The NetHui conference is a national taonga. Run and funded by Internet New Zealand each year it provides a 3 day intensive and open ended debate on issues related to the internet and web technology. The event is accessible and the cost is low and the attendees pretty diverse – ethnicity, age, relationship to technology and prosperity level. Topics range from surveillance to science and from privacy to sexual politics. It seems few topics are off the table and each year a good proportion of the conference content is decided by the participants both before and at the conference.
This year’s conference provided the same rich brew including 2 interesting models – both new to me – for thinking about the quality of democracy.
John Edwards on Lessig’s ‘Laws of the Internet’
The recently minted Privacy Commissioner John Edwards spoke about the possibility of forgetting in the internet society. The speech is well worth reading for its substance including a more forgiving attitude to past behaviour in an environment where privacy is less available to us than in the past. He used a model developed in an essay by called ‘The Laws of Cyberspace’ by Lawrence Lessig in the late 1990’s. Lessig’s proposed four variables that influence behaviour – laws, architecture, markets and mores or social norms.
example of policies to limit bicycle theft.
|Legislation||Harsh sentences / big fines for stealing bikes.||Fewer thefts|
|Markets||Bicycle costs lowered and so theft confers little payback.||Fewer thefts|
|Mores or social norms||Bicycle theft is believed by all to be a heinous and despicable crime||Fewer thefts|
|Architecture||Public buildings are fitted with numerous points for securing bike padlocks||Fewer thefts|
Each of the factors are inter-related. Longer sentences or bigger fines could impact on social norms increasing the stigma of being a bicycle thief. Cutting the cost of owning a bicycle will likely reduce their attractiveness to thieves but may reduce the stigma of theft.
The electronic world’s significant difference to the physical world is worth a thought. Changing electronic ‘architecture’ is much less onerous and costly than changing physical architecture.
Nick Williamson on Levers of Civic Engagement in Whangarei
The second model concerns what is required to encourage or discourage citizen engagement in public submissions. Nick Williamson identified the high cost in time and effort as the cause of low participation rates when he was a planner at Whangarei District Council. The annual plan document is dense and detailed. Reading it and understanding how to respond can be a time-consuming process. He and his team implemented a high speed, high participation exercise cramming into 5 action packed days work that usually extends over several months. Questions about the need for a supermarket, a town square and better parking were on the agenda. Using the local library, street based questionnaires and social media Williamson and his team developed a plan for Kamo, part of the Whangarei District. The Kamo Place Race used the kind of startup/agile methods sometimes used in proto-typing and launching web and IT initiatives. Williamson said that in this process
- Council changed from being an arbiter to a facilitator of community discussion.
- More people were willing to participate when the council is listening.
- More people voted on whether Kamo should have a supermarket than on council elections.
The results showed some interesting and some counter-intuitive results. People were not much interested in more parking for the centre as most of them were local and arrived on foot. This contrasted with the views of high street retail businesses who thought that the lack of additional parking was a limiting factor in foot traffic to the retail centre.
The theory underlying this agile approach is expressed as an equation.
Which describes the relationship between
- P = the probability that an action will change the outcome
- B = the benefit to the individual of taking part
- D = sense of civic duty and good will
- C = the costs (both in time, $$ and effort of participating)
In plain language people will get involved in a consultation process when the time and cost involved is low compared with the possible benefits, there is a likelihood of influencing the outcome and their sense of civic duty and goodwill for the body canvassing for opinion is high enough. This idea and the thinking behind it goes back to a 1968 by William Riker and Peter Ordeshook titled the Calculus of Voting which was rediscovered and popularised in 2010 as “The three levers of civic engagement”.
The rapid data collection and agile approach showed interestingly that a much greater level of citizen engagement could be achieved at a lower cost than traditional documentation heavy, formal processes. This is a refreshing change to the usual view that more democracy is necessarily more costly. It’s ongoing success presupposes that elected officials see their role, at least in part, as facilitating and supporting community decision making rather than a heavy handed reliance on the concept of mandate.
Having taken the tiger of public engagement by the tail and succeeding let’s hope that the lessons are adopted and a similar if not more extensive process is run in future years. Nick will be presenting his work at the LGNZ 2014 conference and the work at Kamo has received significant international interest.
Net Hui conference 2014
Internet New Zealand
John Edwards NetHui speech notes. The right to be forgotten.
Law of the internet: Lawrence Lessig: https://cyber.law.harvard.edu/works/lessig/laws_cyberspace.pdf
Kamo place race Facebook page with graphical consultation results.
Kamo Place Race Youtube
A calculus of the Theory of Voting by William Riker and Peter Ordeshook 1968 Jstor
The Three Levers of Civic Engagement by Anthea Watson Strong