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Overview of our #PICamp Session

by Conor Pendergrast on November 23rd, 2010

On Saturday, in the delightful NICVA building in North Belfast, Phil, Patrick and I (Conor) attended the Slugger O’Toole‘s Political Innovation Unconference. Before getting in to the content of our session, I feel obliged to mention how great the facilities were. Not only was there free wifi, there was also food (mmm breakfast and lunch), tea and coffee – even some beverages after the event! That really made my day, given that it was a weekend morning. The aim of PICamp was to:

“…use the distributed intelligence of the blogosphere to help sharpen some great ideas about how politics can change”

(Source, retrieved 22nd November 2010)

Nice, eh? The first event of the day was a brief introduction to the organisers and to the concept of an unconference. I’d never been to an unconference before, so this was a good way to learn about it. Various people in the room suggested ideas and I also suggested the talk that we’d mentioned before, that of how to promote critical thinking and reason-based decision making in politics – on national and local levels. This seemed to go down fairly well among the group, which was nice. The talks were scheduled on the timetable-board thingy and we all headed to our first session – our session was one of the first so we took our seats and got started.

I first gave an overview of why I’d suggested the topic and a few examples of what I considered illogical and unreasonable laws; the Digital Economy Bill, existing drug legislation and libel laws. Then I shut up and let the conversation flow, only interjecting a few times. What follows is taken from the notes I wrote about the session, formed into my experience of the session. For obvious reasons, this is just my subjective interpretation of the session and if anyone can correct me, please do so in the comments.

Having outlined my opinion, I put the following question out there: What is it about politics that leads people to make poor decisions? The response to that was the notion that democracy, at its very core, can tend to be illogical. Instead of making decisions that are rational and evidence-based, elected representatives are lead to make decisions that are people-pleasing and populist. If you make a decision that the people you represent do not like, for whatever reason, the odds are you will not be re-elected once your term is up. The pressure then, is on keeping your job and making decisions that your voters will like and support. Politicians have to be populists, especially during an election year. There was a very specific point made that it would be nice to see one debate in Northern Ireland without religion and sectarian issues being brought up.

This issue being identified, there were some key suggestions in combatting the problem is populism in politics. These related to participation, open data and separation of local and national politics. Participation was mostly about citizens actually taking their role in society seriously and participating in the democratic process at all stages, not just when their niche interests are involved. This can potentially involve participatory budgeting and decision-making, whereby local councils and government branches involve citizens in the allocation of budgets and other issues. This is of course a two-way process; it involves the politicians taking the risk of involving people and the people being willing to take the time to get involved and make rational, reasonable decions. It always risks falling prey to the powerful influence that interest groups may have, as well as being clearly against the idea of a representative democracy and leaning more towards a direct democracy. It also assumes another thing that is currently dearly lacking: data.

Data on the political process and political issues is something that I think has to be key in decision-making. Without having access to data, citizens cannot possibly make their choices in a reasonable manner. The data need to be easily-digestible though, in other words the data need to be clear and concise. It also helps if the data are not just bloody PDFs. This kind of data will help politicians to show citizens that the decisions they are making are sound and based in reason and evidence. Well, in theory anyway.

Finally, the suggestion was made that there needs to be a much stronger separation of local politics from national politics. National representatives shouldn’t be bothered by local issues like fixing the bloody pothole on your road. That’s a local issue and as such should be dealt with by your local representative. This would leave national representatives with more time to focus on national issues and leave them less concerned with dealing with local problems.

So, I suppose that’s my two pence on how the session went. If you have additional ideas leave them in the comments.

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