Thursday, 09 July 2009

Conversational democracy and neighbourhood online networks Nesta have organised a substantial event in London next Monday called Reboot Britain, which is about how we can 'punch through the gloom and take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services.' Paul Evans has organised a stream of sessions on political innovation. I'm speaking at one of these, alongside Nick Booth, William Perrin and Edward Welsh, which is on the broad-enough topic of Locality: Councillors, Journalists, 'active citizens', community websites and local government communications. I think I'll focus on the ‘active citizenship’ part of the topic, keep the tech at a respectful distance, and ask ‘What's needed to stimulate active citizenship at local level?’ It'll need a rough distinction between informal and social participation on the one hand, and formal civic and political participation on the other. We need the former in order to stimulate the latter. (Well I know some people do political participation without doing social participation: I've even met folk who voted for them, but we won't have time on monday for the nuances). To my mind, it doesn't work to suppose that people can be prodded and coerced into civic or political participatory roles when their experience of social participation is impoverished. So it would help if we can develop a thriving communication ecology at neighbourhood level, and get some conversational democracy we can depend on. In the nick of time, with local democracy gagged and tied to the tracks and the train of public spending cuts thundering down the line, along come gallant dynamic al-action neighbourhood online networks. Hurrah. Let's get out of this metaphor and ask a few questions: Does the economic logic of these nets imply a more appropriate geographic scale for democratic involvement than currently exists? (Consider, for example, how much difficulty some authorities have in trying to establish meaningful area forums). Does the inbuilt interactivity imply more conversation? Does online conversation stimulate offline activity? Should local authorities be enabling the development of these networks? (Dunh?)
Do we need people asking if we need community? At the time of its construction in the 1960s the chief architect of Milton Keynes described Melvin Webber, proponent of the notion of 'community without propinquity', as the father of the city. Hurrah, they cried. Subsequent experience there and in similar places suggests that community without propinquity is quite different to, and does not compensate for local community. It's also apparent that many people really struggle without local support to the point where they may need help reinventing 'community' because policies imposed on them have stifled it. The RSA has an event in London next Tuesday (fully booked) asking 'Do people need community anymore?' I'm wondering if Liam Byrne might offer some insights into whether or not government policy will finally pick up on the importance of informal care. Byrne is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and presumably has some awareness of the economic implications of not recognising the importance of local informal support. Over on the Connected Communities blog, Steve Broome invites questions for the speakers, so this is what I sent: Supportive neighbourliness is still widely practised. Recent work in the UK and Netherlands suggests that the practice of local community support is still strong but more individualised than in the past. Fewer people are doing more of society’s local social work. Unfortunately informal care is crassly overlooked in policy. In a post-welfare society we can’t afford for this to continue. The reluctance to ask for support appears to be critical. So what policies would the speakers put forward that would stimulate informal support and care at neighbourhood level?

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