Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

Crowdsourcing in smart cities: a world of best practice

By Steven McGinty

Too often, debates on smart cities revolve around terms such as “Internet of things”, “big data”, and “sensors”. However, there is a growing realisation that truly smart cities take a more person-centric approach, which focuses on the needs of citizens and harnesses their skills, talents and experience.

Crowdsourcing is one approach that can help cities do just that. From Danish toy maker Lego to tech giant Amazon, organisations are using digital tools to gather views, opinions, data, and even money from citizens. Public sector institutions have also got involved, introducing projects that engage with citizens, as well as tap into external skills through events such as hackathons (where civic hackers come together to solve key city problems).

Already, there is a wide range of crowdsourcing initiatives across the world. Below I’ve highlighted some of the best.

Scottish Government

In 2015, the Scottish Government’s Open Data and Fisheries teams introduced Dialogue, a citizen engagement tool developed by Delib (a social enterprise based in the UK and Australia).

The Open Data team were in the process of creating an open data plan for public bodies. They felt that crowdsourcing could help them gain a greater understanding of the types and formats of datasets people would be interested in, and as such, posed a series of questions to citizens.

The Fisheries Team took to crowdsourcing to gather the views on a proposal to create a ‘kill licence’ and carcass tagging regime for salmon. As they knew this would be controversial, they wanted to gain a better understanding of the concerns in fishing communities, and to see if there were any better approaches.

Both teams learned a lot of useful lessons from the process. These included:

  • ensuring questions were as specific as possible so citizens could understand;
  • marketing projects to specific communities with an interest in the question raised;
  • avoiding making assumptions or stereotyping audiences; and
  • giving short deadlines (as this added urgency and encouraged greater participation).

Milton Keynes

MK: Smart – Milton Keynes’ wide ranging smart cities programme – has introduced an online platform known as Our MK to connect with citizens. This award-winning project supports people in playing a central role in urban innovation, from crowdsourcing initial ideas through to finding mentoring support and funding through their dedicated SpaceHive page.

The platform’s citizen ideas competition offers up to £5,000 worth of funding to turn ideas into reality. So far it’s generated over 100 ideas, with 13 projects being allocated funding. This includes the Go Breastfeeding MK App (an app which promotes the use of breastfeeding within Milton Keynes) and the gamification of Redways (which saw an app developed to encourage people to explore the Redways network – a series of shared use paths for cyclists and pedestrians.)

Madrid City Council

In 2016, Madrid City Council launched Decide Madrid. The platform played a key role in supporting the city’s participatory budgeting process, allowing citizens to propose, debate, and rank ideas submitted to the website. Once citizens had chosen their top proposals, city employees checked the ideas against viability criteria and a cost report was carried out. If the proposal failed to meet the criteria, a report was published explaining why it had been excluded.

Decide Madrid provided guidance of what was allowed and what was not (offline meetings were also used to explain the limitations of the scheme), to ensure that only valid proposals were checked. This ensured the initiative didn’t become too labour intensive.

In the 2016 Budget, €60 million was set aside. By the time the process had finished, citizens had debated over 5,000 initial ideas, with 225 projects being chosen for funding.

Reykjavik City Council

Better Reykjavik was introduced to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. The online platform enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, Icelandic school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections, providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Overall, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent approximately £1.7 million on developing projects sourced from citizens.

Final thoughts

Crowdsourcing is more than just creating a flashy website or app. It’s a process which requires strategic planning and investment. If you’re planning your own initiative, seeking out good practice and learning from the experience of others is a great place to start.


This article was based on the briefing ‘The crowdsourced city: engaging citizens in smart cities’. Idox Information Service members can access this briefing via our customer website.

Scotland eyes a youthquake with online voting: here are some tips from past pilots

Image: PA Images via the Conversation UK

This guest blog was written by Toby S James, Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

One achievement for 2017, as the year came to an end, is that it has added a new word to the English language: youthquake. The idea is that previously silent and apathetic young people have awoken to exert their democratic influence on the electoral process.

Despite a 401% increase in usage of the word, a real youthquake is yet to happen. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election saw an upswing from 2015, but still only half (54%) voted. Participation in other types of elections remains much lower. Huge proportions of young people are also missing from the electoral register. There is therefore still a major gap in levels of electoral participation in Britain.

Now the Scottish government has published plans to reform how Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local elections are run, including an idea that many think will bring in younger people – internet voting.

