Thursday, October 23, 2008

October 23 2008: Plodding to the polls

The only feeling that I can take from today’s referendum process in Stoke is that nothing much has changed for our "damaged" system of governance.

The question resembles a camel with two legs: curious looking and, well, not very mobile. It has been put together by too many people with an eye on electoral law who forgot that democracy starts with clear language that actually makes sense. To be fair, of course, the council have already been through this process in two ways, getting two different answers.

So it has been left to the campaign groups - two different groups who chose the same name - and the local media to translate the question for the general public. Try as I might to feign an interest, my eyes went glassy the very second the No campaigners started talking of councillors trying to take away my right to choose who I wanted to lead the city.

Meanwhile, the Yes campaigners, apparently submitting to the commonly-held view that to interest people, you have to terrify them, have come up with a mock-up of The Sun showing the rioting and flames that would result should we keep our mayor. Their message is that the BNP are going to put up someone very charismatic and sexy to woo us all before May. Who this charmer is, is not clear, but if it seems a good enough reason to you to scrap the entire mayoral system, then be sure to vote Yes today.

What this has to do with unpicking the merits of governance systems before us is anyone’s guess, but the Sentinel have taken the same tack for a different result, with a confusing story based on an anonymous poll of councillors that informs us that if we vote Yes we will also get the BNP leading us next May. For BNP politicians and supporters, all that’s needed is to stay quiet and take the free publicity while all around them politicians sink under their own spin and squabbling.

The only thing that can give a convincing way forward is a large turnout today, and that's assuming we think everyone understands the question. My impression from conversations with those people who don’t take an active interest in city politics - the majority, and who can blame them - is that people neither understand nor care. People are widely referring to it as an election, meaning they will be confused when they find out they're not voting for people, but for a system. Translating the question outside the ballot box for people is fairly easy, but whether or not any of us will remember what the question means once we’re inside is unclear. You’re voting No if you want to have a mayor; Yes, if you want the councillors to choose a leader or you just want rid of the mayor. If you’re in the considerable camps of people who (a) think councillors should have more power or (b) would rather the councillors were all gone tomorrow, well then there are no options for you. I could go into the wider plans of the governance commission, which have been agreed but not acted upon by the council, but I suspect you lost interest a few lines ago.

The only reason to vote today is to contribute to the turnout, because we must use our votes when we get them. My own view hasn’t changed over the last six months: the system we have doesn’t particularly matter as long as we can have a city in which everybody can contribute and have their voices heard through different avenues of representation. In the last few weeks, far away from the political arena but sometimes involving the same people, I’ve seen some very encouraging signs that the grassroots organisations of Stoke could be enjoying something of a renaissance, inspired perhaps by the visit of Desmond Tutu back in July. Online, there are more Stoke people blogging than ever before – even if large swathes of our city are still without free internet access this is a sign that we could be entering a more healthy era of discussion and debate in which the people’s voices cannot be ignored. The day when even poor ignored Tunstall has a Facebook group dedicated to its charms is a good day for our city.

The campaigners for Trentham High School, who have been bravely standing up and dragging attention back to themselves even when all seemed lost, have in my view won the battle and should be given the prize they want. If walking to London to deliver a petition wasn’t convincing enough, the achievement of the students, teachers and parents in making their school the most improved in the city deserves our respect and more importantly that of the Building Schools for the Future architects. People are more important than buildings and our reliance on demolition and displacement needs to be put behind us. Our appearance on Question Time last week was a clear message to national government that the people of Stoke have, through bitter experience, learnt to articulate issues of deprivation, fear and unfairness as they affect our communities.

As Stoke-on-Trent creeps closer to its centenary year as a federated city of six proud towns, we could be about to enter very interesting times indeed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beyond poverty

Wherever you are in the world, a lot of the work around poverty tends to be focussed on funding and policy. Not funding for those in poverty, naturally, but funding for the bureaucracy that seeks to alleviate poverty. This means that those who develop most success, whether working on a very wide or very local level, tend to be those who learn to play the game of government targets around deprivation.

I was interested to hear a comment today by a very inspiring woman who complained about the short-termism of funding for a women's project she ran. It struck me that we have no choice but to move beyond our reliance on funding. Otherwise, the groups have no choice but to keep emphasising their problems in order to get the funding they need to continue. The development of social enterprise as an encouraged option moves on from that, but still puts organisations under pressure to grow and develop.

