Telling tales about local digital democracy

community reporters talking at the postal vote countToday marks the launch of Local Democracy Bytes, which aims to build a community around local digital democracy. It’s just one area of work from the LocalGov Digital Steering Group. You can get involved by sharing some examples of these aspects of local digital democracy:
– Networked councillors
– Social council decision making
– Social council meetings
– Social local elections

The example that I’d like to share is the Election Tales project in Kirklees. It’s something that we first tried in 2011 as a way of opening up the elections process by telling some of the stories behind the local elections.

We invited some of our community reporters to come along and film in and around polling stations and at the election count. Community reporters are local residents who are learning how to tell stories about their neighbourhoods using videos, photos, blogs and other digital tools. The content that they created during the local elections was published online straight away to help more people see what was going on behind the scenes and to help people feel involved in the process.

You can find out more about the practicalities by looking at our Election Tales 2011 case study (pdf).

In the run up to the elections, the project helped us encourage people to go out and vote…

On results day, Election Tales gave us some engaging digital content to share with people whilst they waited for the votes being counted (perhaps instead of hitting the refresh button 52 times). After the elections, it left our reporters with added confidence, skills and knowledge, and it gave us all lots to think about.

Looking back at that first year, what stays with me most are people’s reactions to hearing about the project and being asked to participate in some way. The reporters were initially very nervous. They saw elections as being something very formal and scary, and they were anxious about being under scrutiny. Maybe they were worried about feeling unwelcome amidst the carefully managed environment of the election count, as well as having the usual worries about “pressing the wrong button”. There was just something about it that worried people, so we had a real struggle to convince some of our reporters to take part.

We didn’t tell them about all the awkward questions that were already being asked by some members of staff. How would residents know how to behave at an election count? Where would they go? What would they do? Worse still, what would they say? I regret to say that there was no small amount of alarm on display when we first broached the idea. However, when we actually got to the big day, our reporters received fantastic support from everyone and the fears on both sides disappeared very quickly as we just got on with the matter at hand.

The reporters didn’t come with any set agenda – they just responded to each person in front of them on a very conversational level, being interested in their personal stories and asking people about their reasons for being there and their hopes for the future. Instead of being nervous, our reporters were soon bursting with questions and keen to do more.  We had a similar experience the following year – putting the camera in someone’s hand and having faith in them to ask a few questions had a big impact on people’s self-confidence, and in the confidence that we have in each other. To me this seems like an altogether more democratic way of handling the election count, one that’s open and conversational, as democracy should be.

In our second year, we widened out the project and started recording earlier on in the process. We filmed at the counting of the postal votes for the first time. Again, people’s reactions were memorable. Some of the election staff weren’t sure whether we’d find it at all interesting, one of the councillors observing was unhappy about residents being allowed to watch, and meanwhile our reporters were completely fascinated with the whole thing, from what each bit of machinery was doing to the vast scale of the operation. The elections staff were really supportive and encouraged our reporters to look around and ask questions. It might not be your standard day out in the Holme Valley, but they really enjoyed it.

Finally, I’d like to say a word about the steadfastly unwilling participants – the ones who flatly refused to be recorded talking to us on the streets. In the days before the elections, we were out and about asking people if they were going to vote and why they think elections are (or aren’t) important. Many people said they thought there was “no point in voting”, the reason most commonly given being that “it makes no difference”. When we asked our refusers to say a little more (with the cameras switched off and put away in our pockets) it became obvious that lots of people don’t think there’s a difference between local elections and a General Election. They told us that all elections are about stuff that goes on at Westminster and we’re not a part of it.

If I have one ambition for social local elections, it’s that we can get people talking about the relevance of local elections for the decisions that are made in our own neighbourhoods. I’d like to help more residents understand that they can play an active part in the local decision making process.

After all, local democracy is about more than just waiting passively for the election results.

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