Open government, data and transparency

While working on Siôn Simon’s push for there to be a directly elected Mayor for Birmingham I contributed an ideas paper around the possibilities for a more open system of government in the city. It covered open data (in broad strokes rather than technical details), comms and transparency. It was always a plan for the team that ideas and plans be released as soon as they were ready—happy for any other campaigner to use what we thought were good things.

So, when the referendum went against us I talked to a few people about releasing this stuff anyway. I couldn’t do any harm, I figured. It’s taken me a while to get round to it.

These docs were my own work, so don’t take them as being ‘official’, I’m also not planning to do anything with them at this stage. Some of the ideas may already be part of the political plan of the city’s new council leadership, but to be honest I don’t know.

Feel free to use any of this if it’s interesting.

Continue reading Open government, data and transparency

Two years is a long time in politics

When I returned to the Labour fold and joined the party a few months before the 2010 General Election it was party through fear, partly through duty, but mainly because I thought there was a real opportunity that it could be reclaimed from the New Labour years and start representing the people again. People I trusted trusted Gordon Brown, and the alternatives were too awful to contemplate.

That said the tipping point of joining rather than just voting was because I didn’t want to vote Labour: I had no confidence or trust in the sitting MP that a boundary change had forced upon me. By accounts he was a lifer, remote from his constituents and out of touch. Had the coming election nationally been anything but close I’d have marked my cross next to the semi-independent community focused candidate that looked like she might win. I wanted to vote for her, but didn’t want to be responsible for a situation where we got a tory government by one MP, and not Labour in my constituency. I figured that my membership might offset my ballot-box slip somehow, save my coincidence.

As it turned out it wasn’t that close, neither locally or nationally. But, being a member in opposition felt like the right thing to do. I delivered leaflets, did a little phone canvassing and a little door knocking and was rightly pleased when in the next council elections our man overturned a Liberal majority with a significant one of his own. It might have been national tides that turned the ship but there was a real feeling that the local party was working hard on the ground and really cared. At this point I was as taken with the democratic system as I think I’ve ever been—despite a really disappointing result in the Alternative Vote referendum, an opportunity as I saw it for more representative politics.

I’m fond of quoting that the UK always has a more right wing press than the electorate—there are always more papers supporting the tories than Labour even when the left(er) party wins big in elections. I suspect that if you asked most people about policies in simple terms, and presented real alternatives, most people would be more left wing than any government we get too. Certainly any we’ve had since 1979. So while it felt right to be in the most likely opposition, each failure to control or challenge the dominant shock doctrine narrative by Ed Miliband and his team made it difficult to see what you were working for.

Another referendum offered more hope.

I’d met MP Siôn Simon a few times when he was a creative industries minister, he was trying to look at ways to help the local media through the ‘internet transition’ and I was on the fringes of the local blogging scene that was one possible prop for keeping some news going. He was engaging, engaged, and—you could tell—above all looking for the right solutions to the problems he was tasked with. So when, after the election, he talked to me about the problems of reaching people and told me that he really thought there was an opportunity for change I believed him and believed in him.

That change he said, could be driven by an elected mayor for a city like Birmingham. A position that would have to be backed by a mandate, a leader that would have no choice but to campaign on a manifesto upon which they would be judged. Direct accountability to the people, direct scrutiny by an engaged media, high-profile and with an ability to be strategic. I was sold, and it looked like it was going to happen.

Over the last two years I’ve been variously working on things for Siôn and the non-partisan Yes to a Mayor campaign. The amount of free time I had to volunteer on both ironically helped by the “austerity” cuts the tories disproportionally heaped on poorer areas like Birmingham and on the third sector—reducing my freelance work considerably. I’ve not worked as hard as some others, but I’d like to think I’d made a contribution. To what, maybe, is a more difficult one as ‘we’ lost last week (not by as large a margin as was being reported, but lost all the same).

What’s the main disappointment for me is perhaps the insight it gave me into just how hard change is and seemingly will always be under the current system. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, which is understandable—but turkeys don’t talk 364 days of the year about the need for a dry-fowl-meat based religious feast.

