For an activist things can never be too local. Working with people on local issues up and down the country with Talk About Local, we see real passion for issues very close to people’s homes, schools or workplaces but little excitement for wider area democratic structures they have to engage in to get these local issues resolved. A generic problem is that the cost of hyperlocal accountability using formal, recognised traditional structures is just too high and replication of formal meeting structures is too unwieldy. Can new web services like Fix My Transport and Patient Opinion provide an affordable, meaningful engagement at a truly local level?
As an example – rail and transport services, run as hermetically sealed autarkies independent from passengers are notoriously unaccountable. Andrew Adonis the brilliant Labour peer and transport strategist has took to howling on Twitter about the length of time it took to repair escalators at his local tube system. Even a former Minister for Transport has no recourse to the local station manager or engineers spending huge amounts of public money in his patch. There’s just no accountability at this granular level even when tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day use a public service there.
Of course it would be ruinously expensive in time for Transport for London to run a formal committee based structure for each of its stations, properly balancing customer needs, workforce and management representation. Even if the public would turn up to such meetings. But if you use London’s transport a lot you can easily see the case for accountability at an even smaller level where there are problems – in some cases individual bus stops on the street or individual buses themselves. The recent TfL-BBC production ‘Routemasters’ on London’s transport system showed forlorn TfL managers in a face to face community meeting trying to deal with long pent up problems from bus travellors on one over crowded South London route. Charles Dickens the Victorian novellist and railway obsessive would have recognised the meeting structure and format.
Activists like me might piously say ‘you can’t put a price on accountability’ but that ignores the fact that, accountability done traditionally costs to engage staff time and there isn’t always money to pay for it. Traditional ways of doing it are horribly unwieldy. So it doesn’t happen. It also isn’t efficient to maintain thousands of standing accountability structures when they aren’t needed all the time.
But web-based services, empowered by open data are starting to point the way to new ways of organising around local public service points. FixMyTransport allow citizens to form their own campaigns about almost any unit of the transport infrastructure. Units that they can find due to open data. Ben was fed up with pigeon shit at Wrexham station so set up a campaign in FixMyTRansport specifically tied to that station, which has branched out into a change.org petition. FMT has given Ben the chance to define his own accountability unit and link resources around it. Patient Opinion offers similar hope to people who want to engage hospitals online.
As a local activist I am often frustrated by the lack of true localness in accountability structures. This is despite living in some of the smallest wards known to Western democracy, with excellent, engaged elected councillors. If you have a really local problem even a ward only a mile or two across feels too big. Where do i go to discuss a dangerous road junction? How can i hold my filthy local public swimming pool to account? In London’s Kings Cross we have used the web to some effect to tackle these issues and engage people and our elected representatives using modern web tools, because it’s easier.
This sort of online activism also attracts people who just can’t go to a public meeting in the evening in a too cold/too hot C19th school hall to listen to a dreary presentation from public service managers at the end of a long, obscure agenda. Maybe they have families for instance – something rarely factored into traditional engagement structures. These new model activists (as I labelled them recently) are prepared to put more time into campaigning than just clicking a petition if they can find a modern web based way to connect with the midC20th structures of local democracy.
There’s a potent combination of these online local, new model activists and web services that provide a new affordable units of accountability. The question is not just do modern public services and modern politicians want to engage this way, but will the public get on and do it without them. I’ll be discussing this much more with the great Paul Hilder and Alex Butler at The Evolution of Social Government talk today at 1300 in the Bloomberg Hub as part of Social Media Week London. #smwGovernment
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