Localism and the web: a new era for England's democracy?

Local English democracy may look endangered, but new technologies are revolutionising the way we perceive our communities and take collective decisions.

Local democracy in England is in a troubled state. Swingeing cuts to local government, voter apathy and declining civic involvement all suggest a parlous state of affairs and with no let up in the economic gloom, the prospect of double dip recession threatens to sideline every other issue.

That at least is one take on the current state of local democracy. But here’s another: new forms of democratic expression and action are emerging and new networks and nodes of power are being created through the organising power of the internet.  These will both disrupt existing democratic norms and reconfigure them in ways that strengthen them.

To understand why this might be so, we need to step back for a moment and mark the emergence of three major trends evident in western countries and – as seen in the Arab Spring – in some non western countries.

The first is the rise of social media. Facebook, the world’s largest networking site, has just celebrated its eighth birthday.  Twitter is even younger and just ten years ago, there was no Beebo, Myspace, or social bookmarking sites, no blogging platforms such as Wordpress, Tumblr or LiveJournal – and certainly no mobile internet. Now, we clutch our smart phones, laptops and iPads on the go, dipping in and out of face to face conversations to send an email, check a fact or share photos online. So deeply embedded are these forms of social interaction in everyday life that we cannot conceive of a world that was once without them.

Less evident to the public gaze but no less seismic in its implications, is a second trend: the Open Data movement. This is not a movement in the strict sense of the word, since it has no membership, leadership, structure or strategy. It is better understood as a groundswell of opinion, debate and activism by a loose and growing network of researchers, academics, journalists, community activists, geeks and politicians across western societies, which has coalesced around a single insistent demand: that government data should be free; the public have after all paid for it with their taxes.

This goes far beyond publishing what is spent by government departments and local authorities.  Open data is also about the administrative records and routine information collected by every public agency.   Such data has excited the business world with the possibility that combining or ‘mashing’ different data sets can create new insights and new products and services that could transform our economy.  

The third trend is a shift towards localism, allowing communities to shape their own future. It is about small scale activity as opposed to those on a national or global scale, on everything from food and energy production to politics. Again this trend is not specific to the UK but finds resonance in other parts of Europe and North America. Taken together, localism and regionalism form part of a powerful countercurrent to globalisation. In the UK however, the  debate about the government’s Localism Bill has been soured by the suspicion that, for all the proposals to devolve power to communities and local authorities, the bill is no more than a Trojan horse for a hidden agenda of economic growth at any cost, unfettered by planning regulations or community consultation.

Despite sharp disagreement on approach, the commitment to strengthen local democracy enjoys broad political support and reforms linked to the government's Big Society Agenda also seek to encourage people to take an active role in solving problems and delivering public services in the places where they live. 

It is these trends which combine to allow the emergence of new forms of civic activity using the internet as both an organising tool and a means by which skills, information and ideas are shared and spread rapidly. There are four examples that are worth looking at. Others can probably add to the list. 

The first is the spread of what are called ‘hyperlocal websites’, citizen run websites where news, views and issues are aired and discussed. A study undertaken in 2010 by the consultancy Networked Neighbourhoods explored the ways in which people communicate using such websites by choosing three well established neighbourhood web sites Brockely Central, East Dulwich Forum and Harringay Online. All of them, with their mix of news, blogs and discussion forums reflect the interests and concerns of local people. People are free to publish content on any subject unmediated by the filtering effects of commercial newspapers. 

The research findings revealed that quite apart from an enhanced sense of belonging and involvement in the area, participants felt more positive attitudes towards public agencies “where representatives of those agencies are engaging online(my italics). Moreover, more than half (59%) of respondents felt able to influence decision-making processes in their area in contrast to the national average of 37% for 2009-2010. And while there may be other factors that contribute to such a high proportion, the research also points out a related finding: “overall two thirds (68%) felt a little more or much more able to influence decisions locally as a result of participation on their local site” (see Online Networks Neighborhood Study).