Vested interests within the existing party machines are the ones with the access and the voices to the media—which disappointingly went for ‘balance’ (presenting voices from both sides) instead of neutrality  (where they could exercise independence and question the arguments on both sides). The main arguments that we heard in the press against the chance for change were all easily researchable and refutable by experienced journalists, but they were all too often let through with a “no campaigners say…” and no challenge. It’s too late to go through them now, but I will anyway as it’s now a pavlovian response:

A mayor would not have cost more than the current system of a council leader and a chief executive, roles which the announced candidates promised to combine. In Leicester, the nearest comparable city the mayor took a salary smaller than Birmingham’s current council leader’s allowances.

The powers of a mayor were defined, in the act of parliament that brought the referendum into being. Extra powers could be negotiated, which in theory they could be for a council leader—if one side was a ‘pig in a poke’ the other was too.

The electorate cannot in practice—whatever the theory—get rid of a council leader. Forget the past, look at the situation currently in Birmingham—a clear Labour majority of councillors that is certainly not likely to change in fewer than the four years a mayor would have—whatever they do and however they perform in the eyes of anyone who cares to look.

Not being challenged on these is the equivalent to the current government not being challenged every time they bring up the ‘cutting the deficit’ line. Statisticians have proved that the cuts are making the deficit worse, in real and structural terms—but time and again that’s not mentioned and the cutters are allowed to dominate the narrative. And for some reason the opposition are too scared to challenge—maybe it comes across as too negative, maybe there is something about the media that they know which means this fight is lost and it’s better for them to move the debate on.

And that’s the crux of it: better for them.

It’s so unusual to see anyone in politics really commit and to do something that might not have benefits for their coterie of contacts. Essentially the party system seems to draw people to compromise for power and not to compromise for good. Siôn’s decision to stand down as an MP to campaign for change in Birmingham always struck me a a courageous decision—not for him the bet hedging of certain other people who were maybe, or maybe not, in favour of real change but would quite like the power if it was available.

And he bravely stuck to talking about the truth of the size of the problems: areas of the city are very deprived, with high—especially youth—unemployment, unacceptable infant mortality. Do you need more? Will rearranging the deck chairs change that? I doubt it. Was that not the line that the media wanted to focus on? Maybe not, but in sea of platitudes and apathy it stood out for me and I was proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Yes campaign bravely tried to rise above politics, and I think that may have contributed to the downfall—often seeing it sidelined in events in favour of people the media already knew about (the BBC WM debate for example had formal ‘no’ people on the panel but no ‘yes’). That presented the argument as a political struggle when maybe it should have been one about opportunity. Some honourable councillors and people involved in the political machines saw that opportunity, but I’m afraid my suspicion is that most didn’t as they were clouded by fear about their own positions and interest.

There were honest people on the ‘no’ side too, but those ‘leading’ it dragged it down some dark paths.

The theory of Overton windows has always stuck me as interesting—it states that there’s only a limited section of the political continuum that’s acceptable mainstream debate at any time. Anything outside it seems too radical to be considered. Decades of right-ist spin seems to have dragged the window to a point where the absurd views of the Taxpayers Alliance are given credence and unions of workers are not—even by the leaders of the workers’ party.

And that’s sad. But more than sad, it’s life and death for countless people in Birmingham, the UK and the World.

I’ve had a brief glimpse of the opportunity as well as a ringside seat at the way the status quo protects itself.

It’s time to be honest, to be open, to be radical. It’s time to challenge obfuscation and apathy as well as disinformation and dishonesty. That can be dragging the window back to the left, or it can be just not letting nonsense past.

Each time you hear someone parrot a political line, think. And if what they say is not true, respond like that. Tell people, bore them stupid.

Reposition the narrative to change.

Subject: Act now to get the best communication from your Elected Representatives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm writing to you to ask for your support in helping work out how our elected officials can deal with online campaigners. If we don't act soon then the opportunity to create huge grassroots movements will be marked as SPAM.

I’ve been thinking more about the hoo-ha when new Tory MP Dominic Raab was being vilified for his attempts to make sense of his Parliamentary inbox. He claims automated online lobby groups are creating too much correspondence to deal with in a meaningful way—and while attempting to hide his email address wasn’t the right way, he’s got a point.

