Can smart maps improve local government?

Walter T. de Vries

Local governments are increasingly making use of internet-based applications and social media to provide services and to interact with citizens. As these applications can operate on smart phones, it is possible for any citizen to upload their wishes and complaints directly. Some of these applications use digital maps, such as google maps, which makes it possible for citizens to upload a report on a specific location and to see if their contribution has been dealt with. In addition, the reports allow local governments to visualize and analyze spatial patterns of citizens’ contributions. This can be used by governments to verify where problems occur regularly, and by citizens to follow up on where a local government is actively addressing their problems.

Are these applications however really helping local governments? At first one would say: yes, they are. Ideally the uptake of mapping applications and the cheap acquisition of data would make local government more efficient in cost and time and more effective in acting on reported problems . Our recent article in Local Government studies, The Contradictory Effects in Efficiency and Citizens Participation when Employing Geo-ICT Apps within Local Government , evaluates to which extent this is true. Do citizens really voluntarily contribute to such systems, and is it really useful for local governments?

The study relies on the usage of the mobile application called the “verbeterdebuurt” (http://www.verbeterdebuurt.nl ) (a Dutch term and application which translates as “improve my neighborhood”), in Enschede (a city of nearly 160,000 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands).   The application which relies on ‘voluntary’ contributions of citizens compliments a centralized internal system used at the municipality to handle reports on public space, such as complaints about maintenance of city roads, greenery, street and traffic lights, waste and sewerage, amongst others. By law, the Enschede local government has a responsibility to act on the reported problems within a defined deadline. In order to act appropriately, it is however crucial to obtain relevant information about the type and location of the problem.

Statistics of the past year reveal that in Enschede many people discovered the website and are increasingly uploading reports through the mobile app. One could conclude that this provides clear evidence that such mapping applications can help local governments in locating and addressing problems. However, the mapping facility is not decreasing the number of problems nor is it increasing the quality of the reports. On the contrary, numbers have increased rapidly and the quality varies considerably. The key question is why. When evaluating the reports more closely, there is a greater portion of trivial complaints, such as litter which could be easily picked up by the one who reported the problem. Furthermore, the facility also created opportunities for a kind of opportunistic behavior. A number of private construction companies started to frequently report problems that only they themselves could solve. The intentions of the technical design were thus overshadowed by unexpected consequences.

In sum, there is more work to do for developers of mapping applications, before local governments can increase their efficiency and effectiveness in the management of public space. Countering unintended behavior requires further attention before achieving more transparency and accountability of local governments.

de vriesWalter Timo de Vries (w.t.devries@utwente.nl) is Assistant Professor, land information governance and organization; and course coordinator, land administration, at the Faculty of Geo-Information Science  and Earth Observation of the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. Walter researches how, why and when agencies cooperate and coordinate to align (geo-)ICT and (geo-)information services within the public sector.

Re-valuing The Public

Teresa L. Córdova

When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.

Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.

Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.

Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.

 

 

Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission.  Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies.  She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated.  She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics.  Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.

Democracy in The Circle: a route to reconnection and engagement?

Frank Hendriks

One of the theme’s at INLOGOV’s 2014 summer symposium is “Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement.” One of the possible routes is tellingly sketched in Dave Eggers’s recent novel The Circle (2013).

I will not try to summarize this rich, dystopian novel which is in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, brimming with ideas as well as fears. The vision of democracy presented in The Circle is what I focus on here. It is called ‘demoxie’, and it might be a better prediction of future democracy than many theorists would think.

In the book, demoxie is quite typically introduced as a hitherto unthought-of ‘next step’ in a development process. It starts with the idea to make everyone with a Circle account automatically a registered voter. In the brave new world of The Circle, virtually everyone has such an account, as it is the merger of all other accounts. Think of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all that coming together in one big company, with a monopoly on the internet and all connected data. One of the company founders, Bailey, first sees this as an opportunity to perfect electoral democracy, to close ‘the circle’ between electors and elected so to speak. “Now think,” he says at a company meeting, “if we can get closer to full participation in all elections (…) As we know here at the Circle, with full participation comes full knowledge. We know what Circlers want because we ask (…) if we observe the same model nationally, electorally, then we can get very close, I think, to 100 percent participation. One hundred percent democracy.”

