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Hazel Ashton writes:

I am of the view that people who wish to share their concerns and sense of possibilities – to good effect – need their own locally-grounded, participatory media.

Participation isn’t just a twee word.

As Gerhard Fischer, director for the Centre for LifeLong Learning and Design attests:

The world has become too complex for individuals [no matter how good and wise] to have enough knowledge to tackle complex problems by themselves

So we need to be able to engage with the full range of knowledge, talent, experience and energies that are available to address current complex problems and possibilities.

Communications technologies make participatory local problem-solving possible

Communications technologies have since the 1990s made it possible for local people to gather, frame and publish information of interest to them via their own community papers and interactive social media.

But it isn’t happening – at least not on any scale. Why?

I think it is time for these new possibilities for participation to be widely understood and put into practice.

What if extremists get a say?

I recall a discussion about participatory protocols for a community paper I was involved with back in the 90s. John Wardle (a major instigator of the paper) and I had argued for full participation. We were challenged as to what our response would be if extreme groups like the National Front wanted to contribute. A challenger had personally witnessed instances of National Front-inspired violence in Britain.

While I disagree with the views of the National Front, I still agreed with John Wardle who argued for full participation, including by people in groups like the National Front.

Community participation protocols

John Wardle’s point was that the community paper needed to be active in engaging the whole range of local people and their hopes and concerns, including those who might not be thought to be acting in the most constructive ways.

He saw the sole purpose of the community paper as a tool for open communication and sharing of information in the locality.

Participation in communication was the key, so protocols for ensuring comfort and safety of community members would be different from those of mainstream media. For instance:

  • The community paper is owned and controlled by community – not individuals, or committees, or advertisers, or funding agencies
  • The only bias is that of local community and its affairs (wider issues only as they impact on local community)
  • Anyone can contribute, or be supported to contribute, not just media professionals
  • Proactive engagement of diversities, especially those who are easily marginalized. As John Wardle stressed we couldn’t just wait for  whoever  stumbles in the door-way
  • Engagement aimed to continually enhance awareness of local problems and potentialities in a spiral of flows from local everyday life into the local media and then back, transformed, to local life again. This on-going flow of communication and information sharing was seen as essential for effective and participatory decision making, whether by local people themselves or by policy-makers
  • If a community member is interviewed they are to be shown the copy of the resulting article and encouraged to make any adjustments as to the accuracy of the reporting
  • Support for local business – advertisements, classifieds, employment wanted and offered etc. John Wardle considered it important that local business was given good local support and employed local people as ways of helping to build both local community and prosperity.

For a time they prevailed

For a short while in the 90s local people (including youth) were actively involved in local affairs. Diverse local community networks took the place of the older, more conservative old boys’ network. Individuals, supported by networks were pro-active in setting agendas for discussion and action. Locals from at times quite diverse backgrounds collaborated together on projects. People were involved in the creating, not just the receiving end of decisions.

Communications technologies seriously under- utilized

That was then. Now that communication technologies and softwares are so much more accessible and easy to use, I am puzzled why they are not utilized to engage people in local affairs.

Community group letter ignored in community paper

I find myself thinking about this again because it is local government election time and last month I supported a group (of which I am a member) to write to their monthly community paper seeking information about an important issue facing their suburb. They sought information that was highly relevant to local election issues and to political decision-making processes.

The letter (which was clear and polite) was not published or even acknowledged.

As with other media this community paper is full of ‘vote for me’ advertisements and strong advocacy of the need for openness and transparency. Its editorial says to vote – and get information on which to base this decision – but as individuals (or small groups) this is proving difficult at all levels.

City Hall screens

The local city council (here in Christchurch, New Zealand) has just opened a new building, with new technology and large new screens.

Some candidates understand that technological advances can be used to enhance communication with the public.

One candidate, who is a city councilor, has proposed that the screen technologies be deployed to enable the council meetings to be streamed live to the public.

The Mayor accepts that this is a good idea.

So, it seems we can look forward to being able to connect with our decision-makers …

Yawn.

And weary sighs.

As Gerhard Fischer reminds us we are dealing with complex issues that are beyond the grasp of individuals.

I would also add, beyond the grasp of elected representatives.

I would also have to add, further, beyond the grasp of their increasingly unaccountable staff and decision-making processes.

There are people, such as in the local group I tried to assist, who have significant observations about decisions which will have enormous impacts on their locality.  They now also have significant observations to make about decision-making processes in which they have little trust or confidence. This group has ideas. Constructive and practical ideas to contribute.

What a pity there are not more opportunities for interaction so all can benefit from this kind of local knowledge.

How about interactive screens?

If our local leaders are going to use screens to communicate, how about setting them up for two-way communication, including information and questions from the public? These avenues for in-puts of local experience and knowledge are too valuable to keep on treating with ignore.

I’d be interested in your views.

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