In this blog, Sue Lyle reflects on how the Internet and social media has transferred the way we communicate in the public and private sphere. Acknowledging the huge benefits of such approaches, she discusses the considerable negative aspects and reflects on how VocalEyes is a platform that can facilitate civil conversation between users to support the development of participatory democracy.

VocalEyes Big Conversation

 

Governments, organisations, businesses, NGOs, charities and others all need to organise and manage big conversations with their constituents. Sue argues that the current preference for top-down, vertical conversations usually fail to engage with many participants and discusses instead how VocalEyes has the potential to engage with whole constituencies using a horizontal, bottom-up approach.

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The Internet is a recent invention – Google first came on line in 1998 – just twenty years ago. In the last ten years the emergence of social media sites has revolutionised the public sphere and radically changed the way we communicate with each other. As the cost of computers and access to the Internet has dropped the potential of the whole world to communicate with one another has become a reality. The invention of smart phones means ideas can travel across the world in days as posts go viral. Globalisation is a reality and many people conjured up the hope of a global community committed to solve the world’s problems.

Campaigning organisations like Avaaz and 38 degrees have emerged to take campaigning to a whole new level and have had considerable success influencing governments and giant corporations. They focus on single issues and use petitions to demonstrate public disquiet and support for alternative ways of doing things.

However, by far the most successful at engaging people has been the giant online social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. I love Facebook and Twitter, but have been very disturbed as they have emerged as engines of polarisation that have given rise to extremists on all sides of the political scene who are willing to exploit social media by posting ‘fake news’ and calling out real news as ‘fake’.

There is no doubt that such behaviour is altering the fabric of society. We know social media had a big part to play in Brexit and the election of Trump. Assisted by the siloing of information created by tuning algorithms to amplify both false and true information we have discovered the truth of the old saying “Birds of a feather flock together”. On social media sites people self-segregate and congregate in ideological clusters.

Social media emanating from Silicon Valley is largely funded through advertising and this has unleashed political consequences that few could have predicted. The use that popularist and extremist groups would make of the Internet was not foreseen, not to mention the influence of foreign powers like Russia paying for advertising to influence the American election or unleashing new armies of BOTS to create fake news. Extremist groups like ISIS have also exploited social media to advance their causes.

If Brexit or the last general election had been run without social media we would probably still be in the EU and Theresa May might well have secured her ‘strong and stable’ government. There is no doubt that UKIP tapped into the views of a part of our population who feel disenfranchised and social media has become a vehicle for the voices of such groups to voice their opinions. And in the aftermath of Brexit and as a backlash to UKIP we find a rise of the left in Labour politics. We probably wouldn’t have had Jeremy Corbyn without social media either.

Downsides

A downside of social media is the breakdown of civil conversation and the emergence of trolling. A troll is someone who goes online with the purpose of starting quarrels or upsetting people by posting messages designed to provoke an emotional response and to disrupt normal, on-topic discussion. Trolling recently has emerged as a serious form of online abuse that needs to be dealt with. Some people believe that in some instances the quality of our conversations online has deteriorated to the point that it threatens to undermine democracy itself.

Despite this, our politicians and public servants also want to exploit the Internet to support public engagement in the name of democracy. In fact there is an expectation and duty for politicians and local authorities to engage with the public to seek our opinions on proposed policies and actions.

And here we have a problem. The methods currently used to consult with the public in between formal elections are vertical conversations. The government or local authority publishes a document and seeks response to the proposals contained in it. Consultations are established and conducted online and follow a fairly standard procedure: the proposed policies are posted in a consultation document and the public are invited to take part. This mainly consists of a tick box approach where we are given the chance to say if we agree or disagree with government proposals.

A consultation document I accessed recently ran to 40 pages and quite frankly, I had lost the will to live before I reached the end. Whilst this is preferable to consultation on social media sites that frequently descend into abuse as competing views vie to insult each other, it is not harnessing the power of the Internet to enhance our democracy. We need new ways of engaging people in civil conversation.

From top-down to bottom-up

VocalEyes is proving to be a new kind of platform designed to challenge the vertical structures of the top-down consultations we are used to by using a horizontal platform that is designed to feed up to authority.

VocalEyes ongoing Big Conversations
VocalEyes ongoing Big Conversations

As a bottom-up approach, VocalEyes has the potential to support a move towards a far more authentic democracy by enabling participatory democracy. The platform can claim to support participatory democracy because it is able to support conversation between people around important ideas and ultimately increase the scale of participation so as many people as possible can make a meaningful contribution to decision-making.