There is applause, but the fatal heroine of the book, Mae Holland, has a brainwave and suggests to take the whole thing one step further. Why not oblige everyone to vote? “Everyone would agree that 100 percent participation is the ideal.” Until the requested vote has been cast, a circle account will simply be blocked. “And then we can take the temperature of everyone at any time.” The developers at the firm are so excited that within a week they have a beta version of what now is called ‘demoxie’ – “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie. And it’s coming soon.” The first try-out question is “Should we have more veggie options at lunch?” In no time the demoxie result appears: “75% of respondents want more veggie options. More veggie options will be provided.” The company’s founders are excited, they want more of these direct votations and promise to implement the majority ‘moxie’ within a day. Demoxie would be the best shot at ‘pure’, direct democracy the world ever had.

Is this unreal ‘science-fiction’, completely detached from our world? I don’t think so. Like everything in The Circle, demoxie is a radical extrapolation of developments already visible. It’s actually quite close to what the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s biggest parties nowadays, envision. It’s very close to what pirate parties around the world call ‘liquid feedback’ – heeding the voice of constituencies on a permanent basis, feeding it back directly to political processes at hand. It’s an extrapolation of consumer polls, internet surveys, facebook counts, and the like, now with the promise of swift take-up, and response rates that can hardly be ignored.

I see ‘demoxie’ as a radicalized version of what I call, less poetically, ‘voter democracy’. I tried to give it due attention in my book ‘Vital Democracy’, but quite honestly it needs much more. Democratic theory is traditionally focused on the distinction between Westminster (indirectly-aggregative) and consensus (indirectly-integrative) democracy. More recently the attention has been extended to communicative and deliberative democracy of the directly-integrative type. Surely, these are routes to re-connection and engagement, and we should continue to study them. However, we should also realize that these routes are followed more often in theory than in practice. Democratic theorists are intrigued by experiments with mini-publics, deliberation days, and the like, but the wider public quite often just prefers to quickly vote, and see their votes aggregated directly and efficiently.

There is not only a popular pull in this direction, but also a strong technological push, which are two reasons to take this other, directly-aggregative, route to re-connection and engagement more seriously than we do. Because whether we like it or not as democratic theorists, it is here to stay and it is bound to grow.

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Frank Hendriks is full professor and research director at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, and co-director of the Demos-Center for Better Governance and Citizenship at Tilburg University. His current research is focused on the design and quality of democratic governance – on political leadership and active citizenship, on public decision-making and participation, on reform and innovation in democratic institutions – at the level of the city and the state at large. Frank is also a Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in the Hague and Visiting Fellow at St Edmunds College, Cambridge University.

Picturing place: citizen participation in the age of social media

Katherine Tonkiss

The INLOGOV blog has featured a number of insightful pieces on citizen participation in recent months. Most recently, Laurens de Graaf reflected on the limited role of citizens in participatory projects, where they typically act as information sources for elected representatives rather than decision-makers themselves. Previously, Catherine Durose argued in favour of alternative modes of citizen participation in order to move away from often empty, ‘tick-box’ consultation processes. Further, Catherine Jackson-Read reflected on whether local government in its current form can work effectively in collaboration with citizens.

What these posts have in common is a consensus that facilitating effective citizen participation is a significant challenge for local government, and that authorities should look to more novel approaches to facilitating participation beyond the traditional meeting in the drafty village hall.

These posts sprang to mind when I came across a campaign being run by Birmingham City Council’s Fair Brum partnership, ‘Place Matters’. The purpose of this project is to facilitate the participation of citizens in shaping Birmingham’s neighbourhood strategy by submitting photographs of their neighbourhood via social media. The focus is on ‘what is distinctive about different neighbourhoods and what local people value in their local environment’.

Photographs should answer one of the following questions:

  1. What do you like about your area?
  2. What makes your area unique or distinctive?
  3. What would you change about your area?

This novel campaign relates to the idea of ‘place’ in two very interesting ways.

First, the campaign involves a notion of place strongly grounded in the neighbourhood. The idea of citizens telling their local authority and its partners about their neighbourhood in terms of what it is like to live there doesn’t just involve relaying information to assist decision-making, but actually resconstructs what place means to the citizen in their immediate locality and how they interact with that place. In doing so, this creates a vision of place from the ways in which people understand and interpret their lived environment.

