There was a point in 2006 where I was determined to photograph every dog turd, needle, broken street light, abandoned car and discarded condom in Caledonian Ward and put those pictures on the internet if that was what it took to get the situation improved. I knew that the service delivery on the ground around my house fell well short – we were almost a no go area. And I had twigged that making public on the web the formerly private process of ringing the council seemed to get better service.
Putting my private complaints about public policy matters in the public domain got other people to join in – regular citizens and councillors: both because they wanted to help but it gave them confidence to voice their own concerns. In my ward, local people’s use of the internet to highlight local issues was polite, insistent, dogged, dour and determined. Over time, for a whole variety of reasons including better councillors, S106 money, better council, better policing the situation in the ward improved.
For decades, people have been doing this sort of thing as individuals. I see though more and more people now using simple internet tools to lever their individual actions. Amongst all the fluff of ‘the internet changing everything’ i wonder if there is emerging in Britain a new form of methodical grassroots internet campaigning a sort of ‘new model activism’ that is not cavalier, showy, demonstrative campaigning with placards, but people using the internet dogmatically and patiently to advance their moral or legal ‘rights’ in their neighbourhoods. And using the internet to show others when these rights or expectations are not upheld so that the wider populace may form tacit judgement on the (in)actions of the authorities. It’s the sort of thing that at Talk About Local we encounter quite often when working with people on local websites and in general we strongly support.
An epitome of ‘new model activism’ has been the recent attempts by individual citizens to film their local council meetings. People attend local council meetings and attempt to film, encouraged to do so by the Secretary of State. The footage they take, usually of being blocked from filming is shared on the web and if they get no footage they take to the internet or media. And then larger numbers see and comment on it. Watching the footage and reading accounts, I see what might be several distinctive traits of what might be ‘new model activism’ on display here:
quiet politeness shown by the potential filmers. It’s the flat opposite of mob invading the town hall to protest at cuts.
no central organisation – Twitter, mainstream media and the RT of blog posts is a loose stimulus to do the thing, the people doing this have no affinity with each other nor national organising body and they aren’t even very interested in such. Their focus is very local, national awareness is incidental.
it’s law-driven – a particularly ‘round-head’ aspect of this is people simply trying to assert what they see as their rights where they perceive a long standing injustice
activism is to make a system work better through its procedures or rules – not to overthrow the system
relatively individual at the outset – not herd based, joining a crowd or signing a petition
people are doing something highly practical and concrete, not taking a action that is demonstrative alone
people are non-aligned or non partisan
taking advantage of the asymmetry in internet capabilities between public bodies and the general public – the former being weak or un-knowing
respect for, but not deference to civil authority – epitomised in Richard Taylor’s dogged persistence to get the Chair to rule from the Chair that his filming was not allowed.
What are the policy implications of this?
Both the current and previous governments wanted to see citizens more active. But there have been few interventions to drive this sort of new model activism. MySociety has provided helpful tools for the new model activist to help them essentially get better service out of the council and to do so publicly (Fix My Street, What do they Know etc). Some of these were funded in their very earliest days by central government. And some councils are now taking them up. Tom Steinberg of MySociety has even blogged about what to call new types of online civic action.
Eric Pickles is one of the only members of the government with direct experience of the policy field he is in charge of. He knows only too well the weird world of council scrutiny that is ripe to be cracked open. Mr Pickles has played the new model activists brilliantly. He has created new rights or illusions of rights: from ‘Armchair auditors’ back in 2010 through encouraging bloggers to film councils. But when these rights don’t seem to work, the activists take to the internet to complain and the council is then put on the back foot – not the Minister.
For government Mr Pickles, by providing apparent succour for the new model activist has demonstrated a way to drive some sort of ‘big society’ action direct to citizens, without having to go through the many, rather flaccid civil society organisations that are traditionally funded by government in the context of social action.
There’s a longer blog post to write I think on the public policy implications in this. But for now, I am interested in comments on whether there is something here or not – comments as ever moderated for sanity, relevance, politeness etc.
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