The Scottish parliament recently gained new powers over how Scottish parliamentary elections and electoral registration are run. In its consultation document it wants to “explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions to” increase voter participation. The proposals for changes are impressively ambitious and more wide-ranging than those currently being considered by the UK government.

Internet voting has many supporters, who see enormous potential for improving voter participation among young people. It’s a sensible line of thought. There are many reasons why people don’t vote or engage with the electoral process, but a considerable amount comes down to basic convenience. We are busy. Registration and voting procedures that fit snugly with our everyday lifestyle will enable us to take part. Processes that are long-winded, archaic and bureaucratic will clink with routines, giving us just an extra reason not to vote. Young people are tech-savy and mobile phone ready. So why send them to the village hall to vote?

What we already know

The reality so far, however, is that internet voting hasn’t yet proved capable of bringing about a major awakening. Those with a long memory may remember that the UK actually piloted remote internet voting in 2002, 2003 and 2007 at a local level. In some areas, citizens could cast their vote from any personal computer with an internet connection using personalised information provided on their polling card.

This was part of a broader set of pilots introduced by New Labour which also included postal voting, telephone voting, SMS voting, digital TV voting and even supermarket voting alongside good old fashioned polling stations which began in 2000.

One lesson from these pilots, drawn from my my evaluation, was that it was actually all-postal elections that could have the biggest effect on turnout. This involved sending a postal vote to citizens automatically instead of asking them to go to the polling station. In the first year of pilots (2000), all-postal voting took place in wards in seven local authorities, and turnout rose in every instance on the previous year. In Gateshead, turnout jumped up from 26.4% in 1999 to 57.3% with all postal elections.

Drawing lessons about the the effects of internet voting were difficult because it was offered to citizens in pilots alongside many other ways of voting. This was a major design flaw with the pilots that shouldn’t be repeated in Scotland, if it goes ahead. Only one new voting method should be trialled in each pilot area so that we can see what effect it has.

A clear message, however, was that internet voting was much more frequently used when it was available up until the close of the poll – in many pilots it was unavailable on election day itself. This should therefore be made possible as part of any future pilot.

Subsequent international work doesn’t provide much evidence that internet voting considerably boosts voter turnout either. Estonia became the first country ever to use internet voting in binding national parliamentary elections in 2007. But again, there is no evidence of a major surge in youth turnout.

Concerns about cyber-security would probably make use at a UK-wide election a non-starter. But over ten years since the first UK pilots, there is a strong case for experimenting with new pilots of internet voting at the local level, where the motivations to hack an election are much lower, and the number of non-voters is much greater. Central and local governments have a responsibility to make voting as convenient as possible – and smart phones are much more widely available today than they were in 2003.

The lessons from internet voting experiments so far suggest that there are many other reasons why people don’t vote, however. These could be easily addressed with other measures, such as voter registration reform and civic education. Last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation proposed 25 measures to improve voter registration across the UK, such as the use of automatic voter registration. 2017 was also the year in which we discovered that electoral administrators had been cutting voter outreach work to engage young people due to financial austerity. There are therefore many other less headline grabbing reforms which could help to generate a youthquake.


Toby S James is Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Toby’s research has been externally funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, AHRC, ESRC, Nuffield Foundation and the McDougall Trust. He has written commissioned policy reports for national and international organisations and given invited evidence to Parliamentary committees. He is currently a Fellow to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation and Advisor to the Law Commission’s Review of Electoral Law. He is also on the Scientific Board for Electoral Expert Review.

If you enjoyed this blog, read our other articles relating to voting and elections:

Could electoral reform revitalise democracy? The role of choice and personalisation in voting systems

The EU referendum … the Conservative and Labour Party leadership contests …. ‘voter fatigue’ …. over the last couple of months, politics has been dominating the news.

We’ve written before on this blog about low turnout for elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners, and whether the Swiss style of direct democracy could ever catch on here. What’s clear is that political engagement is lower in the UK than in some other countries. There’s also a breakdown in trust in politicians, often linked back to the reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. And there’s been a dramatic shift in the landscape of party politics and allegiances, as seen in the collapse of Scottish Labour support and the rise of UKIP.

To what extent, though, is the electoral system itself a contributing factor to disengagement? And can electoral reform help reinvigorate democracy?