His big moan was directed at fairly new group 38 Degrees, who were very active during the election, who he claimed at some points were sending 200 “cloned” emails a day. He said:

“Look at why 38 Degrees took on that title – it is the angle at which an avalanche falls. Their aim is to create an avalanche in MPs in-boxes. Others apply the same tactics, so spam filters won’t solve it – that is why I want the right to opt out of them using my email for those purposes”

Subject: Act now to get the best communication from your Elected Representatives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm writing to you to ask for your support in helping work out how our elected officials can deal with online campaigners. Causes that have most to gain from demonstrating mass support need to makes sure that power isn't diluted.

Tom Watson MP has experience of this, being deluged by emails even when he was on the same side as the lobby group—and that’s part of the problem, the mass campaign tools have quickly worked out how to match you to your MPs email but opinions on policy aren’t easy to automate. Even if they did, that’s not how people work—the nudging actions on the social web mean that people will want to press send to “do their bit” and join in. Clicking on that button is too easy to require much thought.

The emails are a problem because the accepted wisdom is that direct communication requires a response. The problem is no longer establishing the communication, but managing it. These emails are very like a petition, but one with the proposal very so slightly personalised by the signatory so requiring a separate response.

Subject: Act now to get the best communication from your Elected Representatives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm writing to you to ask for your support in helping work out how our elected officials can deal with online campaigners. We must look for ways to harness that nudge power to produce real actions as well as acts of me-too-ism, or else we're just building complicated petitions.

Maybe we need to mature a little and be realistic—if communication takes minimal effort then it must deserve appropriate effort in response. We can’t expect the same response to an automated email as we would to a bespoke email or conversation—but does that mean we’re back to petitions?

Petitions give a central point of contact and collate strength of feeling, but are binary — you have to agree with everything the petition says, there’s no conversation or discussion. I might think that more research is needed into triage-by-phone services, but petitioning I can either “save” or “shut”.  They can easily be dismissed if the petitionee is of a mind—you can pick holes in the most tightly worded statement, and what then? Do it all again?

We’ve fallen out of love with petitions, local authorities were obliged to build online petition sites just over a year ago and in Birmingham at least nothing much has happened. The site cost £7,500 to set up followed by an expected annual running cost of £1,332 but it’s not exactly been inundated by petitions or signatures. In a year, in an authority area of over a million people there have been only 29 petitions submitted, of which a tiny 19 made it to the website (from this FOI request)— only two seem to have got responses (both of which say ‘thanks but no thanks’ pretty much). At the time of writing there are just four live petitions, none of which have any hope of affecting policy.

Subject: Act now to get the best communication from your Elected Representatives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm writing to you to ask for your support in helping work out how our elected officials can deal with online campaigners. Because they've got to learn that it isn't working too.

I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve received during the Labour leadership campaign, I’ve checked it wasn’t a real email from an Ed, or a Miliband or one of the others (unlikely, but possible— the giveaway is that only auto databases ever use my full name), skimmed and deleted. In some cases I’ve thought “I’ll read that later”, but I don’t think I have—because email isn’t a persuasive medium, particularity at scale. When the size of your email mailing list is important it’s because you have a list of supporters, some of whom will respond to requests or calls to action. Hitting the unconverted just blends into the SEO emails and the random, bizarrely rich, Nigerians.

Subject: Act now to get the best communication from your Elected Representatives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I'm writing to you to ask for your support in helping work out how our elected officials can deal with online campaigners. Your heart pretty much always sinks on the receiving of another email doesn't it?

Think before you hit send, are you contributing or SPAMming?

The public/private problem

People in difficult situations have always relied on dark humour to get them through, police, doctors, solders are well known for it. Private grief or impotent horror at public events produces jokes or thoughts that are not always palatable. It was always thus, I’m sure you can remember school-yard jokes about major disasters, I’m sure that psychologists could point to research about why we do it and why it helps.

Last Friday night Twitter, the only special media form I use often enough to have been checking on a weekend evening, was alive with comment on the Raoul Moat case and the rolling TV news coverage of it. Rolling news, particularly the Sky version, is an easy and oft used target amongst the (mostly liberal, mostly educated, mostly cynical) people that I come into contact with there. The repetitive nature of 24 hour news, the lack of actual happenings — it’s easy meat for the sort of “social satire” that Twitter does around major news events.