For me, the present climate makes either of these avenues increasingly difficult to sustain. The global problems are going to mean there are simply too many problems for governments to adequately fund. In addition, trading is going to become harder and those companies that made funding available for community projects are likely to have less to share. To put it simply, there is less money out there now to solve our problems. We need to rely more on our own creativity and what can be done for free.

So that makes it timely that, as is outlined well in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and by others, we're in an era where our costs of organising has collapsed. For all the uncertainty about what the Digital Mentor idea could look like, its greatest strength is the recognition that, by teaching people in deprived communities about digital access and use of free tools, you effectively plug them in to much wider opportunities. It could lead to two outcomes: first giving people the tools to organise whatever disruptive things they want to (and I like the fact that the government seem to be going down this route when they clearly aren't in control of the outcomes); and second transcending the basic modern reality that to be successful, you have to be willing to travel anywhere in the world: get educated, get mobile. We could start tapping in to the under-utilised resources of people who are in deprived areas, hearing their voices, hearing about their skills and making links to markets anywhere in the world. Again, the government could take the lead on this by supporting remote hubs to connect people to higher quality jobs even if they aren't in the major cities.

By building up the self-sufficiency of localised deprived areas, we can build confidence in those communities and people can actually take power, instead of waiting to be given handouts.

I think we need to start cherishing the small contributions that can lead to transformative change. One activist in a community can have a significant impact. Online, that impact is magnified. In Stoke alone, we've seen some examples of decisions being overturned because resistance could not be ignored as it would have been in the past. Indeed, even at the end of major battles, we've seen a development of greater respect for groups that would previously have been ignored. People will different skills can work together, so literacy is not necessarily a barrier to participation (although it is an issue). Through greater online dialogue adding to personal meetings, we can start to move beyond the anger and divisionism that has been fuelled by decades, if not centuries, of deprivation in our communities. People can participate in more creative ways than the standard hierarchies like resident's committees and they can be asked to volunteer more easily.

To break it down into a trite, but Twitterable soundbite:
Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day
Give him broadband and he'll be able to download instructions on a wide range of fishing methods.
(and perhaps the location of a nearby community group offering a fish-supper or the ability to form one himself...)

Saturday, October 11, 2008


2005 was probably the year when I turned from blogger to connected global citizen.

In June, I was in Rwanda on a rollercoaster of a week. Meeting with wonderful friends made by email as we developed a discussion on how journalists could play a part in preventing genocide. Enjoying stimulating conversations on topics that still provoke my thoughts today. We ran a conference on how the global youth could ensure ‘Never Again’, it happened to coincide with the visit of the president of the World Bank to Africa and, Rwanda being quite a closely connected place, we got him to come to our conference. After his address, I shot up to the nearest computer lab and reported the speech on Wikinews (, which, in turn got a mention in the Financial Times.

Less than a month later, I heard the sound of a bomb close to my office in Tavistock Square. We didn’t know what it was, but I was already communicating with a fellow ‘wikinewsie’, Dan Grey, about explosions on the underground. At 9.56am (the log says 8.56) I immediately posted a report heard from my editor and work experience student who had run out to see what was happening. I then deleted it again, worried that it might not be true, but it was and Dan was already weaving it in to the developing Wikinews story. He later wrote ( that we were the first people to report the incident online. In 2008 I imagine it would have been quicker still, posted on Twitter via mobile phone from the scene itself, but in 2005 nine minutes was considered pretty fast.

Everybody brushes with news stories from time to time in their lives. The difference between then and now is that then the public’s contribution to a story was merely their answer to the bland question ‘how do you feel’. Now, we can shape the story, write it, respond to it, comment on it.

I’m now reading, simultaneously (because I’m *that* hyperconnected), Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, and CrowdWired by Tom Watson. The first is a good example of how you can carve out your niche and make money: seeing the book recommended on a few sites I trusted I marched in to Waterstones and demanded a copy, even paying extra so I could read it on the train. The second has been sent as a review copy, thanks to a connection with Tom Watson on Twitter, so I can make my own sprinklings of recommendations through my own networks so that in a few months someone else will shell out real cash for the fruits of Tom’s labour instead of just reading his blog for free.

