Stephen Hilton and Kevin O'Malley of Bristol's e-democracy team put on a good show with their conference last Friday exploring whether councils and community activists can work together. Discussion was well-focussed on democracy rather than technology, even though the event was to launch their online CampaignCreator. The event attracted a strong turnout including e-democracy gurus Steven Clift (US), left, and Stephen Coleman (UK), below. The missing element was local councillors - apart from Barbara Janke, the leader - who came to make a speech.
There may have been good reasons why councillors weren't there ... other events, jobs to do ... but I felt their absence underlined the difficulties implied in our electronic voting during the morning. A majority of us felt that council-activist collaboration was a good thing - but that activists should at the same time maintain their independence. We thought collaboration might, unfortunately, prove ineffective because councils wouldn't share power. The biggest barrier to collaboration we identified was likely to be lack of trust.
The starting point for collaboration is usually a good conversation, and you can't do that unless people are all in the same room.
Anyway, we did have some good conversations, particularly when we broke off into smaller groups in the afternoon. Our group was to address the question of what councils could best do in order to improve collaboration. It was fascinated to hear people consistently talking about the basics of good human relationships - rather than particular methods, or structures.
I think it came down to councillors and officers being prepared to take people seriously and listen to them, to be clear about what was really on offer, and to provide feedback about what was going on. Transparency, openness and honesty kept cropping up, together with the need to have conversations in terms that people could understand. Let's get out of committee-speak into the sort of stuff people talk about day-to-day.
I tried summarising that as "tell true stories" - and got some heads nodding.
In that spirit I managed to persuade Steven and Stephen to give me a couple of minutes of video, and also interviewed Valerie Ann Jenkins about the potential value of CampaignCreator in helping communication and campaigning in Bristol.
One of the good things about the project is that local groups can call upon the help of coaches who will not just help them with the online system, but help them plan their campaigns. There's some excellent material on the site too.
I met Jacqueline Roshkani, who told me what this involved, and how important it was to have a laptop because many groups would not have easy online access. One of the challenges for the project, I suspect, will be to continue to provide support after the end of this financial year.
As I've mentioned before - see links below - I have reservations about how far councils can host campaigns for activists, and also whether £395,000 might have been better invested in other ways. The project has been a terrific scramble to get finished in the time available, and it isn't clear how far other councils will be interested in using the platform. But then, it's always easy to be critical. The project has been funded under an e-innovations programme, and you can't innovate without taking some risks. Stephen Coleman and his colleagues Giles Moss are carrying out an evaluation, so we get a measured appraisal in due course. Meanwhile I hope Bristol councillors find time to explore this new space for them to tell some true stories to local citizens.
Videos play in Quicktime, which you can download free
A webcast of the event is now available