Multiple voting systems in the UK

Public interest in, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with, voting systems is hard to gauge. In the 2011 UK referendum on changing the voting system for general elections to Alternative Vote, the result was 67.9% against and only 32.1% in favour, on just a 42% turnout. Many people also assume that ‘first past the post’ is still the only electoral system in the UK.

In fact, there are multiple different voting systems within the UK, and people have regularly voted on the same day for elections operating under different systems.

Electoral reform and its impact

A recent event held by the Constitution Unit at UCL explored the character of electoral reforms across Europe and considered the implications within the UK. Reporting back on recently published research focusing on national/state-level electoral systems, Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit, highlighted a number of key findings. Most surprising was that there’s little evidence that electoral reform leads to improved turnout or satisfaction with democracy.

The panel of speakers recognised that discussion of electoral reform can be ‘nerdy’ but it was clear that there are some key questions that tie in to wider debates on citizenship and public engagement:

  • Is voting in elections actually a poor way for the public to express policy preferences?
  • Does highly individualised political consciousness lead to a concern for what candidates can deliver for you personally (or at a local level) rather than big policy issues?
  • Has the collapse of class politics and discrediting of the traditional left resulted in the concept of political identity itself becoming obsolete?
  • And are wider societal shifts — the individual as consumer — responsible for dissatisfaction with processes for political representation?

The importance of choice in democracy

Traditionally, discussion of electoral reform has focused on the distribution of power — the debate between proportional/majoritarian electoral systems. There’s been a shift recently, however, to focusing on the question of the degree to which voters are able to choose among candidates rather than parties.

It seems that as voters disengage with political parties they become more interested in intra-party dimensions. Personalities can become more important than policies.

The shift within wider society to consumerisation is also leading to an inevitable change in people’s views of politics (and politicians). Having a choice between two or three ‘political brands’ (the main parties) doesn’t fit well with the ethos of competition and markets which are now present in other areas of our lives. Voters increasingly expect to be able to influence not just how many seats each party wins, but also who fills those seats. However, the ‘first past the post’ system means that if you support a party, but not your local candidate, you don’t have a means of saying so at the ballot box.

Processes for candidate selection have also been criticised for not doing enough to address the under-representation of certain groups within politics. Last month’s independent Good Parliament report made recommendations for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It’s argued that the public perception of parliament as an elite will never change unless candidates reflect the communities they represent.

The Institute for Government also recommended in 2011 that there should be more ‘primary elections’, where candidate selection processes are opened out beyond party members to the wider public. The question of candidate selection (and deselection) is likely to come to the fore again as a result of the current issues within the Labour party, and prominent mayoral elections.

Electoral reform and personalisation is no panacea

Any response to the current disaffection with the political system requires more fundamental reforms to allow the public to engage more fully and thoughtfully in policy debates. We’ve written on this blog about some initiatives which are attempting to do this, such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding regeneration within London and an innovative theatre project which introduces strategic planning to local communities. There’s also great work being done in some areas on participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies.

Small electoral reforms, or changes to institutional arrangements, such as those that followed the MPs’ expenses scandal, can create a ‘good story’ for government in terms of appearing to be modernising, but they rarely stem from strong public demand. It could be time to debunk the “great electoral reform myth” and consider deeper changes to how our public institutions engage with the public.


Panel speakers at the event on 26 July were Dr Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit; Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University; Darren Hughes, Electoral Reform Society; and Professor Roger Scully, Cardiff University. It was organised by the Constitution Unit at UCL.

The research cited is from the book Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe, by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet.

The land of “neverendums”. For the Swiss, direct democracy is a way of life, but could it work in the UK?

4162379181_a065367c32_o

Image by Till Westermayer via Creative Commons

Next week, voters across the UK will finally make their decision on the country remaining in or leaving the European Union. This is only the third UK-wide referendum ever to be held. The first was in 1975, on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community. The second took place in 2011, on a new voting system to replace first-past-the-post.

Although referendums in different parts of the UK have become more commonplace – such as those on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and on Scottish independence in 2014 – they are much less frequent at UK level. This is because of the UK’s tradition of representative democracy, where sovereignty rests with parliament. In Switzerland, however, representative democracy runs parallel to a system of direct democracy, which gives voters the last word on legislation.

