Where will governments be in 30 years? What are the main challenges civil servants will be facing in the next decade? What does the future of citizen participation look like? The Nesta Government Innovation Summit taking place in London last week brought together civil servants, policy-makers and civic tech actors from the UK and beyond to try and tackle these big questions.

Here are our 5 key take-aways from a day of intense discussions and thought-provoking talks!

1. Build trust before all else.

Indicators are all pointing to an erosion of trust in government – whether that’s from citizens, or from civil servants themselves. Recent surveys have revealed that less than one third of civil servants believe that their local government is equipped for the challenge of the next decade. Also worrying, UK citizens have less trust in members of Parliament than in banks or in the army – according to recent research from the Hansard society, “opinions of the system of governing are at their lowest point in the 15 years audit series“.

How much confidence, if any, do you have in each of the following to act in the best interests of the public?” – Survey carried out by the Hansard Society

These signals have accelerated with recent events in the UK, but they’re also showing up in many other parts of the world. Throughout the day, many conversations both on and off stage therefore centred on how to rebuild trust in institutions. We noted the following solutions:

  • Engaging in honest, open dialogue with citizens and giving them power to generate change themselves by including them in decision-making. This can be done through citizen assemblies, or through smaller projects like the 100 day challenge (see next section).
  • Creating spaces for dialogue and for community-building. Imandeep Kaur from the Civic Square, Birmingham made a compelling case for local governments to build more “Palaces for the People” (libraries, parks and other civic infrastructure) to give local communities a place to come together, discuss and create. These could also be spaces to develop civic engagement, therefore reconnecting with local governments and rebuilding trust.
  • Transparency, transparency, transparency: this is a point we raised during a panel discussion on collective and artificial intelligence. By being more open and vulnerable about what they do, governments can build more trust and increase citizen’s willingness to engage. This is particularly true on a local scale, where local governments have more direct contact with citizens and where it’s easier to communicate about ongoing projects through existing platforms. Another crucial point when using technology to connect with citizens is to be transparent about how their personal data is used and collected.

2. Tools aren’t everything.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented surge in the number of digital tools available to local governments. There is now technology to collect data, engage with citizens, evaluate decisions, create powerful prediction models and much, much more. However, tools aren’t everything – the shiny tech won’t get us anywhere if there’s no real will for change and innovation within governments, said Martin Stewart-Weeks (Public Purpose). 

In order to foster positive, long-lasting innovation, there needs to be a better culture of experimentation within local governments. Civil servants need to be encouraged say yes more, and to come up with great questions rather than satisfactory answers. This will of course be a long process – governments are structures that have been designed not to change, reminded Stewart-Weeks – but it’s the only sustainable way forward.

Joanna Killian from the Surrey Executive Council also mentioned the importance of sourcing solutions from citizens and front-line civil servants, and giving them the freedom to test out their ideas. This approach was tried out during the “100 days Challenge” projects, where ideas from front-line staff were tested and implemented in a short period of time. The innovative, hands-on and low-tech solutions which came out of these experimentations have shown fantastic results.

3. Artificial intelligence needs collective intelligence

Artificial intelligence may hold huge promises, but it needs to work with collective intelligence to truly bring about change (if you’re still unfamiliar with both notions, head to our explainer). As discussed with ZenCity and the Oxfordshire during a panel on this topic, artificial intelligence should help harness the power of collective intelligence, whilst collective intelligence should help keep artificial intelligence in check.

The panel discussed different ways to use collective intelligence to improve decision-making in local governments: we presented the platform’s integrated analysis features, Assaf Frances from ZenCity talked about using organic, existing social data to get a grasp of public opinion, and Llewelyn Morgan from the Oxford council talked about citizen-sourced data used to improve transportation. All these methods raised interest but also questions about how to respect citizens’ privacy, remove bias from data collection methods, and gain citizens’ trust.

In our mind, the solution should be a careful balance between legitimacy and efficiency: local governments should increase legitimacy of their decisions through citizen participation, whilst improving efficiency by using artificial intelligence to design better workflows.

4. The future is deliberative

The session entitled “Beyond Consultation” focused on meaningful citizen participation methods. As Theo Bass mentioned, governments sometimes stop at the “shiny tech” of citizen participation and forget to ask the difficult, meaningful questions. Rebecca Rumbul from MySociety covered the possible flaws of participatory budgets – if used in the wrong way, they can sometimes be tokenized, biased and unproductive. And as discussed in our recent blog article, top-down consultation doesn’t bring about true, lasting democratic progress.

So what’s the solution? Miriam Levin from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports and Ben Fowkes suggested that the way forward was through online deliberative spaces. Technology should give us spaces to re-create the complex and rich deliberative processes that are at work in citizens’ assemblies. As proven by the Irish example, citizens’ assemblies have the power to unlock difficult, divisive issues that governments can’t or won’t tackle.

Having regular consultations with spaces for meaningful online debates would help deeply embed citizen participation, increase levels of trust and provide decision-makers with better decision-makers with better insights.

5. It’s a great time to be in local government

Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s Chief Executive, started off the day with an optimistic message: things may look glum from the outside, but we’re actually living in a golden age for local government. Although we’d take this with a pinch of salt, this day has indeed been a reminder of the huge power of local governments. As trust in centralised governments is decreasing, citizens are willing to trust their local councils more. As reported by a recent Ipsos Mori survey, “When we asked recently who has the public’s best interests at heart for The Hansard Society, 44% say local government does, compared to only 33% for the government, and only 29% for political parties“.

This great quote from an NHS civil servant shared by Ben Fowkes sums it all up:

Democracy is better when it’s continuous and intimate, rather than occasional and remote

Cover image: Nesta

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