Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

The French are precious about French. It’s fair enough. Gotta watch that creeping Anglicisation. Courriel, for example, is the officially designated French translation for email. 

So I’d imagined that they wouldn’t go in for ‘civic tech’ so much. But they love it! People instantly knew what I was on about — even folks not in the tech or civic sector. Vive la France.

And there’s a lot of civic tech going on. Paris’ civic tech scene is thriving — and represents only some of what is going on across France. Here’s what I learned, between scoffing baguettes and incredibly good fromage, and pottering around the Canal St Martin.

What’s happening?

Démocratie Ouverte

Démocratie Ouverte creates its own projects, such as Parliament & Citizens, described below, but I think what’s exciting is that they’ve gone meta and positioned themselves as an umbrella membership organisation for every civic tech project happening in France.

Continue reading Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.

Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens. 

Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK. Continue reading In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

Democracy Club was asked by a journalist where it would go post-referendum. I attempted to write a quick response…which turned into a not-so-quick response. Unsurprisingly, the journo ditched it — but I think it’s still worth publishing here. These are my personal thoughts.

In short:

Some digital democracy enthusiasts have long hoped that the internet would help realise a direct democracy, where everyone would vote on everything, all the time. We’re all Ancient Greeks now. (But this time with women voting too please. And without the slaves.)

Perhaps, say a few commentators, after the fibs, bent truths and ill-informed debate, the Brexit referendum experience has shown the merits of our aged representative democracy.

But people are still pissed. Representative democracy has clear problems; and we know these better than we think. If it’s true that a chunk of the Leave vote came from wanting to give the system a kicking, wanting to reject the ‘elite’s’ idea of what is good for the UK, and — of course — of desiring in some way to ‘take back control’ (Ed: why couldn’t Remain find a call to action for their slogan?) — then the system we have is already failing people. And let’s not just pretend it’s about Europe. Feeling out of control; feeling disempowered; feeling that you’re at the whim of HyperMegaGloboCorp is not fun – and is a result of the policies of Westminster as much as Brussels.

We must make our representative democracy better — and part of the way we do that, part of the way we should respond to Brexit — is by pushing forward with the tools and services that make democracy more understandable, more interactive, more user-friendly, more fun. Democracy Club can help do that

Continue reading What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

“But most of all you’ve let yourselves down.” Brexit: the view from Brussels

I spent last week dodging rainshowers and testing the beer in Brussels. I know I’m supposed to be writing about civic tech — and that will happen — but it was a good two weeks on, and Brexit was still the first word on everyone’s lips when they discover that you’re British. Mostly jokes, then sympathy, then the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I’m not a political journalist. And I wasn’t meeting with EU experts. I was mainly chatting with friends of friends, and folks I met to talk about the effects that digital tech might have on European democracy. But these were junior folks in EU-related institutions — several of them will grow up to run these things. They were the kind of well-educated youngish folks who had all assumed the UK would vote to Remain. I also scanned the French language newspapers, read Politico Europe (the closest thing to an EU newspaper) and listened to local Bruxellois radio. 

First, there was shock at the result. Not surprisingly, the Brussels bubble (‘the 29th member of the EU’ – M. Lowry) had followed the Westminster bubble, and not understood the depth of anger or malaise outside places journalists live. Many had quickly moved onto denial: trying to follow the legal story of whether or not Article 50 would actually be invoked — and the craziness of the resignation train. Farage quitting was a silver lining. 

Second, there was definitely a sense of disappointment. Not anger, as such, but a feeling like we’d kind of let the party down. And that we’d done something truly self-harming. Before getting to Brussels, I’d seen some argument that suggested that the EU might be strengthened by Brexit: the moany, special-case problem child having exited itself, the rest of them could get on with the real business of governance. But no, there was genuine shock, sadness, and universal agreement from those I spoke to that Brexit has weakened the EU. Watching the Wales game (sob) in a bar in Châtelain, I was approached by a mildly inebbriated bloke, who — upon hearing that I was supporting les Gallois — said he was all for Wales, but he couldn’t understand why the Welsh had voted to ‘go with the English’. He was quite upset about the whole thing.

Third, people were getting on with it. In the UK, in the week after the referendum, it felt like Brexit was signalling the end of the world, or at least the collapse of the political class and the economy. But of course there are another 27 member states, another 490m people, for whom the bureaucracy must work. It struck me that we Brits can tend towards solipsism — my knowledge and understanding of the EU institutions was found woefully wanting while in Brussels — and it’s not always about us. And this is a lesson we’re going to have to learn more and more, as we slip away into whatever oblivion it is we choose. I love Norway, I do, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from taking an active role in our neighbourhood.