A difficult, horrific and scary, situation was made mundane by the coverage. That’s what rolling TV news does.

And then something really odd happened. Paul Gascoigne turned up.

It was sad, Gazza has had well publicised mental health and addiction problems for some years – but there is no denying that the event provided all the essential ingredients for comedy: juxtaposition, recognition, shared nervousness, mundanity (in his shopping list of things brought, and in his use of unimaginative nicknames).

It would be, and I’m sure will and should remain, unthinkable for mainstream comedians to do Gazza/Moat material — but in private most people would have been comfortable to share in the darkly comic aspects of the story. And laugh, because there’s nothing else you can possibly do in that moment to change anything.

Here lies the collision we’re about to see (or are seeing) between that with the media can show as acceptable reaction and what we now know about the actual reaction of huge numbers of people. We may have in the past heard ‘sick’ jokes at work or in the pub, in recent years my SMS inbox has filled with them from those a generation above me (and it has too this week) but it’s only now that the public sphere has communication tools that allow this to happen in ‘public’.

Cue media (and political, in politics’s role as a branch of media) outrage.

So we have a problem — there seems that there is no way that the media or those courting it for political purposes can take anything but the outraged position. If anyone in that sphere were to step out of line then they would swiftly become the story, and they have power, influence, and money to lose.

We saw this in the General Election campaign, potential candidates were hounded out after using the social web to express opinions that everyone would have expected them to hold in private. Maybe they should have known better (in fact, they of all people — in the game where leaping on signs of unconformity is to conform — should know most of all), but it’s a regimented and dull World we’re being forced to live in, one where no-one can make a mistake however small.

Imagine if Princess Diana died again tomorrow, how far would the media’s reaction (which would no doubt be the same as it was them) be from the public (or at least  public space online) reaction?  If I’ve read one think piece, years later, about how the “public outpouring of grief” wasn’t shared by anywhere near to all of the public I’ve read hundreds. Now people might well be brave enough to say so.

What happens in online social interaction isn’t, for most, a truly public space — it may be open to all but it is intended to be read by those who are connected to them. Hence we get a false dichotomy; all utterances on the social web are public, but some are more public than others. We have to move to a way where all media, social or otherwise can cope with that.

MPs and the blogosphere

I was invited along with a group of other local bloggers to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week. It’s part of the party’s plan to do more in the social media space — including the launch of a blogging platform ‘Blue Blogs‘ on their site. Head of New Media, the very affable, Rishi Saha sorted out passes and security clearance and I met him on Monday for a brief chat about what they were doing.

Apart from wandering around the Conference itself — think The Ideal Home Exhibition with less, but odder, stands and more press — I attended a number of fringe events about the Internet. The most interesting was run by The Freedom Association and was intended to be about “Freedom and The Internet”, it was really a good chance to see and hear the most famous right-wing bloggers talk amongst themselves. The panel was chaired by Iain Dale, and featured Guido Fawkes, Dizzy, Devils Kitchen and MP Nadine Dorries.

While all of the other bloggers on stage blog in what I would consider a conventional way — it’s their opinion, on their own chosen subjects, they handle comments, link to others and form part of a community — Nadine doesn’t.

Part of this comes from what I perceived as her lack of interest, she admitted not to reading other blogs “don’t have the time”  and also doesn’t have comments on her blog — again in part due to lack of time. The other issue is what I would think a lot of other politicians suffer from, a lack of understanding.

Nadine’s blog is useful to her because of the speed and unmediated way it can get her opinion to those that matter — in her case journalists. That is a blog’s great strength on a “narrowcasting” level, although (in this instance at least) the same could be achieved by emailing the text to the people that are interested.

It was intimated that Nadine’s blog got her “in trouble with the Chief Whip” — something that she interpreted as her “honesty” being incompatible with high office. Her blog was even cited (in another panel session) as a reason more MPs don’t blog.

She’s “thinking of giving it up” — it isn’t proving worth the effort she’s spending on it (which considering she emails her “blogs” to someone to put them up for her isn’t too much).

So. Why don’t MPs blog?

Continue reading MPs and the blogosphere