Both books are fascinating and very readable. They represent the maturity of a movement, the time when academics can take a step back from the fast-moving events and start writing a history. 2005 is an important year in both these histories, with the 7/7 bombings and the New Orleans floods representing a step further on from the connectivity that could already be seen on 9/11 and the 2004 Tsunami. Both books are really useful as guides to those who are still waiting for the spark. I’ve already read the criticism somewhere that Shirky’s book doesn’t say anything new. Although that criticism is untrue, in my view, I can see why the online ‘natives’ may be unmoved by the story of a lost/stolen phone that could be found again by the power of the crowd.

One of the many interesting insights for me is that in the connected world, we can be very relaxed about failure. Indeed, we can afford to fail because the investment in organising is now zero. For a long time I was a little downhearted about the amount of ideas I’d started that hadn’t really got anywhere, the tools I’d built that hadn’t been picked up and used by as many people as I’d hoped. My view now, which has been backed up by the evidence in this book, is that putting ideas out that may or may not be picked up is simply part of a new process that is now done in public where it once would have been private.

Free digital revolushun. Ur doin it rong.

The sudden closure of Burslem Library last week left me feeling really disappointed.

Sited inside the city's finest building, the Wedgwood Institute, the library is one of those places whose value often goes unnoticed. When I first moved to Burslem, two rooms of the crumbling listed building were being used and through the window you could see some fairly dusty-looking bookshelves. By the time I found myself in Burslem during the day, the library had shrunk into one room, with the rest of this fine building taped off to all those without hard hats.

Despite its very obvious neglect, the library was a haven for me and many others. Inside I could spend the odd hour for free, discovering long-gone voices of Burslem shoppers, child miners and characters. There was the internet.

A long time ago, as can be seen on Stoke council's website, millions of pounds were granted to refurbish the building. Expanded library space would have been shared with business units and the lecture theatre would have been restored. See and regret that the completion date should have been August this year.

Instead, the project got dragged into the very complex and expensive business of reshuffling North Staffs agencies and 'put on hold' while a coherent vision for everything could be developed. It is still on hold. While it is fair that money should be spent carefully, this was funding granted to restore a specific building of great significance to the city. Nobody would have argued that the building needed to be restored, so it would have been better to get on with it than have it eventually shut down altogether after becoming a danger to the public. That a fine building with such an illustrious history should have been allowed to degenerate is not the fault of any individual but of systematic failure going back generations. It's a far cry from the original vision, built by public subscription to widen out access to education.

Today, because no plans could be put into place for the library, it has shut without any warning. This is, hopefully, temporary, but this is a very stretchable word in Stoke. The closure means that between the A500 and the Haywood Learning Centre (virtually the whole of the Burslem South ward), there is no free internet access available to the public (if there are any exceptions to this please let me know).

With all the government efforts towards digital engagement, the fact that this could happen in one of the most deprived wards in the country should be a cause of concern to politicians nationally. Not least because we have two important processes going on right now: the Slater Street Public Inquiry and the masterplanning process for Middleport. Those on broadband can follow these processes online and can have our say by email, blogs or on discussion boards should we so wish; we can read updates on websites. In a library, even the web-averse could read about this matter of public interest in the Sentinel for free. If you can't afford a computer and broadband, or you can't get through the credit check to have broadband then you go back to being as disconnected as you ever have been.

Like so much, people will point to alternatives. All that is in Tunstall, they will say, or Hanley. Haven't got a car? Just get a bus. Walk, it's good for you! All of which is of little use to those with limited mobility, no money, those feeling a little isolated or frightened to take to the streets or to gamble with the public transport system. There's a certain time and feeling in Burslem, after about 3 when most of the shops have usually closed for the day, when you don't have quite enough money even for a lemonade in the Leopard. It's a time when your heart can really sink as you look over the empty buildings and the closed shops. The antidote to this feeling was the library, not in Tunstall or Hanley or up any hill, but in Burslem.

The closure also came in the same week as twinkly-eyed minister for culture Andy Burnham launched a debate on the future of libraries. To which our only answer can be "yes, we'd like one of those please".

So, as is right and proper in these circumstances, I've set up a Facebook group to retain a virtual community in support of, first, having a library at all and secondly, to have a fully developed and fabulous library in the place that our forefathers built for us. So, if you can get online and feel so inclined, please join and show your support with a little gentle badgering of your elected representatives.