I’ve always been a fan of representative democracy. Just not what it’s become in the last few years.
One of its big advantages, when and if it works, is that it adds professional value to our daily lives: yes, everything is political but that doesn’t mean all of us want to be politicians. And in very few cases, quite understandably, do we want the lives politicians have to suffer.
There are ways around this. In the context of hyperlocal environments, I’ve already suggested that:
[…] if people got involved – either in the above ad hoc way or by actively participating around the community hubs that good hyperlocal websites and environments clearly are (dealing effectively and quickly with all the issues that ranged from “dog poo” and licensing applications various (rigged or otherwise) to something as fundamentally serious as the gross mismanagement of local administrations) – what would there be left for local political parties to aggregate their supporters, voters and activists around?
If, instead of phoning up the council to take away the languishing rat-attracting rubbish, we got into the far more efficient habit of tweeting a short message onto our hyperlocal local website and pulled together a group of self-interested volunteers that very evening, what actually – for many services – would be the point of all those politicians; of all those sometimes rather uncivil servants?
Aren’t we right to explore the possibility that hyperlocal, far from simply sounding the death knell of mainstream local media, could actually detach from already distant political parties the right to be exclusively heard and acted upon in everything local we currently make noises around?
So. We could still get entirely involved in the politics of everything we do, but instead of becoming the politicians our current political classes and body politic demand, we remake political activity in the guise of local communication hubs. We don’t need to become politicians to fully participate – nor, even, need to interface with them to do so; instead, we turn politics into something that allows what we already do to be sufficient.
This, then, is representative democracy becoming participatory – almost without us realising what’s happening.
The dangers, of course, is that diversity might suffer as the only people with time to do hyperlocal might be the semi-retired white males (puts his hand up!) with enough resources to sustain any such project. (Shades, in fact, of the Big Society there.) But maybe this isn’t actually the case. There is evidence – from, for example, in Leeds – which I hope shows us quite a different picture. No institutions. No national framework. Just ordinary citizens self-learning to do what’s needed.
Earlier this week, The People’s Lobby launched their first participatory democracy experiment in Provo, a city of just over 115,000 people in north-central Utah. Incorporating tools from both Loomio and NationBuilder, the process is meant to foster increased community participation in city government.
First, using the NationBuilder platform, city residents are polled on the most pressing issues facing their community. (Jeff Swift is also a NationBuilder employee, but People’s Lobby is an independent project of his.)
In the second stage, representatives of the community are selected from those who contributed in the first stage, and collectively the group chooses an issue to address in a policy recommendation to the city council. Using Loomio’s decision-making platform, the representatives work together towards consensus and a recommendation.
There’s clearly quite a lot of opportunity for whipping out from under the feet of political parties too wrapped up in their own history the red, blue or – indeed – multicoloured carpets of political activity and placing them firmly in the environments “non-political” citizens currently feel most at home with.
And if hyperlocal can be defined as ad hoc democracy, and offers the chance of building on foundations already owned by the voters rather than by their evermore distant representatives, perhaps democracy’s renewal is closer than we think.
Further reading: here’s an interview with yours truly (ugly mug and all!) which Creative Citizens posted yesterday. No. Not an April Fool. Completely serious story.