I *heart* Ivo Gormley – his film’s quite good too, but disturbing

At today’s epractice.eu conference in Brussels we were shown Ivo’s spell-binding film: ‘Us Now‘, clips of which are shown here. The next showing of it in the UK is here… sign up. Here’s the blurb:

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?
Us Now is a documentary film project about the power of mass
collaboration, government and the Internet.
Us Now tells the stories of online networks that are challenging the
existing notion of hierarchy. For the first time, it brings together
the fore-most thinkers in the field of participative governance to
describe the future of government.

Now, aside from the fact that he is officially my new geek crush, Ivo has created an extraordinarily powerful and compelling film that leaves you pretty speechless and perhaps a little bit disturbed. Here’s why…

Take it as read that the best are interviewed in the film, Clay Shirky has much to say, as does Paul Miller, whom I rate highly, Tom Steinberg, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Matthew Taylor and so on, really, all the greats (although the decision to interview Ed Miliband over Tom Watson confuses me slightly, but hey ho).

So… we have about an hour’s worth of superb dialogue and compelling argument that leads the audience to a clapping crescendo, nodding and chuckling to themselves about how right they were to believe in this stuff. But… I am left a bit disturbed.

To reduce the whole film to the comparison between the crowdsourced management of the football team: Ebbsfleet United and democratic government would not do it justice; yet it is what sticks, and disturbs.

Without you being able to see the film I know I am being a bit annoying, but let me try to explain. At one point in the film, for a disproportionately long time it has to be said, Ivo follows the success of Ebbsfleet United: a football team managed by its fans; the fans decide who plays, and where… and this ‘citizen-management’ has got them to Wembley (I think, am not a football bird but that seemed to be the gist). There are many clips of over-excited and dedicated fans ‘planning’ the match, deciding who plays where, and when. Great for ticket sales and garments, I presume… also engagement and enthusiasm in a woeful world, granted.

Where this all goes, which is a bit disturbing, is when Ivo transcribes the football playing field onto the Cabinet table, and starts showing us how we could be choosing who sits in what position, where on the table, what part they play. Cabinet Ministers becoming as suggestible/manageable as Ebbsfield United.

Visually compelling stuff indeed. But can you imagine what Sir Alex Ferguson would say? Let alone the rather confused Government of today?
I am not going to get into party politics here, but I absolutely believe that all Ministers sitting in Parliament, whether in power or opposition, are there because they are fundamentally driven to *do* something.

What scares me about Ivo’s film, or just this Ebbsfield bit, is that there is no way I would ever sign up to a society governed by crowdsourced decisions and I am terrified that the digital revolution might, if not managed properly, tip the balance of lively debate into anarchy.

Why?

Because I expect the government voted in democratically by the citizens of this country, to do their job. I don’t want it, I don’t have the time nor the where-with-all to do their job. I don’t want or need the responsibility of running the country, from central to local government, every morning when I wake up. It is enough for me to keep my family going. I *want* to trust the people my country decides are fit to run the country (every four years) to do their job so that I can do mine.

Yes, there will always be dissent, and there will be challenges to the decisions taken by those in power. However, I rely on the Press to keep on the case on this one. I *believe* that if there is a travesty, the Press will pick it up and expose it, I will read about it and believe that if there has truly been an abomination against democracy, that the person/party/people involved will be brought to justice. I do not want to be the person to do that, I want those in the know to do that.

At this point I can feel the groundswell of outrage at my naivety, but I am being a generalist on purpose here… I am really scared abut what *we* are trying to do with our digital enablement of government.

Running a country is a tortuous business, I imagine/assume. It is greater than running a consultancy, a bank, a hedge fund, a football club… all of which we accept requires skill that we do not question. The fact that I belong to a democratic country means that I cannot just sit on my backside and wait to be told what to do, I am allowed to affect the decisions taken, should I care to. The problem is that I don’t always know what these decisions are, where to find them and how to engage/influence.

Surely, the digital revolution is more about a release of shared responsibility for the governing of a country. It is not an abdication of responsibility for those we vote in: please let’s not propose governance that relies on crowdsourcing decision-making on a macro, mesa or micro level. What it is is a new channel for the decision makers (who are busy dealing with enormous stuff, like war for example) to understand what is concerning the citizens of the country, enabling them to address these without relying on expensive ‘citizen insight’.