The Swiss system

Of all the national referendums held in Western democracies since World War II, more than two-thirds have been held in Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the polls three or four times a year, deciding on issues as varied as immigration, complementary medicine, and financing of local sports facilities. Swiss referendums may be triggered in several different ways:

  • Obligatory referendum (following a constitutional amendment or an application to join an international organisation, such as the United Nations or the European Union)
  • Optional referendum (puts parliamentary decisions to the popular vote, but only if 50,000 valid signatures are collected within three months)
  • Popular initiative (proposers have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures to force a vote on a particular issue)
  • Counter proposal (if parliament disagrees with a popular initiative, it can put forward alternative. Both votes are held at the same time, and if both are approved, the one with the highest number of “yes” votes is the winner)

As one writer on Switzerland has observed,

“…the Swiss people are the final decision-makers on almost every single policy, whether it affects their own neighbourhood or the whole country. This democratic freedom and the right to be heard are inalienable rights for the Swiss, who proudly view them as the source of their stability and prosperity.”

More referendums in the UK? The arguments for and against

On the face of it, any political system which encourages greater citizen participation is to be applauded. Proponents of referendums argue that they are exercises in civic engagement, stimulating debate and increasing interest among people who would usually show no interest in politics.

A good example, in a UK context, is the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The campaign energised voters across the country and the poll itself saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. Despite being on the losing side, both the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party reported a surge in membership in the aftermath of the referendum result.

Supporters of the wider use of referendums also believe they can provide a mandate for specific policies, such as the Republic of Ireland’s vote supporting equal marriage in 2015, and can legitimise important constitutional issues, such as devolution.

However, opponents of the referendum as a democratic tool contend that the issues debated during referendum campaigns can’t be decided by a simple binary choice, or are too complex for the public to understand. Professor Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, has argued that the UK’s membership of the EU should be decided by elected officials with a sound understanding of the major economic issues:

“It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. This should be a matter for parliament.”

A recent leader article in The Economist noted that referendums may be used by fringe groups or populist parties to exercise outsize influence. In recent years, the nationalist-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has gained enough signatures to force referendums on issues such as the construction of new minarets for Swiss mosques and the imposition of quotas on immigration. Some in Switzerland believe that these campaigns have damaged the country’s image and incited hostility towards ethnic minorities.

In addition, a narrow decision can raise questions about the legitimacy of the result. The slim margin (50.4%) of Swiss voters supporting immigration quotas in 2014 make it more likely that the country will be asked to vote on the issue again. This could be problematic, with voters potentially becoming fatigued or apathetic if they are asked to vote too often. In the Swiss case, the average voter turnout for all 10 of the elections and referendums held in 2014-2015 was 50.1%, although turnout fluctuated between a high of 63% and a low of 42%.

Final thoughts

For some, the EU referendum campaign has shown up the deficiencies in the use of referendums to make momentous decisions – conjecture, claims, counter-claims and inconclusive arguments. For others, it has been an important exercise in direct democracy, giving the people a chance to debate an issue of vital importance to the entire country.

Unlike Switzerland, the UK has an unwritten constitution, and there are no rules on what can trigger referendums. Only in rare cases have British governments put a single issue to the people, a feature of UK politics that is set to continue. Whatever the outcome of next week’s vote, it’s unlikely that the UK will move towards the Swiss system of direct democracy.


If you liked this post, you might also be interested in other blog posts about democracy and referendums:

Pushing the vote out: how can more people be persuaded to exercise their most basic civic right?

By James Carson

With elections for the devolved assemblies, Greater London Assembly, the Mayor of London, Police and Crime Commissioners, some local councils and the European Union referendum all taking place in 2016, voters across the UK will be going to the polls more often than usual this year.

Or will they?

Last year saw a 66.1% turnout for the UK General Election. At the time, this was headlined as a “bumper election turnout”. But the figure was considerably lower than the highest ever turnout at a general election – 83.9% in 1950. Turnout for local and European elections has been even lower than for general elections, and in 2012 the first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England saw just 15% of the population voting.

Voter registration: falling numbers, rising concerns

In 2014, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee expressed alarm at declining levels of voter engagement, and was particularly concerned about voter registration:

“Millions of people are missing from the UK’s electoral registers. Many of those who are registered—and in many cases the majority—choose not to participate at elections, be they for the UK Parliament, local government, or the European Parliament. In a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that millions of people who are eligible to vote are missing from electoral registers.”

For some years, concerns have been raised about electoral fraud, leading to calls for changes in voter registration to improve confidence in the electoral register. To address these concerns, in 2014 Individual Electoral Registration (IER) went live in England, Wales and Scotland.

