Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!

I’m back in the UK (is that still a thing?) now — but I have two more EuroTrip stops to blog about. 

First, Berlin. As you may know, Berlin is excellent. It also has a bit of a reputation for tech startups. And for doing interesting political things with tech.

It seems a long time ago that there was excitement about ‘Liquid Democracy’ — the German Pirate Party software that was going to revolutionise representative democracy. It allowed constant ‘delegative democracy’: you could choose to delegate your vote to someone on a certain topic, but take it away from them again or choose a different delegate at any time. In addition, your delegate could delegate your vote, and so on. Hence the ‘liquid’ bit — power would flow as voters chose and changed their representatives at will. The software made this practically feasible for the first time. There were some excitable blogs about it. But the revolution never came. I wondered what became of it — my trip to Berlin revealed the answer.

And there’s much more happening in Berlin today — in a way that is perhaps more realistic and more understanding of how most people want to engage.  Continue reading Berlin does civic tech. Großartig!

Germany has a publicly funded agency with a mission to strengthen democracy. The UK needs one too.

Halfway down the Adenauerallee in Bonn, the city that was home to the West German government from 1949 to 1990, there’s an anonymous modern office building, notable only for some sort of bookshop on the ground floor.

The building is home to a fascinating public body, the kind of which has no equivalent in the UK. It’s called the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. The BpB for short. In English: the Federal Agency for Civic Education. On a rainy Thursday afternoon in July, I met Daniel Kraft, Director of Comms at BpB, who kindly took time out to explain the institution to me.

In this blogpost, I try to capture some of what it is and what it does. I then suggest that we need something similar in the UK, and I’m keen to hear ideas for bringing this about. Continue reading Germany has a publicly funded agency with a mission to strengthen democracy. The UK needs one too.

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?

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