Michael Grimes is Online Communications Manager at the Citizenship Foundation. The Citizenship Foundation encourages and enables individuals to engage effectively in their communities and in democratic society at large.
These are exciting times for civic engagement. The internet, coupled with interest from both activists and policy-makers, is throwing up new ways to test the relationship between citizen and state every day. We should grasp the opportunity to explore how to make the most responsible and effective use of these new tools for the good of our democratic society.
The UK government recently took the brave step of releasing government data for anyone to use as they wish. They put this data on the new website data.gov.uk and invited people to use it:
‘We’re very aware that there are more people like you outside of government who have the skills and abilities to make wonderful things out of public data. These are our first steps in building a collaborative relationship with you.’ (data.gov.uk)
This encouragement vindicated the work that some people had already been doing to improve links between citizens and the state, and enabled others also to create useful tools with the data.
In the UK we have some great online services that tap into public data for the good of society: some helping people have their voices heard by decision-makers, other making those decision-making processes a little more transparent.
Council Monitor, for example, finds what people are saying online about your local authority. It shows at a glance the topics that people are discussing and how positive or negative those discussions are. It exposes the perceived success of local councils and provides evidence for them to measure that success by.
FixMyStreet brings the two parties closer together, by telling your council about things that need fixing in your neighbourhood. Similarly HearFromYourMP encourages members of parliament to discuss with you things that they think are important, and enables you to talk back. The Prime Minister’s No 10 Petitions Website gives you the opportunity to lobby the government on issues of importance to you. Although opinion is divided on whether these petitions are a good thing, it has certainly been successful in bringing the strength of public opinion to the attention of government (most notably with regard to anger over road tax plans).
Then there are tools for getting to the bottom of an issue. WhatDoTheyKnow makes it easier to submit Freedom of Information requests, Help Me Investigate encourages people to collaborate in finding answers. Someone will pose a question – such as ‘Does the Job Centre check out employers when it advertises vacancies?‘ – and other people can help to find the answer, adding information they already know or have uncovered specially.
Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to use those tools, you can still use the internet to make your voice heard. Increasingly, MPs, councillors, civil servants and other public workers are using social media to listen to what is being said about them. After all, it is arguably in everybody’s interest that they listen, engage and act upon what they find.
For example, a number of MPs and local councillors are listening and responding on Twitter. And for the subversive among you Audioboo lets you upload audio tagged with your location, which can be used to leave useful information for people. Likewise, Foursquare enables users to share thoughts and opinions about a place. I’ve blogged elsewhere about how Foursquare could empower people to break commercial advantage; although strictly speaking this may not be civic engagement, it does illustrate the potential of such tools for enabling citizens to take a bit more control of their society.
And of course you don’t necessarily need a computer, you can now access services from many mobile phones.
Even if decision makers are not listening to you, somebody will be and so your message starts gaining momentum. Therefore simply using popular tools to voice opinions, make a noise and suggest solutions is, these days, not a bad place to start.
However, at the Citizenship Foundation we believe that effective civic engagement – or more specifically, effective citizenship - requires critical reflection by all involved; not simply the release and management of data by one party and the voicing of opinions by another.
The tools mentioned here are themselves not enough. They do exactly what they are intended to do, and usually do it very well. It’s just that in order for them to be part of an arsenal for effective, informed and responsible citizenship, they need extra layers of context.
Mashing together government data may provide some new insights but it also results in a whole load of new questions. For example, Mapumental promises to be a great tool for finding areas to live based on your salary. But it’s not its job to then encourage you to think about other social and ethical concerns, such as ‘if we all move to the nicest parts we can afford, what impact will that have on other places?’. And indeed it shouldn’t be its job to do that.Imagine how unwieldy a tool it would become if it tried to address all the potential social issues stemming from its presentation of data.
So if it’s not up to Mapumental and other tools to prompt that sort of questioning, whose job is it? And whose job is it to encourage users of the tools listed above to engage critically, rather than just use them to assert their rights, hold people to account, or provide excuses for not addressing an issue?
Unfortunately it’s not as easy as allocating ‘the job’ to someone or to a group of people. It’s rather down to all of us using those tools – members of the public and decision-makers alike – to do so with a keenness for rigorous, informed and effective debate.
At the Citizenship Foundation we are grappling with the question of how to encourage that. How do we affect this type of social change? Certainly schools and teachers can – and do – play a significant part: especially when they put effort into teaching citizenship education, by helping young people develop the skills they need to be confident, critical citizens. But schools can’t do it all.
Recently there has been heightened interest in online civic engagement. In addition to data.gov.uk the government has released its vision for a ‘Digital Britain‘, and Twitter keeps cropping up in news stories for its effectiveness to enable influential uprisings (such as to force Trafigura into abandoning its injunction against The Guardian). The climate is currently ideal for exploring the potential of the internet for civic dialogue, and we should be making the most of it.
We’ll probably never be able to get every person online and using these tools to extend their engagement beyond self-interest. But by seeking to meet this challenge we hope to encourage more people to use the tools as a starting point for meaningful civic engagement.