Prior to IER, one person in every household took responsibility for registering everyone else living at that address. Under the new system, every individual applying to register needs to provide “identifying information”, such as a national insurance number, and this must be verified before the application is accepted.

The early impact of IER

Although IER has the potential to make electoral registration more accessible to more people, critics have voiced concerns, claiming that it is too complex and may disenfranchise thousands of voters.

In February 2016, UK government figures showed a 600,000 drop in the number of registered voters over the past year (a fall of 1.4 million names since 2014). Commenting on the figures, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

The fall in the number of registered voters over the past two years shows the danger of the government’s decision to push through the shift to individual electoral registration a year ahead of schedule, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. With elections all over the country in just three months, far too many people are now in danger of missing out on their most basic civic right.”

Meanwhile, the National Records of Scotland reported that the number of people registered to vote in elections in Scotland had fallen by around 100,000 (2.5%) compared to March 2, 2015. The reductions are the first for more than a decade and much bigger than previous movements in the figures, but they echo a similar decline in Northern Ireland when IER was introduced in 2002.

Inequalities in registration

Many of those contributing to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s investigation argued that the biggest issue for voter engagement was not low levels of voter registration in the general population, but specifically among certain demographic groups, notably:

  • students and younger people (under 35)
  • people living in the private rented sector
  • certain Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups
  • people with disabilities
  • British citizens living abroad
  • Commonwealth and EU citizens
  • those classified as social grade DE (working class / non-working)

The Committee published recommendations aimed at raising the levels of registration and reducing inequalities:

  • make registration automatic
  • prompt people to register to vote when they access other public services (such as registering to pay council tax, or applying for a passport)
  • allow students to register at schools and colleges.
  • let people register to vote closer to the date of an election (rather than the current limit of 11 days before polling day)

Automatic voter registration: an international perspective

In the United States, declining voter registration and turnout rates have been causing similar concerns to those raised in the UK, and some states have been looking at automatic registration of voters.

In 2015, Oregon and California became the first US states to automatically register any citizen with a driving licence. Not everyone agrees with the change, with some legislators claiming that it replaces “individual convenience with government coercion”.

There’s no suggestion that compulsory registration in US states will lead to mandatory voting. But in Australia it is compulsory for citizens both to enrol and to vote in national, state and local elections. Penalties for not complying can include fines and prison sentences.  As a result, turnout figures for federal elections since 1946 have averaged 94%. Australia is one of 23 countries with some form of compulsory registration and /or voting, including France and Sweden (both of which have relatively high election turnout figures).

A work in progress

A notable exception to the trend in declining voting figures in the UK was the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, which saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. However, a post-referendum survey found that, although 16- and 17- year olds were eligible to vote for the first time, turnout among younger people was markedly lower than for those aged 35 and over.

There appears to be no quick fix to address voter engagement in terms of registration rates, inequalities of registration and declining turnout figures. But, as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee noted, democracy is a work in progress:

“…substantial cultural and structural changes are necessary to convince the public that registering to vote and participating at other elections is worthwhile. This work must go hand in hand with renewing the public’s faith in the UK’s political institutions. This is a task that requires the support of political parties, individual politicians, electoral administrators and the Government.”


If you enjoyed this article, read our previous posts on democracy and voting:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management.

Smart citizens, smarter state: from open government to smarter governance

 

By Steven McGinty

Last year, a poll by Ipsos Mori found that only 16% of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth. Although scepticism is healthy for a democracy, these figures are significantly lower than in 1986, when 38% of the public trusted MPs “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party

The British Social Attitudes survey attributes this decline in public confidence to the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. However, a more general dissatisfaction with institutions (the media, the police, and financial institutions) – who have all had their own scandals – may also be a factor.

With this decline in trust, it’s not too surprising that the British public are calling for greater transparency and more ‘open government’.

What is open government?

According to Professor Beth Simone Noveck’s book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, open government involves moving away from a ‘closed-door model’ of governance to one where government institutions connect with people and organisations from a diverse range of backgrounds. This includes citizens, academics, voluntary organisations and the commercial sector.

Examples of citizen involvement

The commercial sector has already benefited from greater citizen involvement. For instance, Facebook, which relies heavily on its 1.44 billion monthly users to generate content, is valued at over $300 billion. This is three or four times more than traditional US media companies such as CBS and Viacom. Netflix, a global streaming service for movies and TV series, also sought to benefit from outside talent by offering a million dollars to researchers who could improve their ability to make recommendations for their subscribers.

