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Public Interest and the engaged citizen

October 15, 2014

Nigel Slack, who I got to know through the Occupy Sheffield camp in 2011, has just launched a crowd-funder for a very interesting idea that my muse has apparently decided needs several hundred words writing about it in the early hours of the morning. My muse has the best timing. >_>

Anyway.

Slack is looking to do something which I’ve not heard about before, but which could be an interesting evolution of media and political engagement. He is asking for funds to spend the next year investigating and asking questions of local government. As far as I can tell, he is hoping to, on a local and direct basis, be sort of an investigative journalist, sort of a local advocate, and sort of a local advocate not affiliated to a party, ward or in hock to procedure.

If you go to his crowd-funding page, you can see that he has already made quite a name for himself in the local area through persistently asking questions and tracking down facts to find out what is being done in our name by our local representatives, and to bring to light things that they seem to want us not to know. He is particularly dogged with outsourcing, a growing feature of all levels of government, and one which both obscures what is happening, and to a large extent removes control of day to day operations from elected representatives to the machinations of lawyers and contracts. I don’t want to say that outsourcing is never a good idea (please Capita, don’t sue me!) but if you pay attention to the news, you don’t have to think very hard to call to mind an example of outsourcing going, let’s say, according to the letter rather than the spirit of the contract.

So yeah. My mate’s doing this thing. I think he’s awesome, and will be putting some cash in as soon as I’ve got some to spare. I think it will increase transparency in Sheffield, and that he will ask questions that should be asked.

But obviously I’ve got questions, and some thoughts as a result of both this idea, and some of the other stuff that’s been floating around both my head and online.

So yeah. Isn’t this what you would expect a local newspaper to be doing?

Well, I would. Except that the coverage in the local press is really not that good, and the online versions of all local papers are so awful that I actively avoid them. If either the paper or online offerings were better, I might give them pageviews / cash, but at the moment, that’s just not happening. And even if I did give them money, I’m only really interested in supporting the political coverage.

I hear about all my local plays through social networks. Charity events in the city are publicised to me by friends taking part. I don’t follow football, and I get the Sheffield Steelers news sent directly to my inbox. I have Gumtree, MySheffieldJobs, Freecycle, SpareRoom.com, Yell.com, Zoopla, eBay, JustEat and all those other classified websites. I don’t really need a local newspaper.

Local newspapers have been dwindling around the country, and print media in general is in a total flap on how to deal with the disruptive force of the internet. Many of the functions of a local newspaper are filled by social media, online classifieds websites and by organisations that send out their own news by email and blog post. In the age of the search engine, when you can find out anything by asking your phone (nd with Siri, you don’t even have to type it) what is left as the unique selling point of the local paper?

You could argue that one of the few things that they have which you can’t get elsewhere, is someone not tied to party politics who has the time and the inclination to dig through the evidence, ask the questions, and get the Council to ‘fess up to the stuff it doesn’t want to talk about.

Freedom of information legislation is no good if there is no one with the time and expertise to ask the right questions and make sense of the answers. Data on it’s own doesn’t really mean anything. As any information manager will tell you, data needs processing into information before it can be acted upon.

I suppose you could argue that there are other ways to access this information. But are there? I can’t find any really. There are the Council web pages, but that’s by it’s very nature selective reporting in the best interests of the Council.

I suppose there are other people asking the Council questions, but most people tend to be motivated by a single issue or set of issues that affect them, rather than being committed to uncovering things full time, and doing so across the board, regardless of their personal stake in the matter. There are also, of course, those who are seeking to advance themselves within political parties, who will of course have motives and views that are at least partly in line with at least some of the Councillors.

There is the Sheffield Politics site, who don’t really seem to be that clear on their purpose. Also, to save you the trouble of looking, they last tweeted 2 months ago, their last news story was in August, and the last blog post was mid-September. The tumbleweed. It blows.

The chance to have a regular update on the position of local politics in Sheffield, from someone without a stake other than to keep receiving public contributions, would be really interesting. Maybe he might consider moving to a structure more like Patreon if things go well.

Which brings up the sticky question of funding. All funding has to come from somewhere and it all comes with strings, whether explicit or implied. Will this mean he is influenced by the source of his funding?

Well, yes, but so is pretty much everyone. We live under capitalism. It sucks and this is one of the ways it sucks. This kind of relates to my last post on a citizen’s income, actually. Currently we are none of us free. Almost all of us are tethered to whatever pays the bills and puts food on the table. For most people that is waged labour. Those who aren’t employed are dependent on a shrinking welfare state, a fickle market or supported by savings which are dependent on the vagaries of the international banking system.

We do not live in a perfect world. This is as good a work around as any to get this kind of oversight for local government, if that’s a thing you want.

It does raise the issue of class and privilege though. The sort of people who most need the Council to be held to account for their decisions are those who have the most to lose, and by definition, the least to spare on crowd-funding for someone to ask questions. How can one individual ensure that they are asking the most pressing questions? How can one ensure one doesn’t end up just pursuing one issue to the exclusion of all other issues, regardless of their urgency?

I don’t have an answer for this, and I’ll be interested to see if this is an issue Slack has to confront, and if it’s possible for him to continue to ask the questions on behalf of the most vulnerable, whilst necessarily receiving funding from people who are better off.

One of the interesting things that might happen is that the coverage of Sheffield politics in the national press may improve due to essentially having a full time freelance journalist attached directly to the Council. I hope that Slack continues to find newsworthy material that, with the oxygen of publicity, changes things for the better in Sheffield. But I hope, and would suggest if he hasn’t already, that Slack work out some sort of financial template for allowing journalists to access his research and re-print his stories.

There you go Nigel. There’s an idea for you. For free. Also, if anyone else wants to set something like this up elsewhere, srsly, get a Patreon and blog at least once a week, ask people to subscribe for access to a well-curated online filing system for background documents and have rates for publications wanting to re-post your stories. The whole media environment is evolving fast at the moment. This idea may be one whose time has come.

I did have a whole bit here about representation and the way society and institutions are structured and blah blah blah, but then it was 3am and it was making less and less sense with every draft, so it’ll have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing truly revolutionary about what Slack is trying to do, but within the limitations of the current system, it can’t hurt, and may well do some good.

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