Tag Archives: #LOTE

Open government Xtreme: when public policy takes to the streets

Photo by Bridget McKenzie
The Council of Europe has a project called Edgeryders (info). Just as it is drawing to a close, it seems to hold a piece of the future; never before, in my experience, had a rather technical project born of a public institution (producing recommendation for a reform of European youth policy: hardly the stuff of dreams) driven so much citizen engagement, and even ownership.

As part of the project, we organized a conference called Living On The Edge (#LOTE to the initiates), that took place in Strasbourg in June 2012. To my great surprise, about a month ago the Edgeryders community practically summoned itself to Brussels for a #LOTE2 (info), to take place on December 6th to 9th. And here’s what’s happening:

  • people are paying out of their own pocket to participate. Since edgeryders tend to be young and strapped for cash, the community is trying to come up with ways to support each other. Those of us who leave in Brussels are opening their homes to host fellow #LOTErs.
  • the European Parliament stepped in to provide a room for free for one of the days – credit must go to 25-years-old Amelia Andersdottir, MEP for the Swedish Pirate Party, and to her assistants
  • a local artist offered to rent us studio space for very cheap for the remaining days – the poorest edgeryders can camp there, too.
  • one particularly enterprising member of the community picked up the phone and called AirB’n’B. They, too, stepped in, offering a €25 voucher to #LOTErs wishing to stay with an AirB’n’B host in Brussels. Intrigued by the project, they are also sending their experts on community building to the event.
  • all organization is run by members of the community who volunteered. The result is an amazing rainbow of generous, skilled young Europeans. Asta (Icelandic) is sorting out logistics. Noemi (Romanian) and Andrei (Moldovan) keep the website updated and makes sure no one falls through the crack. Giovanni (Italian) acts as media liaison. Matthias (German) Michal, Petros, Mike (Poles) and Eimhin (Irish) are writing specifications and getting geared up to redo the Egderyders website according to the community’s requests.
  • institutions are taking notice. Senior officers engaged and provide suggestions of people to invite. Every day we receive new offers and helpful suggestions.
  • meanwhile Elena – a 23-year-old Russian woman who lives in Sweden – inspired by the project has started Edgeryders Sweden, reusing the Edgeryders name, aesthetic, visuals and mystique (it’s okay – everything is licensed under creative commons). Elena has not participated in Edgeryders – she learnt about it from an acquaintance.

This is a taste of what might happen if we ever got serious about involving citizens in public policy. The Council of Europe is holding its own at its center. But its stake in #LOTE2 has become a strange creature: on the one hand its leadership on Edgeryders as a source of inspiration is recognized by all. On the other hand, however, it has little choice but to go along. The community has pretty much put together a zero-budget event: paradoxically, if the Council of Europe were to disassociate itself from this meetup, #LOTErs would probably shrug it off and go ahead. And why not? “We should think of government as platform”, open government people like to say. And platforms don’t make decision: they enable people to do whatever they want to do in the name of the common good.

It could be the future of government: build platforms for collective actions, then step back and accept that you, as an elected representative or a civil servant, should make as few operational decisions as possible, and let yourself be overridden by ordinary citizens in most situations. On the other hand, it could also be just a golden moment, the last autumn glow: that’s what it will look like, retrospectively, if European institutions don’t see the potential of all this goodwill to generate more goodwill and creativity, or simply can’t bring themselves to give up control for citizens to take ownership. In that case, the system will revert by default (without even needing to decide to) to an administration-driven, top-down mode. Which does not work – just ask disgruntled European citizens what they think of the effectiveness of their common institutions – but is so much more reassuring.

Unpacking #LOTE: how institutions learn new ways

With the Living On The Edge (aka #LOTE) conference, the Edgeryders team at the Council of Europe was trying to kill several birds with the same stone. Bird number one: starting to boil down the staggering amount of ethnographic data on the transition of European youth collected alongside the project to a synthesis that could act as a common ground. Even before the conference started we had collected over 400 transition stories with 3,000 comments from over 1,000 registered users: an overarching big picture to parse them is a must if we are to make sense of it. Bird number two:experimenting offline with the delicate interface between online communities and institutions. Can we design a format that Europe’s most radical and bright trailblazers and its civil servants can both find meaningful and fulfilling? Bird number three: gauge the potential for contagion of cutting-edge projects like Edgeryders with the institutions that promote them – but then need to give up some control over them to their community of users if they are to be successful at all. Will institutions experience some kind of anaphylactic shock and reject the transplant? Ignore it? Be inspired by it?

