriate tools; a series of events and an online forum to bring together participation and e-democracy practitioners; a blogging club to create richer links between those promoting e-democracy and software. In particular, we suggested some creative get-togethers between those promoting e-democracy in government, and other who are developing bottom-up engagement using technology and other methods.
The national project responded sympathetically, and I had a meeting the other day to talk through these and other ideas. I don't know if anything will come of it, but we agreed on the issues, including the fact that the key underlying issue is trust. People won't engage whole-heartedly if they don't trust what councillors or officials are saying, or that they will deliver on what is promised - or even if that they will listen to what is being said.
If that is the case, then e-democracy projects that help build trust should get priority, so I was pleased to hear that support for blogging by councillors and officials - pioneered by the Readmyday project - is likely to expand. Anything that increases contact and conversation unfiltered by the PR machinery of government is a good thing. Transparency and authenticity are key elements in building trust, and blogs can be good for that.
There may be some lessons in the latest commercial marketing wisdom, which focusses on how companies develop conversations with customers. Communities Dominate Brands, by Tomi T. Ahonen and Alan Moore, argues that now many consumers are online they are forming their own communities of interest where discussion take places on products and services offered by brands. If something is wrong, word spreads fast. On the other hand customers can become fanatical evangelists when they identify with brands and their offerings. What brands need to do is identify Alpha Users in online communities who will be crucial in determining which way enthusiasms flow.
I'm sure there are some Alpha User e-democracy enthusiasts among citizens involved in the local pilots - and one step the national project might take is to help them identify each other so they can share their experiences and hopefully help spread the word. Time for a local e-citizens national project?
Previously on my other blog Partnerships Online:
Time to open source local e-democracy
E-democracy gains some bottom-up tools: official
E-democracy: the full toolkit now available