FutureGov will be appearing on the party conference scene later this month, teaming up with our friends at On Road Media and OPM to deliver a series of fringe meetings called Local, Social, Digital where we will pose the question “How can we use innovative approaches to engage citizens and communities in democracy?”
One of my political acquaintances responded to an invitation to this event by telling me that a meeting about Twitter was not a priority for him. Treating social media as a trivial topic is not an uncommon reaction from politicians. And while Local, Social, Digital is about a lot more than Twitter, I would like to explain why I think these fringe meetings should be a priority for politicians and activists to attend.
Ten years ago, I attended my first annual party conference as a young Liberal Democrat activist (Bournemouth, 2001). I had attended the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Torquay earlier that year. I vividly remember a scary drive down the motorway with three other young activists. I remember the now junior education minister, then young Islington party activist, Sarah Teather staying in the hotel room next door to us. But I remember, more than anything else, the shock of arriving at a conference that was full of elderly, white and fairly tame delegates. It all seemed very mundane in contrast to the energy and excitement I had experienced during our all expenses paid student trips to Blackpool to watch trots storming the stage and riot police trying to stop feminists attacking right wing journalists at NUS conference.
Undeterred (I either found the young people and radical thinkers or became a mundane delegate) over the last ten years, I have probably attended every Liberal Democrat annual conference (eight of those as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Islington) and a number of Labour and Conservative Party conferences too (for my previous day job.) The leading lights have changed (miss you Charles), as have the security precautions, but has the format remains pretty much the same. Delegates debate issues and (in some cases) form policy in the conference hall. MPs make important speeches that get covered on the rolling news channels. And companies, charities and interest groups provide the real fun (and free wine) by running meetings on every issue you could dream of, from social housing to sexually transmitted diseases, outside of official conference business time on the Fringe.
This year, I suggested that FutureGov dip our toe into this world. We work to shape the future of government, mainly at a local level, by combining design (involving users in the design of services at every stage) and technology (mainly of the digital kind) to create change (better public services), so why not share this with the people who are shaping the future of government everyday, at the party conferences? (You can read more about what we do in a recent blog posting about our work with Surrey County Council.)
Since joining FutureGov, I have absorbed so much that I wish I had known about when I was Councillor Lucy Watt. I wish I had attended a meeting like Local, Social, Digital back in 2002. In my previous life, I took photographs of local street environment problems (such as overflowing bins on Arsenal match days) and e-mailed them to officers to fix. I dabbled in Twitter, Facebook, a ward website and online petitions, but fears of giving away too much information to the opposition stood in the way of me unlocking the real power of the web (I talk about this more in a Guardian discussion here.)
I regret not knowing how to use online tools more effectively to create an open style of politics and governance – one that matches my political values; to share power by sharing information; to make better decisions by involving others in a meaningful way; and to build community action and community interaction. These things are in no way “trivial” activities.
Politicians are very familiar with community meetings, advice surgeries and doorstep canvassing, and there will always be a place for these things in our political system for the foreseeable future, but how many people are politicians really interacting with through these methods?
While I don’t ever want to see a computer screen replacing that face-to-face contact with our elected representatives, in reality how many people really do meet their councillor or MP, or attend that committee meeting on a cold winter’s night in a drafty community hall? The internet enables us to keep in touch with friends and family who we do not see every day and social media can do the same for politicians. Why would you turn down the opportunity of becoming a daily part of the busy lives of the people who elected you?
Well, I hope that I’ve now said enough to persuade you come along to one of our fringe meetings, but if you still need something else to tempt you I will resort to old fashioned methods. There will be free wine and refreshments.