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

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

How I (probably) failed to register my neighbours to vote…and how I might succeed next time

A door.

Last weekend I posted some leaflets through the letterboxes of all the flats in my 1930s building near Waterloo. I was supposed to be knocking on doors and asking people whether they’d registered to vote. But I’d run out of time – and, feeling it was too late to disturb people, posted the voter registration pack – a letter and form from Join The Vote (a non-partisan, charity-supported, 38 Degrees-led coalition) through the letterboxes instead.

I went back several days later – this time earlier in the evening – and knocked on the relatively few doors into flats which showed signs of life. No answers. Well, one answer – but he was the local activist type, who is often whipping up support for some petition or other. Not surprisingly, of course he’d registered to vote.

And really, it would be a surprise if many of the building residents had failed to vote – this locale is easy-pickings for local party activists, particularly Labour and Lib Dems who are battling it out to define who is more useless, ‘barmy’ or wasteful in regard to running Lambeth Council. We’ve all had a lot of leaflets. A lot. Flats are great for the letterbox/minute ratio. And canvassing too – at least twice in the last few months – and that’s only counting the times I’ve been in.

So was it likely that many people weren’t registered to vote? Did it matter that I failed miserably to allow enough time to do several rounds of door-knocking?

Who knows, but it’s worth looking a little more deeply at the Join the Vote campaign.

It was a great idea – use 38 Degrees’ giant email list to drum up lots of volunteers who would go out and register the great unregistered. Thousands of non-voters would be transformed into eager participants in the democratic process, boosting turnout and therefore democratic legitimacy.

Lofty goals. But great ones – and ones that people in service of democracy, rather than any political party – could get behind. An untapped army of people that care about politics and care about democracy, but are put-off by party political tactics. And an army appeared: over 4,000 people signed up to help across the country – each could cleverly plot their ‘walk’ on a shared Google Map.

Screenshot of Join The Vote walk page

Join the Vote have said they’ll send out news as to the results soon – it will be interesting to see whether we made a dent in the estimated millions of unregistered people. If not, then it might have been due to a couple of strategic flaws.

First, the project didn’t ask why people were likely to be unregistered. In my area, if people were not registered, in spite of the relentless political pamphletting, it might have been because their English literacy isn’t great. So to be presented with the verbose letter and not-brilliantly-clear registration form may have been off-putting. Similarly, if a majority of unregistered folks are under-25, what could the project have done to target them better?

Second, it didn’t make an effort to focus on the places where people are unregistered. It’s not unlikely that the sort of people who volunteer to go out and register people for the good of democracy are geographically biased towards already politically engaged locations, particularly in urban areas.

Lastly, there were a few more easily fixed logistical flaws: there wasn’t sufficient time to carry out the tasks; the packs (well, mine at least) didn’t include everything they should have done; and the instructions to volunteers weren’t always clear.

More worryingly, I wonder if there’s a risk that people who had already registered were confused by the letter and new registration form, such that they started to doubt whether they had actually registered properly with the council, and now are now less likely to go out and vote? Perhaps a small risk, but one that needs considering.

However, even if – as in my experience – the results of this project aren’t great, it will hopefully still serve as a useful pilot, which will direct a better-planned, longer-run project for the general election in 2015.

This might begin with some new research, commissioned (or crowdsourced?) into the reasons why people don’t vote. Is it literacy skills? Forgetfulness? Rejection of the system?

The answers should inform the rest of the project, including whether door-knocking is actually an appropriate solution: what is the problem we are trying to solve? If it is simply a case of reminding or convincing people, then we start along the same lines as Join the Vote…

  • Step one is some clever data wrangling to establish exactly which houses have unregistered residents (the electoral roll shows everyone who’s registered, subtract this from a more inclusive list of dwellings (TV licences, council tax bills?) or just rely on the local knowledge of volunteers.)
  • Step two is the design of a smartphone app which locates you, the volunteer, on a map of these unregistered residents. The app plots a suggested route for you depending on the time you have or how many houses you want to knock on, etc. This could ensure far more efficient use of the x,000 volunteers, who could also use the app to input the results on the doorstep, providing realtime data back to HQ and other volunteers – saving anyone from door-knocking twice. Done sufficiently in advance, and with enough data, volunteers could even A/B test doorstep rhetoric, and thus advise other volunteers on what works.
  • Step three is to provide an easy way for teams or pairs to form – it’s more fun to go around with other democracy fans, gives volunteers confidence and is perhaps more engaging for the unregistered on the doorstep.
  • Step four is to ‘gamify’ the process – build online profiles and award badges and prizes to the teams who register the most new voters. Create league tables for different areas or postcodes by the number of new registrations.

I’ll aim to update this post and add some other ideas as the outcomes of the project are shared.

Photo credit: Alexander Edward BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others.

There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair.

There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners.

The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege.

Clement Attlee, May 1945. Or yesterday.