Redesign local democracy, not just services

Fantastic things are happening in the world of local government in the UK.

Inspired by the Government Digital Service and people like FutureGov, more and more councils are turning traditional corporate approaches upside down, working in radically different ways and rebuilding services around the people who actually use them.

While I'm full of admiration for this work I worry that, in the race to improve services, something is getting left behind.

That thing is democracy.

I'm not the only one — a few of us (loosely known as the #notwestminster gang) have been looking for ways to bring local democracy redesign work out of the shadows; to bring democracy Cinderella to the service redesign ball.

More on that later and on why democracy design is different to service design.

First a few words on why this matters and why democracy deserves some special attention.

Technocracy or Democracy?

It’s often easy to forget, particularly in the UK, that local government is a democracy institution — not just a vehicle for service delivery.

The conventional wisdom, reinforced by the media (and, sadly, many who work in the sector) is that people only care about their local councils in as far as they provide services in a cost effective way. Of course schools, social care and refuse collection are nothing less than essential for people’s quality of life and they have every right to demand that they are provided well.

But people also care about the decisions that affect them, the opportunity to vote, the conduct of their representatives and the policies of those in charge. These are not services — they are aspects of democracy.

The technocratic and democratic aspects of local government are often in competition and it is nearly always the technocrats than win over the democrats. This is never more obvious than in debates about the appropriate size of local councils. The conventional wisdom (with little supporting evidence by the way) is that bigger is better and more efficient. The reduced democratic responsiveness that follows is seen as a price worth paying.

It’s not only in arguments about size where democracy looses out to service delivery. As Colin Copus argues in a paper about local government’s place within the UK ‘constitution’:

… local government has been far less of an institutional setting in which these competing factors have been carefully balanced, and rather we have seen the political and democratic processes constantly lose ground to the needs of technocracy and the provision of public services by large-scale public bureaucracies.

It doesn't help that local government in the UK has no constitutional status to protect it — it can only do what central government says it can do. For all the talk of devolution and localism by a succession of national governments, local government continues to be viewed as a vehicle for service delivery and used accordingly.

It’s hardly surprising then, that in this climate, that designers see services as the first priority and democracy as a poor second.

Jazz or Rock and Roll?

At the same time as being neglected, local democracy is in need of serious attention.

The formal processes of local democracy are from a bygone age and low turnouts at local elections are a well know problem. The wider problem perhaps, is that local politics is, without an investment of time and effort, a mystery to most people.

I like the way that Lawrence Pratchett puts it. In British Local Government into the 21st Century, he uses the metaphor of jazz to explain what’s wrong with local politics:

The argument here is that the institutions of local politics have become like jazz: without a high level of concentration they are incomprehensible to most people…. This is not an argument that says that most people are stupid and that politics needs to be ‘dumbed down’. Rather, it is an argument that most people are too busy doing other things to worry about the institutions of local politics: they do not want to work that hard to understand something that is often deemed peripheral to their lives.

As Pratchett notes, Jazz was effectively superseded by rock and roll, a form of music that ‘stripped back this sophistication to a much simpler sound that was easier to follow and understand’.

Yep, we need local democracy to rock if we want people to use it.

Why democracy design is different

So far I've argued that local democracy is neglected and in need of attention. When it comes to design it also comes with a different set of assumptions. Not least because it means building for a different user.

Service redesign places customers at the centre. Customers of public services are people with needs and wants who come to the local council to get these needs and wants met. Sometimes they have a choice, sometimes they don’t. People may even receive a service that they don’t want because it meets the needs of others. Most of the time they need to council to do something that supports their quality of life.

Democracy redesign, on the other hand, places citizens at the centre. Rather than simply needs and wants (they have these as well), citizens have rights and entitlements. Sometimes they have opportunities to exercise these rights and entitlements, often they don’t. Most of the time they don’t even know about the opportunities that they do have.

The first implication of this is that council’s need to be proactive in what they provide and not just wait for people to ask for it. It’s not enough to look at website traffic and design ‘top tasks’ based on the most popular searches. I'm not going to sit in on every council meeting or read every agenda, every set of minutes and every report. So how will I know about that thing that will affect me that if I did know about I would surely want to have my say about?

Second, if you believe that government should be more than just the preserve of the professional political elite (I appreciate that not everybody does) then we should be working to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate if they choose. If follows that local councils should be fostering democratic participation and engagement for its own sake. As Gerry Stoker argues in his book Why Politics Matters:

In the end, in a democracy the people count, and the issue is to ensure that people power has the maximum chance to make a difference.

Stoker’s wider argument is that we need a ‘politics for amateurs’ that will allow people to participate in formal and informal politics in a way that is both meaningful but also allows people to ‘retain a life’. The problem is not that people don’t want to participate, the problem is that participation is made difficult for people.

Part of the design challenge, then, is to find ways to weave politics and democracy back in to everyday lives without relying on any grand sense of moral obligation and without dismissing people as either disinterested or incapable.

The final implication of designing for citizens rather than customers is that, as Stoker argues, politics is something people need in their lives; it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a human being in a modern society:

We need the collective capacity offered by politics to protect our liberties, express our interests and views and to enable ourselves to cope with the demands of living in a shared world. Politics matters as it, too, is an ingredient in what is needed for a good life. It is about recognizing that those affected by a decision have a right to a say about it and that in a complex world where our lives overlap and intersect with so many others we need to find ways to communicate, to agree and disagree and to cooperate.

Here then are some of the assumptions and values that underpin the concept of what it means to be a citizen. They are very different to the ideas and expectation that might be associated with customers.

Design Challenges for Local Democracy

OK, so democracy design is different to service design. What are we going to do about it?

To make a start some of us in the #notwestminster gang have been developing a set of design challenges for local democracy. You can find all 19 of the challenges on the #notwestminster website.

Here are a few examples to give you the flavour:

Connected Candidates: High turnouts in local elections are a mark of a healthy democracy and yet many people have no motivation to participate. How can we get people connected to their candidates so that they will see a reason to vote?
Social Council Meetings: Council meetings discuss many issues that affect people yet they are poorly attended by the public and often pass unnoticed. How can we get people to take part in council meetings so that they can be involved in debates that affect them?
Social Decision Making: Councils make many important decisions yet the people who are affected rarely have their say. How can we get people involved in local policy making so that they can influence the decisions that affect them?
Community Campaigns: In a healthy democracy change comes from the bottom as well as the top and yet it is nearly always the politicians that set the agenda. How can we get people to talk more to each other about the issues that concern them so they can build campaigns and change things?

The raw material for the challenges came from the #Notwestminster event that was held back in February and some of the work we've done previously around local digital democracy. We had conversations online and off to help refine the list — it’s still a work in progress of course.

On the 11 September we will be hosting a Maker Day to focus on some of the design challenges linked to elections. At the day will be a mix of people — some technically minded, some not so much -all committed to applying some new thinking to some very old problems.

If this sounds like something for you then come and join in. If you can’t make this event then you will be very welcome in the #notwestminster gang — sign up for the emails or follow @ldbytes on twitter.

Let’s get democracy Cinderella to the redesign ball.