I was only in Brussels for a week, but you can immediately get a sense of the bubble. Someone kindly explained to me the order of where you should be each evening of the week in order to do the networking, gossiping and politicking. Tuesday is one area, Wednesday is Châtelain, Thursday is Place du Lux(embourg). Fridays and Saturdays are rest days. Of course there’s something a bit ugly about this way of working, but as I watched hundreds of multilingual, educated young people from all over Europe spill out of the bars into the squares of Brussels to excitedly debate the football, Brexit and the future of Europe — it felt a bit like a party to which we burned the invite. 

Photo credit: Thorfinn Stainforth • CC BY 3.0

I’m on a mission to find Europe’s best civic tech

Hello. You might know me from writing the weekly dispatch from Democracy Club towers.

Months before we managed to Brexit ourselves, I’d decided that the gap between the EU Referendum and the next elections could be usefully spent having a bit of a holiday and learning a bit more about European organisations doing similar stuff to Democracy Club.

I’d lazily presumed I could take the whole of July and August to do this, given that the next elections in the UK wouldn’t be until May 2017…but of course there’s a chance of a General Election rather sooner now.

Nonetheless, until the timing of the next general election is clearer, I’m off on a mini-trip around some European capitals to learn more about the state of civic tech. And to see if there are ideas we can steal, code we can share, or funding we can tap.

So I head to Brussels tomorrow, before Paris, then maybe Amsterdam. I’ll take a bit of holiday in Switzerland between, then on to Hamburg and Berlin.

I’ve got some really interesting meetings lined up with the likes of VOXE.org, Démocratie Ouvert, VoteWatch Europe, and ParliamentWatch in Germany. And I’ve got some leads into Germany’s state-funded voter information body, the BpB — which I think could have some really valuable lessons for the UK.

Do you know of any other folks I should be speaking to on my travels? Anyone doing anything with digital and democracy or civic participation – and that extends to folks in political parties. All contacts welcome! I’ll blog my meetings and spread whatever wisdom I can glean from our colleagues across la Manche.

Til then!

Image credit: Wikipedia

We’re not looking for a new England

Well, we might be. Earlier this month, Toby Perkins MP managed to restart a conversation about a national anthem for England. It’s a fun question – and represents an accessible entry point into thinking about the constitution of the UK and the varying nations, principalities, islands and peoples that make it up. And who decides what, and how.

In a happy coincidence, Compass last week hosted 40 people who run or manage democracy organisations for a day of “Designing a New Democracy.”

My notes are below. I think the crucial question is about authority. It’s only going to be useful and gain momentum if the public considers that the process has power and will actually lead to real, lasting change. That is the challenge that reformers face.
Continue reading We’re not looking for a new England

How to do more good this year

It’s about this time of year that in a moderately hungover fashion, I cast my mind back and ponder what I have achieved in the last 12 months.

In my day job and as a volunteer, I work at trying to increase public participation in governance.

And I do ultimately think that a more democratic system of governance – across political deliberation, decision making and across public services, coupled with citizenship education and better informed citizens – is the kind of systemic change required to solve the big problems.

However…

I’m aware that this systemic shift might take a while.

In the meantime, it makes me happy to think that each of us still has the capacity to be extremely effective in making the world a better place. That is, increasing the net wellbeing of everyone on the planet.

There are now nearly 1,500 members of Giving What We Can, the network of folks who donate a significant proportion of their salary to do as much good as they can. This is typically realised as donations to low-cost high-impact health interventions. So far, the membership has donated $10m, and is projected to give $500m over members’ lifetimes.

For me, in 2015, I earned £35,000 (before tax). I’m donating £3,500 to their trust, which in turn passes the money to four charities:

  • Against Malaria Foundation
  • Schistosomiasis Control Initiative
  • Deworm the World
  • Project Healthy Children

According to the number-crunchers this should be enough to:

  • distribute 600+ bed nets to prevent malaria; or
  • 3,000+ deworming treatments

…the equivalent to saving at least one life this year.

That’s a Happy New Year.

Learn more (and even try it out) here.

P.S. I’ve also tried to offset my carbon footprint separately with the great Cool Earth and 350.org.

(Photo credit: BY-NC-ND 2.0 Paul Brock Photography)