We have to accept that if we want to reach a lot of people, this can’t be done without the use of technology. What we need is participatory tools that can support community narratives and contribute to the gathering of information to inform decision-making. Rather than the one-way process of responding to ideas put forward by those running a consultation, VocalEyes is a two-way process where the participants decide and shape the ideas themselves.

A Big Conversation

An example of how VocalEyes works comes from the requirement to generate a Big Conversation around the Welsh government’s Well-Being and Future Generations Act (2015). All local authorities were expected to set up and carry out a consultation process across Wales. The typical vertical structure used was a questionnaire designed by the LA that was made available online for the public to respond to, usually by ticking boxes to agree or disagree with the proposals. Although comments could be made there was no opportunity for conversation as each participant made an individual response.

Swansea Well-being Plan Conversation -Ideas for Action
Swansea Well-being Plan Conversation – Ideas for Action

The horizontal approach developed by VocalEyes changes that. The focus for the consultation is the same: the Well-Being Conversation. But instead of responding to ideas on a questionnaire, respondents are invited to:

  1. put in their own ideas which everyone can see and,
  2. rate and debate the ideas others have put it.

Taking part is voluntary and anonymous. Anyone participating can put ideas on the platform and everyone is invited to rate ideas using a simple 5* rating system where 1* is against and 5* is strongly for.

repair cafe on VocalEyes

 

A second feature of the platform is the opportunity to place comments ‘for’ ‘neutral’ or ‘against’ the ideas posted. This allows conversations to take place between participants and for questions of clarification to be asked and answered.

Repair cafe comments on VocalEyes

To ensure the conversation is civil at all times, the platform has editors and administrators who ensure there is no abuse online. All ideas and comments remain as pending until approved by an editor or administrator. Over the period of a consultation more and more participants can generate and comment on ideas, which helps to increase diversity of opinion and engagement. Participants quickly feel comfortable using the platform as they realise it is truly a place for civil conversation.

Another feature of the platform is the opportunity for participants to embed a short video or link to a website where the idea being suggested is explained in more detail. This enables innovative ideas to be discovered by others and provokes more informed conversations on the ideas. The outcomes are therefore truly collective, not just the sum of individual views.

improve air quality, idea on VocalEyes

This horizontal way of doing things is open and transparent. Everyone can see everyone else’s ideas and how those ideas have been rated, but everyone is anonymous. The platform automatically ranks ideas to see which are the most highly rated. Participants can also see how many people have rated an idea (you can decline to rate any idea if you wish). This rating and ranking system generates big data for those conducting the consultation where they can see the priorities emerging from the consultation at a glance.

Useful as it is for consultation using a Big Conversation approach, the aim of the platform is to use this as the first stage.

VocalEyes process for ideas into action
VocalEyes process for ideas into action

The next stage is to look at the highly rated ideas and crowd-source volunteers to set up working groups to put the ideas into action – see example below from the Well-Being Conversation.

Group Swansea Well-being Conversation – Ideas for Actions

Project Community Innovation Hub working group
A working group to work up the detail of the Community Innovation Hub idea that is highly rated in VocalEyes. We’ll be putting some meat on the bones, identifying suitable spaces, creating a more formal proposal, looking for suitable funding streams and speaking to other organisations who would like to collaborate to make this happen.
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posted on 8 Oct 2015

Community Innovation Hub working group volunteers
People who are willing to dedicate some of their time to working up the Community Innovation Hub idea
This resource has 23 of 6 volunteers and is 383% complete.

VocalEyes Project - Community Innovation Hub working group
VocalEyes Project – Community Innovation Hub working group

VocalEyes in a nutshell

  • The big conversations are identified and a group created for people to create ideas as well as rate and prioritise the ideas of others.
  • This horizontal approach democratises the process of consultation as ideas are prioritised for action.
  • Those who want to take the action further crowd-source the idea and allocate budgets where appropriate in an open and transparent way.

Conclusion

  • The internet and cheap computers has created connections between people across the world undreamed of even a decade ago.
  • The use of social media driven by advertising has produced some ugly and unexpected polarisation of people, rather than the Utopian dream of bringing the world together for good.
  • Civil conversations have given way to abuse on a frightening scale.
  • Governments fulfil their obligations to their democracies by continuing to consult the public using a top-down model that fails to engage many people and doesn’t lead to democratic outcomes and actions.
  • Horizontal platforms that can promote participatory democracy for consultation can generate engagement and real conversations that lead to action to make a positive difference in communities.
  • VocalEyes is such a platform.

It is therefore not surprising that more and more groups are coming on board with VocalEyes to help them hold their Big Conversations. And when those conversations move from one-off to continuous conversations we are well on our way to participatory democracy!

VocalEyes and the Big Conversation