It also should mean that us citizens will stumble upon apt policies in the making, that we can affect, engage with and potentially influence – because our government is able to understand our concerns and will act accordingly. (Effective consultation.)

That is what I want to achieve by working in this space in the UK government departments. To make sure that those needing to know what we, citizens, think, can do so without too much effort (monitoring of social space); assist engagement where appropriate and be a guiding hand in what is *frankly* a daily explosion of information and data.

Why?

So that they can do their job and we can do ours.

16 responses

  1. The MyFootballClub / Ebbsfleet takeover was a great example of absolutely terrible engagement. I know because I bought into MyFC in the early days, started engaging actively after the takeover and then drifted off. I have no cancelled my subscription as have two thirds of the membership.

    It shares a number of traits familair with most failed engagement practices:
    1. It over-promised the extent of involvement of the membership (long running issue on whether the fans should pick the team)
    2. It had insufficient resources to communicate with the members leading to an in and out crowd in terms of knowledge and involvement
    3. Insufficient information was provided for members to make informed decision on many votes led to unhelpful debates (should we sack the manager)
    4. Although engagement was considerable when compared with most football clubs, it was sufficiently less than promised to lead to accusations of bad faith
    5. The loss of trust, the decline in involvement led to low turnout in voting, members drifting away then cancelling in a way which has jeopardised the future of the club.

    I will write this up properly some time because it’s a classic example of bad public involvement.

  2. Pingback: FutureGov » Useful links » links for 2009-03-17

  3. I’m sure you can guess my thoughts on all this, if you ever have occasion to read my blog (which I won’t link to here as it’s possibly a little too ‘out there’ for this forum).

    I do think you are naive. Or rather, your statements are naive. That’s not to say the Ebbsfleet example would work; I have no idea whether it would or not.

    But an increasing proportion of the population is beginning to realise that the existing system doesn’t work either, unless by ‘work’ you mean shift money, power and resources to a relatively small group of people who then largely ignore – despite the best and well-intentioned efforts of you and your colleagues – the people who elected them.

    You say you are uninterested in the minutiae of government due to other time pressures. I (and Heinlein) say this stuff is scarcely less important than your own heartbeat, and if the democratic process – in which I include the press – is corrupted by bribery, cronyism, blackmail and financial pressure, maybe it’s time to try something new and take a much more direct interest in the forces that have a very great control over your life.

    Also, before you dismiss it all, look closely at the Swiss model. It ain’t perfect, but it’s considerably better than the UK’s.

  4. It’s important to separate out techno-anarchism and social media. New technologies can both help people to organise and campaign at a grassroots level, and assist larger organisations in engaging with and monitoring the wider conversation. However, a lot of new media success stories come from organisations that have a hierarchy. Co-operatives have been around for a very long time, and I don’t see why something like Ebbsfleet United represents a huge break from that tradition, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Sadly I’m not about to find out either, as the event’s booked out already!

  5. Thanks Alex and Daniel. Food for thought, and completely accept my naivety, but I do stick to my original thoughts for now. Perhaps that is why people like me need people like you around :)

  6. I think you are on to something important here. Politics is not a bad thing and politicians are not, as you say, by and large evil. The hard thing we collectively need to get done, and which we currently trust politicians to do, is much less about making individual decisions, and much more about making each of those decisions in the context of all the others – what I have called elsewhere the difference between absolute and relative decisions http://strategytalk.typepad.com/public_strategy/2008/09/different-answe.html
    It doesn’t at all follow from that that our current structures for making the relative decisions are the best they could be. I think it does follow that any alternative needs to pass the test of being better at making relative decisions, not just absolute decisions. It’s much easier to come up with ways of using social media to give signals about absolute questions (that’s what the No10 petition site does, for example) than to use it to improve relative decision making – not because of any problem with social media, but simply because the challenge is harder. But it’s a challenge we should rise to.

  7. Good post, thanks. One can see the British bias – few of my countrymen would trust “the Press” (capitalized) as much as you do – but that’s only reasonable. And yet… one does feel the yearning for the wikipedia-style sheer information processing power that comes with crowdsourcing. I’ll munch on it. I suppose I’ll munch on it a lot.