Secondly, and conversely, the campaign involves a very expansive notion of place. The act of photographing the neighbourhood and uploading it via social media is a clear step away from engaging citizens in that drafty village hall, and rather opens up the ability to convey ideas about place from the home – very much along the lines of the Gov 2.0 model that Tom Barrance wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It also opens up the possibility of participation to those without English language skills, or to those who are otherwise unable to engage in traditional processes of local democracy. Previous research I have been involved in has highlighted how traditional models of citizen participation can further exclude some of the most underrepresented groups, and alternatives such as this offer the opportunity to overcome such barriers.

I acknowledge that it will still exclude those who don’t use social media, however this is part of a raft of engagement activities and so there will, presumably, be other ways of engaging that don’t necessarily rely on having a Twitter account.

The results of this exercise will be insightful for local authorities and academic researchers alike, in terms of whether it does address that all too common issue that participation activities become tokenistic opportunities to obtain information rather than to engage citizens in decision-making processes. It will be important for the partnership to demonstrate a link between these participation activities and meaningful citizen input into the decision-making process about the neighbourhood strategy. If successful, the exercise will offer fascinating insights both into Birmingham as a city and into citizen participation in the neighbourhood.

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Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow at INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.

Hashtag politics: seven top tips for civil servants using social media

Stephen Jeffares

The Commons public administration select committee’s call for open policymaking, published on 3 June, envisages civil servants as the guardians of wiki-style policymaking, with public sector leaders embracing digital technologies and using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

But these social media platforms can be a double-edged sword for policymakers.

Never has it been easier, or cheaper, to launch or consult on new policy initiatives. The possibility of creating a hashtag and reaching both the influencers and the wider public is seductive. Yet it can also result in something close to a Dr Frankenstein scenario: you have created a hashtag, and it will destroy you!

Once unleashed, public, tag-able, searchable and unique policy ideas are vulnerable to all kinds of comment, including critique and derision. Keeping abreast of what is being said about your initiative, activity or organisation can be difficult when you are busy with everyday matters, as former BBC director general George Entwistle found to his cost.

The rise of social media has brought with it a goldrush, with numerous companies and social media consultants offering “social listening” technologies, related advice and services. These tools can be configured to alert organisations of both positive and negative discussion of their initiatives, opening up opportunities to capitalise or take action. Metrics are provided to show the most influential users discussing an initiative, and who should be approached to help spread the message.

New tags are created daily – #compassionatecare, #MyPCC, #Greendeal, and, a personal favourite, the probation-related tag #transformingrehabilitation, which takes up 20% of a tweet.

Succeeding at hashtag politics is challenging. Here are my top tips:

1. Acknowledge the craft

In the battle to disseminate a message in a competitive environment with multiple channels and information overload, the creation of effective labels – such as hashtags – for policy ideas is part of the craft of policymaking.

2. Expect and accept some loss of creative control

Since its inception, big society has been frequently criticised as nebulous and vague. However, vagueness is part of the appeal of a policy idea. Its very nebulousness is what draws people to it and allows them the important opportunity to attach their own meanings and demands. Organic labels, hashtags and alternative meanings will arise. Take, for example, the Home Office’s #MyPCC, which was usurped by #PCC.

3. Listen

Invest modest resources in social media monitoring software, but, more importantly, recruit and train policy researchers to integrate new forms of data into their work.

4. Diversify

Hashtag policymaking is more about creating memorable policy ideas than explicit hashtags. Following one hashtag or set of users is not enough. You have to adapt to changing language to be able to capture the conversation.

5. Peek under the hood now and again

Do not rely solely on automated analytics, such as sentiment monitors, when making decisions.

6. Engage more and broadcast less

Be prepared to engage in informal discussion with citizens, without the need for approval from above. Waiting three days for sign off to reply to a Facebook comment is not engagement.

7. Be prepared to let go

Every day your initiative is online, accept that attachment to policy ideas is gradual, cumulative and eventually disruptive. Learn to recognise when the policy idea is entering its final stages, be prepared to disinvest, and do not mislead your collaborators.

This post was originally published by the Guardian Public Leaders’ Network.

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Stephen Jeffares is a Roberts Fellow in the College of Social Sciences based in INLOGOV, Institute for Local Government Studies.  His fellowship focuses on the role of ideas in the policy process and implications for methods.  He is a specialist in Q methodology and other innovative methods to inform policy analysis.