Costs of entry and consequences of committment

Stephen Coleman's questions during Q&A sessions at the Young People, New Technology and Political Engagement conference have probably sparked more posts here than any other inputs.

This time, after a presentation on a web forum in Slovenia that achieved 100 contributions, "Why should a Member of Parliament care if 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person running the consultation – have posted on a message board?".

The simple answer seems to me to be: exactly the same reason they should care that 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person convening the meeting, turned up to the local town hall meeting and had their say.

But – this raises a more interesting question. Should (excepting the empirical aside that there are not many public meetings where 100 people get to speak – even if 100 may attend) the 100 online voices count for as much as the 100 in-person voices? After all – those who have turned out in person, we may argue, have put in more effort to participate – and so must have a stronger preference for the issue.

Members of Parliament responding to large letter-writting campaigns often comment that the hand written letter means more, and has a stronger impact on their decision making, than does the form-letter simply signed by a campaign supporter. The higher the 'cost of entry', in terms of time and committment, to a political act – the greater weight, it seems, it will have with decision makers.

Oh no! Surely this then means that our efforts to make democracy more accessible just make the views shared through low-cost-of-entry political acts easier to ignore.

Unless perhaps:

a) We think e-democracy is about more than having a say – and should really be about deliberation and making better policy. In that case, if there are voices not represented in policy making, our e-democracy efforts are about making sure these voices can input into deliberation – and that may mean lowering the costs of participation for a particular group. However, we must ensure these voices can carry weight in deliberations – and that the dillution that seems to occur from lower costs of entry in lobbying is not matched in deliberation.

b) We focus on using e-democracy to equalise costs of entry – and make sure that those being lobbied understand the effort that has gone into a political act. Young people are excluded from many forms of local democracy. They are not voters. They have often not had the opportunities to develop the skills to input into a structured political process (especially when youth is combined with disadvantaged backgrounds). So where it might be very easy for me to participate in an online forum – and slightly more challenging to input into the local strategy through a town meeting. For a group of disadvantaged young people, inputting into an online forum is very challenging – and that they successfully do so should make their input worth as much as my input at the town hall.

This said, we still need to make sure the 'quality' of input, in terms of its functional applicability in addressing a topic within the political remit of the authority it is directed to, is equal in both cases if we want to talk of them being given equal weight – but this, of course, is a big further question…

Knowing what workers need to know – and when they need to just get out the way…

Just been in a fantastic keynote by Brian Loader on 'Cultural displacement or Disaffection? Reassessing Young Citizens, New Media and Civic Engagement' (which I believe is the topic of his chapter in his recent edited collection). I think for a sense of the presentation – it's probably best to point to the book – as I'd be hard pushed to capture everything in notes.

However, an interesting discussion emerged in Q&A. Stephen Coleman related experiences of how the 'operating at a distance' enabled by internet technology (e.g. in online contributions to select committees and online MPs surgeries) supports those who might not be confident to contribute in person to input into the political process. I asked afterwards if this applied to young people – with a positive answer. What is most interesting, however, is to look at whether 'operating at a distance' changes the need for worker support. We know young people often identify their desire for youth worker or adult suport in order to input into decision making when we're looking at in-person participatoin. But do some groups who want support in person find they don't need or want it 'operating at a distance'? In Stephen's example of women contributing to a select committee on domestic violence – it was found that some women were only confident to use the 'at a distance' methods with their refuge support workers and trusted others. I imagine the picture may be the same for some groups of young people – but more exploration would certainly be of interest.

This gets me thinking. Identifying:

  • what skills workers and adults need to support young people in taking advantage of the opportunities created by online interaction,
  • when workers and adults should just get out of the way

seems key to making sure e-democracy leaves no-one behind, and allows all groups to make the most of the opportunities potentially opened up…

Afternoon papers….

Three presentations at the Young People, New Technologies and Political Enagement conference looking at different ways of engaging citizens and young people online:

Google turns up over a billion online forums – and there has been a lot of rhetoric in the past about using online forums to support e-democracy deliberation – but Kerill Duanne's research seems to show online forums are not working to help political deliberation online. They're inactive or inneffective. So do we need better designed spaces?

Sophia Collins told us about the more structured, time limited and fascilitated 'I'm a Councillor'. Can this engage young people in democracy? What about beyond the time when I'm a Councillor is running? It seems to have been successful at engaging 'the greys' – those who wouldn't otherwise be getting involved. It seems that the 'big brother' time-limited vote-one-person-out-a-week interaction of I'm a Councillor engages young people and meets a need young people feel in getting to know and trust political representatives – but should we always be having to manufacture these opportunities to build trust? How can they be made an organic part of the political process? How can we build on the positive experience of I'm a Councillor?
Also look at:

Anna McDermott from Brisol shared information about Bristol's 'Viewfinder' video consultation project (drupal based by the look of it..) where video was used to launch an online consultation process. Responses to a consultation can be sent in by text, through the online forum, or as video. The project team seeded the site with content gathered through outreach work creating video interviews (it would be interesting to know how many videos were directly submitted to the site…). The site hosted an discussion on the Bristol young people's manifesto which fed into the Bristol young people's select committee. Some reflections on video below.

From the discussion that followed:

  • We can move away from a defecit model – 'this technology is the panacea for engaging this particular group' – and can simply admit we all have different access preferences – and we need multiple-channels of communication to be able to engage people with different communication preferences. (And we need these to be integrated – with different pathways into the same process.)
  • Video inputs might be used to 'back up decisions that are made' – rather than influencing the decisions. It's a equivelent the the 'free text' option on a survey. But is the free-text analysed well enough? Is it consultation-lite without the substative element? How can we make sure people going down the video input route still get the option and are encouraged to contribute to consulation-stats after inputting via video/free-text discussion?

Short reflections:

  • There's a lot of looking at the role of citizenship in promoting e-democracy – but there seems to be a lack of looking at spaces where young people should have power and a right to input. The way to build in e-democracy seems to me to be to build it around Setion 6 rights of young people to influence Local Offer provision, and other local activities. Where power is given, it's harder for it to be taken away.
  • Video can carry a lot of information – but I wonder if its not too much. I can't process 15 video inputs as quickly as I can 15 text-inputs to a consultation or a dialougue – and so the risk is I can hear less views… Do we need better technology to allow analysis of video? Or is video mainly a red-herring technology in consultation and e-engagement – useful only in a limited range of situations? It certainly seems useful to give information – but how is it for gathering information? Bristol transcribe video inputs into text reports – but also make the videos available for decision makers to watch to understand an issue on a deeper level.
  • The design of tools matters. In the same way physical space affects the way interaction works – the 'public digital architecture' (by which I mean how it works for the user, not back-end systems architecture) really matters. But the power matters as well (if not most of all…)