Three things we’ve learnt – and one thing we haven’t – by trying to create one list of election hustings

I’ve been working with the good folks at Democracy Club, and particularly James Baster of Open Tech Calendar, to crowdsource a list of hustings events for the general election. Here’s what we’ve found so far…

1. There just aren’t that many hustings events. We’ve been surprised, candidates have been surprised: there just aren’t that many opportunities for voters to go meet and ask questions of their candidates. There are some local action groups campaigning on certain issues, and 38 Degrees have started organising some events, but we’re at around 300 events listed….for 650 constituencies.

2. Top organisers so far are church groups and the Federation of Small Businesses. It appears that a large majority of events are organised by small business groups or churches – and if they’re not organising, churches are hosting. These folks have obviously been arranging hustings for decades and are still the most active at putting on events. This might give them a great deal more say in their next MP’s work than the other community groups or interest groups who aren’t doing it.

3. The word hustings is pretty old-school. It actually refers to the soapbox-style platform that was knocked up for candidates to stand on. According to Wikipedia, it’s still in regular use in universities, but not much elsewhere. In Australia and the USA, they use the words ‘election forum’ or ‘candidate forum’. The UK should possibly follow suit – the most popular alternative term is probably ‘Question Time’. Could the BBC have taken a lead in organising a Question Time in every constituency? Or at least providing the toolkit and offering local journalists and presenters to chair?

Z. One thing we haven’t learned is whether people actually want to take part in these events. People talk about politicians being distant and weird – but here’s an opportunity to go along and meet them, and find out for yourself. But perhaps we can do better. Perhaps we can use digital to disrupt hustings! At, Simon Gray has developed a place where you could have an always-on hustings, so far more people get to take part. Here we’ve been discussing how to triage questions to candidates – and asking how that could be done more democratically – helping the questions that most people want answered rise to the top of candidates’ inboxes. Ideas welcome!

 Photo credit: CC-BY-ND John McCarthy

Are we reaching peak e-petition?

I’ve now received emails from at least six different organisations about the HSBC tax scandal, with all the related ‘Did you miss this?’ or ‘Thanks for signing, can you forward to everyone you’ve ever met?’ emails.

I think we might be reaching peak e-petition. Or maybe I am. Cos I sign up for too much stuff. Or because these organisations love list-building – several get their funds from donations from a minor percentage of their lists, so they’re incentivised to grow their lists, weakening the case for collaboration. (Collaboration that might, however, more effectively lead to results.)

Anyway, I think digital democracy might not be meant to feel like getting bombarded with emails. Continue reading Are we reaching peak e-petition?

One resolution fulfilled: my 2014 charitable giving

Exactly one year ago, I took the Giving What We Can pledge. It’s a commitment to contribute 10% of my salary to the most effective efforts to end global poverty.

This post details what I’ve done about it and hopefully encourages others to join the fun.  Continue reading One resolution fulfilled: my 2014 charitable giving

Quick notes from ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age’ event

Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust are running a great little series of events under the umbrella title of ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. Last night’s was ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age‘ – probably the area most closely related to my own interests.

Prof. David Farrell of University College Dublin gave the main presentation – an excellent review of both the pessimistic view of democracy (turnout down by an alarming rate in all large Western democracies – but watch those Scandi’s bucking the trend, of course) and the optimistic view (today we engage in different ways – by signing petitions, by tweeting a minister – and we hate the phrase politics, but that doesn’t mean we don’t practise it). Even on constitutional reform – which can seem to be going nowhere – Farrell argued that the UK has been a lot more successful over the last 20 years than his home country of Ireland (e.g. progress on Freedom of Information and the Human Rights Act). Continue reading Quick notes from ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age’ event

Why it’s time for governments to take wellbeing seriously

100% happiness guaranteed
It’s not this easy…but it’s getting easier

Earlier in 2014, the Legatum Institute published the final results of their Commission on Wellbeing and Policy. I don’t know much about this think tank – it seems to lean rightwards, but claims a non-partisan and is probably funded with oil cash, but they put together an all-star cast to advise this report:

  • Sir Gus O’Donnell (former head of the UK civil service)
  • Prof Richard Layard (a leading author in the field, wrote the book on ‘Happiness‘)
  • Prof Angus Deayton (economics prof at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Service at Princeton)
  • Martine Durand (Head of Stats for the OECD)
  • David Halpern (ex-academic, now running the quasi-governmental Behavioural Insights Team (their ownership structure is worth a blog of its own))

It is a superb piece of work. If you’re interested in the role of government, public services, evaluation, economics, life, the universe, or indeed anything, you should read it. Lots of golden nuggets and summaries of vast amounts of academic research. It should be shaping the way governments work, everywhere.

Its main conclusion is a call for the greater use of subjective wellbeing data in policy making. It argues that we need to stop using money as a proxy for wellbeing in basic cost-benefit analyses. The logical second conclusion of the report is that we need better data. It’s not impossible – wellbeing really can be measured. And we’re getting better and better at it. As we get better data, governments will be able to take far, far better policy decisions, which in turn should increase our wellbeing. It’s fairly intuitive, but could be revolutionary. Continue reading Why it’s time for governments to take wellbeing seriously