However, it’s not just about the commercial sector. Galaxy Zoo, an online citizen science project, has been very successful thanks to its pool of ‘citizen scientists’, who help translate raw information into useful scientific knowledge. In its first year, the project created 50 million ‘classifications’. To date, the project has published 48 articles using the data classified by volunteers.

Benefits of open government

In her book, Professor Noveck includes an example of how government might reduce reoffending. She explains that to initially understand the problem data scientists are required to interpret the data. Legal scholars, practitioners and victims’ groups are also needed to help understand the practical realities of the criminal justice system.  Using this scenario, she describes how professionals, such as psychologists and social scientists could design pilot projects to reduce reoffending.

Professor Noveck argues that increasing openness could provide greater insights and a more legitimate form of government. She suggests that open government has the potential to restore trust in public institutions.

Failure of open government

In 2010, the Coalition Government consulted the public on its programme for government. The website received a total of 9,500 official responses; although no government policies were changed as a result.

At the time, The Guardian described this as a failure, and Simon Burall, Director of Involve, a group advising bodies on consultation, warned that

You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again.”

Although a proponent for more open governance, Professor Noveck concedes that government initiatives to involve citizens, like the one introduced by the previous UK government, have failed.  She claims that the ad-hoc nature of these programmes and the long standing culture of closed-door practices present major barriers.

Smarter governance

Therefore, Professor Noveck advocates a move towards, what she calls, ‘smarter governance’. In essence, this means that institutions should look to target and match specific people with the right opportunities – which is now possible thanks to ‘technologies of expertise’. Well known platforms such as LinkedIn allow individuals to be found based on their particular skills. And online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy provide ‘badges’ to indicate the mastery of skills.

In the UK, the app GoodSAM, which evolved from London’s Air Ambulance service, is designed to alert approved medical professionals when an emergency is nearby, so that potentially lifesaving treatment can be administered.

In the US, the New York Police department maintains a database of its employees’ abilities, ranging from language skills to hobbies, such as yoga or beekeeping. The department takes the tasks of collating skills very seriously, with all new recruits completing a form as part of the human resources process. Having this knowledge allows senior officers to make better use of their staff abilities, and provide a better service.

Conclusions – “More Minecraft, less statecraft”

Professor Noveck concludes her book by calling for positive steps to ensure that institutions not only listen to advisory boards and formal committees, but also include the citizen experience and wider expertise. She recommends that there should be a diverse range of conversations between government and its citizens, and that reinventing the processes of decision making should be a matter of urgency.


The Idox Information Service includes a traditional library service offering a range of physical books, documents and reports.  The book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, by Professor Beth Simone Noveck, is the latest addition to our collection, and can be borrowed by Information Service members.  If you would like to subscribe to the Information Service please contact us at AskTheResearchTeam@idoxgroup.com

 

Idox: enabling transformation, collaboration and improvement

Idox_logo 800 x 800 jpeg

If you follow this blog regularly then you’ll know that we write on all areas of public and social policy. What you might not realise though is that our Knowledge Exchange team is just one part of a much wider business – Idox – providing specialist information and data solutions and services.

I’ve been working with Idox for about four years, but I’m still topping-up my knowledge about the organisation. Last week, at the company’s end-of-year get-together, my brain was like an overworked sponge as it tried to absorb a multitude of facts, figures and achievements during two days of workshops and presentations (to say nothing of the informal chats in between the working sessions).

From this wealth of information, I’ve compiled a selection that I think conveys a flavour of the depth and diversity of Idox today.

Ten things you might not know about Idox…

  1. The Reading Room, which is the newest addition to the Idox family of companies, has developed digital solutions for a wide range of customers, including Porsche and Clarence House, and this year developed a virtual reality test drive app for Skoda.
  2. Idox’s recently-launched iApply service enables planning applications and building control consent to be applied for via a single source, streamlining the application process.
  3. The Idox GRANTFinder policy and grants database contains details of over 8000 funding opportunities.
  4. Real-time information delivered by Idox’s Cloud Amber keeps the travelling public up-to-date about transport services and helps manage traffic congestion.
  5. The Idox group currently employs almost 600 people in over 10 countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, India and Australia.
  6. The Idox Elections service not only ensured the smooth management of postal voting for the 2015 UK general election, but has also supported delivery of local authority and community council elections in the UK, as well as this year’s local elections in Norway.
  7. Idox has a strong presence in the compliance sector, raising awareness among managers and employees of the importance of complying with regulations, from corruption prevention and data privacy to occupational safety and cybersecurity.
  8. Idox Engineering Information Management, provides critical engineering document management and control applications to the oil and gas, mining, pharmaceutical and transport industries in 50 countries.
  9. CAFM Explorer, Idox’s computer aided facilities management software, supports building maintenance and property management for organisations in 45 countries, and recently partnered with the Hippodrome to help maintain one of London’s most popular attractions.
  10. From food safety monitoring to licensing taxis, Idox’s regulatory services help local authorities enforce the rules that keep us safe.