The second example is the creation of online resources such as OpenlyLocal and MySociety which are driving forward more open, accountable government. Whether you want to track down hyperlocal websites in your area or find and contact your MP, MEP or ward councillor, these websites are a must-have resource. The OpenlyLocal website also allows you to access a full list of   council committees and who sites on them, along with agendas for future meetings.  Interested in the ‘Planning and rights of way’ committee meetings? Pull in the RSS feed to embed all future meeting dates into your Google calendar; got  a burning question that can’t wait  till the next meeting? Click on the Freedom of Information button and ask your question. It will be sent to the correct officer in the local council, saving you a small fortune in time and phone bills – but before you do this, use the search engine first, in case someone has already got the answer to the question you so badly want to ask. 

The site also gives headline information on what your council spends, along with an ‘open data’ scoreboard listing the councils that are ‘open data’ councils. At the time of writing only 98 out of 434 are listed as ‘open data councils’, defined as having a dedicated open data page or section listing the open data sets they publish. 

Although some of the information given on OpenlyLocal is labelled ‘experimental’, it does what it says on the tin: “making local government more transparent”.   

A third example is online sites which are repositories of spreadsheet data. These have grown exponentially as the result of the push for open data. Two of the best known ones are Guardian Data Blog and Google Public data and both hold a range of data on everything from child poverty to school league tables. This data has been pulled from sites such as data.gov.uk  or Eurostat and turned into simple powerful visualisations such as heat maps, bar charts or pie charts.

Many of these can be embedded in local websites with an article or blog to give them a local context. For example the map below showing income deprivation across England can be embedded in a way that shows just your neighbourhood or city, by using the embed code (see arrow) that you paste into the html <body> of your website. Although simple enough, once you familiarise yourself with the steps, this may seem  too technical or fussy for many – but there are now enough IT savvy community activists to perform these such  nitty-gritty tasks.    

Visualising data in this way gives a picture, which if combined with supporting commentary and explanation in the form of a blog or slideshow, can help tell a story about a neighbourhood.   It can generate questions and help residents to compare their area to others, assess whether progress is being made on particular issue and hold relevant authorities account.

Finally there are the peer learning networks and training organisations to which community activists can turn for help and resources. Our Society is an online peer learning network where you can set up a profile to say a bit about yourself and join working groups that usually focused around a particular theme such as community organising, localism or sustainability.   But for many community activists unfamiliar with the interne, there is now a growing range of hands-on support and training  offered by organisations such as  Networked Neighbourhoods, Talk About Local, Podnosh and Social Reporter to name but a few.  

All these examples show the emerging contours of a very different landscape to the one we are used to. They will not replace town hall meetings or the surgeries run by local councillors. The council chamber will remain a focal point where key issues of local public concern are debated and put to the vote.  But our representative democracy is having to adjust to new forms of democratic expression and new demands for a more accountable and participatory process. 

The episodic ‘mandate of the people’ that characterises our current representative model of democracy centers around a single event – voting day. What happens in between is subject to an incomplete democratic audit at best. And a free press that makes large claims to tackle this task, has itself been exposed as promoting its own interests and political agenda above that of the public.

While representative democracy remains central to our state institutions it needs to be complimented by more open government at the local level which allows people a direct say in both the decisions that shape their lives - and the means by which they are carried out. It is this prospect offered by the internet and social media tools in particular - and the contours of this new landscape are already evident.  

Nor is there any let up in momentum. These technologies are barely ten years old and are accompanied by the spread of cheap broadband and free wifi. The digital divide still means that significant numbers of people in our most deprived communities don’t have access to a computer at home; but  smart-phone technology is beginning to fill the gaps. Technological advancement and the open data movement combined with the localism agenda, have created too great a momentum to be knocked off course by the heated contention about the present government’s approach. These are paradigm shifts that are bigger than any political party and will outlast this government and the next.

The question is whether the current government can ride the wave and take credit for change that will happen anyway, or crash against the rocks of its own hubris by making claims for progressive legislation that is later shown to be anything but.

Gavin Barker is a freelance research and project manager with a background in local government and the charity sector.