Who says government can’t innovate?

The issue of how to get the public engaged in the democratic process is as old as democracy itself. The problem starts with information. Most of the information we receive about public policy is filtered – by political spin-doctors, by the mass media, or by agenda-driven analysts and think-tanks. Getting hold of the raw public data is never simple or convenient, and sometimes costs money or has prohibitive licensing restrictions.

The UK government is attempting to address this problem through the Power of Information Taskforce, which is making some impressive noises about making public data more accessible and using it in interesting ways. They are currently running a £20,000 competition called Show Us A Better Way that is calling for “ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated,” and are especially interested in “ideas that help make that leap from static information to action.”

I made a submission, called the Map-based Citizen’s Engagement Tool that emphasised that the data itself is only the beginning – it should be used as a starting point for citizen engagement, initially around local issues.

The system allows people to display on a map (probably using Google Maps) an array of public data, such as NHS providers, schools, police stations, recycling centres, bus stops, crime locations, and planning applications. But that is only the beginning. It then allows a person to define their geographic “area of interest”, and then to post proposals or commentary attached to locations or areas. People are notified of posts made within or overlapping their area of interest, and can vote or comment on other people’s posts. Ideas that receive significant support are brought to the attention of decision makers (probably local elected councilors or MPs). See the link above for a full description. It’s quite a preliminary idea, and I’m interested to see where it will develop from here, if at all

For a more intellectual take on this, Tree of Knowledge blogger Tim Watts pointed me towards Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks. This quote from is from his Rebooting Democracy essay:

New forms of engaged collaboration. The next phase in the integration of large-scale cooperation into democracy will come when we begin to use platforms for collecting, filtering, and refining proposals for action and active contributions. It is simplest to imagine this occurring at the level of local government. People living their day-to-day lives encounter a multitude of obstacles and overcome them using diverse solutions. Some problems cannot be solved systematically. Some can, but require attention and effort unavailable to local governments. Developing systems that allow people to report problems, offer solutions, vet them, compare solutions across municipalities, and propose action could overcome the limited resources at the local level. On the free-software model, everyone is a beta tester of their own physical environment, and all bugs can be fixed in that environment if enough people look at the problem. Taking this approach to the national level, there is no reason that federal agencies cannot implement similar systems.”

The work of Steven Clift is also very relevant (see also Tim’s summary):

“Because representative democracy is based on geography, content created by citizens must be identified by place instead of simply organized by issue. Content, from a news story to an online comment to a picture or video, needs to automatically be assigned (or “tagged”) with a geographic place. In addition, content bounded by a state or region or identified as global will be essential.”


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