One more thing…

Finally, the meeting reminded me of one thing I already knew, and it’s to do with the part of Idox where I work – the Knowledge Exchange.

Over breakfast on the second morning, a colleague from McLaren talked about the difficulties in finding the right information on the web. Search engines only go so far, he said, providing too little or too much. This is where skilled intermediaries, such as Idox’s team of Research Officers, can make a difference, identifying, sorting and presenting information that people can use to make decisions, support arguments and advance their businesses.

The Idox event was an enjoyable, if exhausting, couple of days, and it demonstrated the many ways in which the company is supporting public, private and third sector work.

Clearly, there’s much more to learn about Idox.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Is the Freedom of Information Act ‘working effectively’?

Wall with the words 'Freedom Street'

Image by Kevan via Creative Commons

 

By Steven McGinty

In July, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Lord Bridges, announced that there would be an independent cross-party review on Freedom of Information (FOI).

The UK’s FOI Act was introduced in 2000 (in Scotland, FOI legislation came into force in 2005). The Act requires public bodies to publish certain information about their activities and to respond to requests for information from the public.

Since its introduction, the FOI Act has facilitated the release of information from across government. The most high profile releases have involved MPs’ expenses and correspondence between British diplomats ridiculing the notion of a widespread increase in migration from Poland to the UK, once they joined the EU.

Lord Bridges explained that the review would focus on three main issues:

  • whether there is an appropriate balance between having a transparent and accountable government and the need for sensitive information to be protected;
  • whether the Act adequately recognises the need to have a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation;
  • whether there is an appropriate balance between the need for public access to information and the burden on public bodies of providing this.

However, is this review really necessary?

Over recent years, a number of public figures have voiced their concerns over the Act. Even the man who introduced it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has stated that he was a “naive foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” to introduce it. He also suggested that it undermined “sensible government”.

Similarly, the former head of the Civil Service, Lord O’Donnell has argued that the requirement to release Cabinet minutes risked preventing “real discussions” between ministers.

There has also been discontent from local government, struggling to shoulder the financial cost of the Act. For instance, Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, stated that:

We spent £365,000 in 2010 answering freedom of information requests. What else could I do with that money? More social workers, more school inspectors, more spent on road maintenance.”

Although clearly frustrated by the Act, he doesn’t suggest withdrawing it. Instead, he proposes the idea of a £25 charge. His hope is that this would deter individuals from making ‘frivolous requests’.

In the 2010, University College London’s (UCL) Constitution Unit estimated that the cost of FOI requests for local government was £31.6 million. It also highlighted that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.

Safeguards already exist

However, the review also has its opponents. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has attacked the government’s decision. In particular, he criticises the UK Government for using its position at the top of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer (annual worldwide survey of open government) to justify the review.

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, has also added her disapproval. She explains that the UK’s position at the top of the Open Data Barometer should not be an excuse to undo the progress that has been made. In addition, she claims that the government is behind European countries on other transparency and accountability issues, such as state surveillance and freedom of the press.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has raised concerns over the review panel. It highlights that there are no panel members with a proven commitment to transparency. Currently, the five person committee consists of high profile political figures, such as former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard and former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Act has been praised for holding public bodies to account. For instance, the Daily Telegraph discovered that local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years, including stays at the Four Seasons in New York.

There are also those who maintain that safeguards are already in place. For example, section 35 of the Act provides a qualified exemption, which limits the release of information to the public. This safeguard is explicitly aimed at protecting the policy-making process.

A key challenge for any state is to strike the appropriate balance between effective governance and public accountability. Yet, with so many differing views, universal agreement is unlikely.  Therefore, no matter the outcome of the review, it’s likely that this debate will continue.


Further reading: