People care – don’t they?

participationPeople don’t care. They are too selfish, stupid and lazy to try to make a difference in their community.

You might be forgiven for thinking that although local political decisions hit us where we live, impact our lives on a daily basis, we really don’t care. Recent elections in the County I work in had an average turnout of 33%. In 2009 it was around 45%.

There is just apathy and uninterest.

Or is there?

How we involve people in decisions about shaping public services is one of the main barriers. People do care – but we live in a world that actively discourages engagement – that puts barriers in the way, forgets that people have views, even before we solicit them. There are two issues I’d like to explore here. Firstly, we (I’m a public servant) use language that might be technically and legally right but often doesn’t explain what is proposed so its easy to have a view. We don’t always communicate, engage, and consult in a way that lets people know what those personal stories are – what it actually means for people’s daily lives. Secondly, even when we do we often hold the arguments and discussion close to our own chests – rather than let others have them openly while we listen and contribute in their space.

If we really wanted interest and engagement or to communicate with people – then we’d do it differently wouldn’t we? We would use different language. When a large company wants to interest people in their product – to go to a shop or on the internet – what do they do? They don’t this…..

Notice of Retail Opportunity

Our South East Regional distribution centre has received notice that product 3432F (Recreational Running Shoe) will be available for retail purchase at specified locations from June 3rd 2013, providing sufficient stock ordering. Product 3432F has a mesh and synthetic nylon material shell with a polyurethane outer sole with a waffle tread for traction on tarmac surfaces. This product is available in men’s and women’s specific styles. A spokesperson said:

‘These are very good running shoes.’

Now are you interested?

Most organisations who want to reach their audience think about how best to do it. They work on where to find them, what words their audience is using, how to hook them to find out more or encourage them to act.

I can’t think of anything government does, locally or nationally, that doesn’t affect someones life. For example, last year I was looking at some work to improve traffic flow. We consulted on the technical drawings – what could and couldn’t be done – as we always have. The big gap though was why we were doing it – what it might mean for people stuck in busses, or trying to get to the hospital, or trying to get to college? There are personal stories behind traffic flow but the way we consult doesn’t often get those real stories out or support people in telling them. NESTA recently published a paper on futurology, and perhaps unsurprisingly they found stories play a key part in understanding what the future might be like. It’s these same stories that will help people understand what problems are trying to be solved and how it might affect them.

When dealing with deeply uncertain and emotional futures, stories say more than surveys.

Making these stories more transparent and available will help more people get involved and understand what proposals might mean for them. Stories, often personal, are a way in to helping people make decisions. It’s where in really effective community involvement people share their experiences, their aspirations, and get involved. Personally I’m less interested in technical drawings and more interested in whether Jane, a small business owner, thinks it might help her team get to work more easily and cheaply. That might help me decide. I want to see these debates in the open. I’m happy to send in my views – but I’m really interested in what others are saying  and I want to know now – not when someone decides to summarise it. I might even want to discuss it the views and develop my own.  While I understand the consulter will want to collate consultees views and let me know how representative mine are – I’d also like to understand the debate.

The challenge will be ensuring we use the language of those communities, those audiences – otherwise we’ll just be left with a host of creative ideas and no innovation. It wont necessarily mean apathy and disinterest, it will mean an increasing disconnect between government, at all levels, and us – the public.

Some ideas and innovations

As people become more digitally aware and connected the opportunity to widen participation, to merge online and offline networks will increase. Opportunities to share stories and therefore encourage participation will undoubtedly be there. A range of work is now coming to the fore that begins to shape these opportunities. I’d love to hear your examples – here are some I’m looking at now.

Wrangl is an example of how open argument might look.

Share a Smile Sussex is a developing example of curated content about MMR to establish online and offline communities.

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