  8. Returning to this post as it has been playing on my mind a bit.

    Alberto, rather wishing this was a face to face discussion, there is much to talk through here: but I did write this in a deliberately general/ideal/naive way. The British Press are… very political, I know I can reel off in seconds which party each paper supports. But by Press, I include online journalism – no longer can desktop publishers ignore the digital conversation/influence – which gives me some sense of peace. You chew away :)

    David, I know. I understand that, I am just not comfortable with each metaphor.

    Matthew: your points almost bleed into the post on principles for digital engagement http://mulqueeny.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/seven-principles-for-digital-engagement-help-me-please/

    Humph… why is it that I am so compelled to go back to the Greek philosophers, or even just spend about a year going through this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_democracy

    Will that help? *probably*

    I… just… am uncomfortable with the ‘because we can’ attitude; and the almost mindless, certainly not studied for years, decisions we are taking and encouraging/enforcing.

    I can see the logic, and can see the value in certain instances: consultation being probably the only one right now I can see a bloody good business and democratic reason for. Tweeting Ministers/departments and Parliament? Hmmm

    The worry really is that we must keep politics/democratic decisions out of the gaming space. But that is another post :)

    To run a digitally democratic society we must lead digitally balanced/healthy lives, and I don’t think we are there yet, we are right at the beginning of the Bell curve for this one (I know I am and I am leaps and bounds ahead of my non-work peers in this regard).

    Pondering on, I suspect I will post more on this, but please can you lot too?

  9. OK ;)

    “Because I expect the government voted in democratically by the citizens of this country, to do their job.”

    In the 2005 election 22% of the electorate voted for the party now in power (source: BBC). 78% voted for other parties or abstained. That’s not a good foundation for a democracy, digital or otherwise.

    And what is their job? Can you define it Emma? I don’t think I can. It’s not ‘running the country’ any more, really, since much of their decision-making power has been devolved elsewhere.

    Just for a chuckle I Googled ‘anarchy pure democracy’. I may be gone some time.

  10. I don’t know if you know Paul Evans, but he’s got a great take on this.

    http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/2009/03/10/will-victor-be-the-eventual-victor/

    I worry about inclusion – I doubt anyone wants to see broadband access as a pre-req for effective participation in the democratic process, let alone “ability to configure an RSS feed reader”… And I wonder if digital natives always remember what it’s like to be unfamiliar with these technologies.

  11. Harry, exactly right. But this is the area in which I work and I am just making sure that I am clear about what I am doing and why! Keeping myself in check, basically.

    Of course, there should be equal attention paid to the non-digi natives and how they engage, however, I am not sure that it is any different to what they were doing before. If we stick by the principle of ‘go where the interested folk are’ on any given topic, then that should include real-world as well as digital. Once again, this links with my 7 principles post…

  12. Pingback: MyFootballClub: a case study of bad consultation | Matthew Cain's blog

  13. You talk rubbish. You merely wish to protect your job as some sort of arbitrator between people and government.
    I worked for the smoking consultation in scotland. We took in 30,000 response an had to code them. 6 open ended question which was a mistake and waste of time. we should have used a clear multiple choice questionaire however McConnel made his decision on the matter after receiving information on 10% of the consultation.
    Do you really think that with better ‘consultations’ politicians are really going to pay attention and make decisions in our favour. Jokes, you should be a comedian.
    I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m no anarchist but the internet gives us the ability to actually implement a direct form of democracy and take control over issue that effect us. I reckon government will begin to be sidelined, where it has failed to deliver, in favour of community run online projects from social programs to infrastructure and there is simply nothing goverment can do about it other than reform in favour of its citizens or fail while trying to protect interests of the top 1% of the population….
    Bread and circuses!

  14. Fair point! I think that the underlying issue with your example was perhaps an inability to get all of the right information, reliable information, in a way that enable a deliberated decision to be made, because the method used to gather the information was flawed.

    This however is a far greater problem than the general message of Us Now, which is: it’s good to engage with the digital community – especially at a local level.

    But I appreciate your comments.

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