Killing bird number one was comparatively easy: we had aimed very carefully. We designed Edgeryders with native support for scientific inquiry. The legal infrastructure is such that all deliverables from the project are licensed in Creative Commons-BY, and therefore can be shared and re-used legally and safely. A volunteer Privacy Manager from the community, neodynos (thanks!), watches that we do this without compromising the sense of safety that a public space like Edgeryders should have. We extract data from the network analysis directly from the database, via a Drupal module called Views and an extraction script (thanks Luca Mearelli, my collaborator at the Dragon Trainer project, for writing it!). Both the script and the anonymized data are on github. We are proudly doing open science here. So, the rest is really just implementation.

Bird number two was hard. As we designed the conference program, I will freely admit it did feel contrived at times. Luckily my colleagues at the Council of Europe – and especially Gilda Farrell, the head of the division I report to – were patient if tough negotiators, and explained to us that yes, we do need opening remarks, and three closing speeches. And it is important that we make sure that several institutions are represented, as well as respect the balance of gender and nationality of speakers. This is about legitimacy, and a conference with insufficient visibility of the institutions would have sent the wrong signal that we were just playing around while the grownups were doing the real policy work.

It did work, though. It worked almost too well. Turnout was huge, with some people coming in from all over Europe, but also from places like South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. The online buzz was just insane – I don’t think any Council of Europe event had ever become trending topic on Twitter before. The Twitter wall backchannel worked like a charm. There was some disagreement and a lot of frank talk, but all of it was respectful. Everybody I talked to – both from the community side and from the institutional side – absolutely loved at least some parts, and learned a lot from what he or she did not like so much. The community went home incredibly energized, and got down to doing the most advanced stuff I have yet seen done within a government project. Check out DemSoc leading a collaborative “letter to the funders” to start a negotiation with the funding agencies about rewriting funding rules for increased effectiveness and fairness (I do hope the European Commission reads that one); or Nadia trying on herself the “life without using money” way of living, guided by moneyless sensei Elf Pavlik. The Council of Europe behaved magnificently, showing care and appreciation for the young Europeans who had made the effort to get to Strasbourg. When the security staff agreed to let into the building Elf – who does not believe in states and refuses to use national ID – I knew the cultural battle had been won. I learned two things: that a fruitful, inspiring offline conversation can be had between institutions and a self-selected group of citizens; and that prior socializing online is critical to that conversation not disintegrating into squabbling about rules of engagement and what is meant by what.

As for the third bird, I have neither full information nor the authority to speak for the Council of Europe, or any other institution. I do know that Edgeryders, that started as a completely peripheral project – just a little money and a couple of lowly temps at the margins of the organization – has now gotten the attention of the most senior decision makers; and that a prototype is being designed for using Edgeryders-style engagement to elicit input into ministerial conferences on the most diverse subjects. This was before #LOTE: the day after we got two new proposals – one of which is to redeploy Edgeryders as a community of experts advising European cities on how to fight poverty. Funding, it seems, is not an issue. A door has been knocked down, and the Council of Europe is exploring what lies beyond it.

If I were more business smart, this would be where I tell you how hard it was, and how we heroically overcame massive obstacles. The gist of it would be that I am a very smart guy, and you might want to consider giving me a lot of money to work with you. But I am famously not business smart, and the truth is that doing all this has been embarassingly easy. Of course we had to work very hard, but even that is more a consequence of the grueling timeline (seven months from launch to #LOTE) than the actual content. It did not take new regulation. It did not require a change in leadership. It did not require innovation, other than some tweaking of Drupal and a few lines of Rails. It did not require flawless execution: we made plenty of mistakes, and I more than anyone. All it took was integrity, a respectful, inclusive stance, and careful deployment of existing Council of Europe administrative plumbing. I could do it again, and so could you.

This is cause for cautious optimism. All in all, I could not have asked for more to my year as a eurocrat, which has now come to an end.