Smart City 1.7: Smart Democracy

“Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” 

wellington-aerial-newsThe process of democracy needs to change in order to support a Smart City. The current democracy that we suffer is flawed for a number of reasons which in turn create a series of problems that need to be resolved.

The trust between the ratepayers, “the people”, and their elected agents is largely broken and has been for some time. The people see the Council as an entity that does something to them rather than listening and doing something for them.

At times, certain Councilors appear to be in direct conflict of interest. The community in Eastern Suburbs for example has raised on a number of occasions the issues around the airport’s plans and behaviour, however the Council has not responded. When one of the Councilors is sitting on the airport board, earning tens of thousands of dollars a year, it could be construed that this is the reason for the inaction.

The process of consultation is mysterious and obscured. While some front end tools such as online submission exist, once the submit button is pressed, any feedback on proposals is whisked away forever, and then, some months later, a decision is made. Often, those decisions fall exactly as originally proposed and the process of consultation is then seen as farcical.

Even the newer tools, such as were used during the Alcohol Reform consultation, while providing more interaction up front, have failed. Councilors have not participated in the process and, in the case of Stephanie Cook during that particular consultation, appear to have already decided on the outcome regardless of the process.

The current Council is largely dominated by Green Party members or, if not stated outright, associates. This drives the belief that the people are not in charge, the Green Party is. We saw this in previous Councils with Labour and National backed candidates.

All of this drives voter apathy with the number of voting reducing over time. The people do not feel connected to the Council nor do they believe that their views as a ratepayer are being heard or acted on.

The Council proper is largely seen as a in it for themselves and almost adversarial to ratepayers. Rather than serving the ratepayers, which is their role, they are seen to serve the City Hall masters, or at least, protect them from any liability while attempting to spend as little as possible.

“There are only two kinds of democracy. Incompetent or corrupt.”- Ross, Strathmore Local

As an example, a woman in Miramar related a story to me of a broken storm and sewer pipe. The pipes went through the Council land between her property and the street. The Council ground was covered in trees and she could clearly see where that leak was coming from. She dug it out and found that the pipes were absolutely destroyed and bound in tree roots. It was clear, in her opinion that the Council’s trees had got into her pipe. The Council’s response is an example of the attitude that has crept in slowly over time.

“Lady,” said the Council officer, “my trees did not break your pipe. Your pipe broke, and that attracted my trees to the leak.”

Twelve thousand dollars later and after numerous emails, phone calls, and visits from the Council “bordering on harassment” the problem was fixed.

Within the Council itself, democracy seems to have broken down in an almost Republican vs. Democrat way. The Council seems to be unable to agree on the most important decisions, sometimes opting to agree to make no decision rather than commit to one way or other.

“Why aren’t we collaborating with the public? We have had “politics as usual”, which has played a game of “them and us” for too long. A major cultural change is needed, and this has to happen in 2013. Government is a platform, rather than an institution, in this part of the 21st century, with participatory democracy and transparency its hallmarks. If we’re to be a world-class city, then this step needs to be taken, with greater engagement, and public data being made public”. – Jack Yan, Mayoral Candidate

In order to achieve Smart Democracy, a number of areas must change. The key principle that needs to be introduced is transparency. That means removing the Council “fog of war” that persists over its operations at a street and a Council chamber level.

In order to do that, technology can be employed to great effect. Building off the Community Cloud there are a number of tools and initiatives that could be put in place to achieve this.

Around the world in evolving Smart Cities we see the rise of Council run Community Websites. Council run because to ensure impartiality, as opposed to community websites, which can be taken over by lobby groups or business.

These sites allow a city to interact with each other virtually and transparently. Ideas for community work can be put forward and debated. Issues can be raised directly with the City and Councilors. Neighborhoods have their own areas where they can interact. Consultation documents can be posted. Each participant must have a verified username and password to ensure transparency. This type of system is cheap and easy to administrate.

In addition to this, other cities, such as San Jose, have built and deployed community smartphone applications. These allow ratepayers to log faults they find, which are immediately sent to the City for action along with being displayed to every other users. For example, if the traffic lights are out on Taranaki and Courtenay, the information can be sent instantly and made available to everyone. Additionally, the City can communicate in real-time to its community about road closures, events, road works, and other information.

While both of these solutions are simple, and cheap, they raise the level of transparency significantly.

The consultation process needs to be far more transparent. Utilising the same community websites, the process of consultation from beginning to end should be made available to the public. That includes any conflicts of interests by Councilors, where the consultation is up to in the process, the personal views of the Councilors, the ability to have community debate online as the consultation progresses, making available all consultation feedback (removing private information if necessary), all papers, meeting minutes, news articles, and internal emails that relate to the consultation (again, redacting private information if necessary), the debate, and the outcome.

All of this information should be made freely public to the entire city given they are our representatives we have elected and the process of consultation is something that we have bought and paid for. None of the information, perhaps unless commercially or personally sensitive, should be withheld.

In fact, the inner workings of the Council should be made available to the public as well. Meeting minutes, emails, the works. Believe it or not, this has worked overseas.

The net effect of this transparency is that it leaves no room for any kind of backroom deals or obfuscation of process and operations. It shows the public the process of democracy and helps with trust and understanding.

All of this could be built readily, quickly, and cheaply on the Community Cloud.

Moving away from technology to finish, we should also consider implementing the following measures.

Where there is a perceived conflict of interest with a Councilor, it should be resolved. For example, sitting on the board of the airport while representing the local community is a perceived conflict of interest. We should be careful about what boards we allow our Councilors to sit on.

We should have a fixed number of terms that a Councilor and Mayor can stand. Three at maximum perhaps. The issues is that we need a regular injection of new blood while having some stability. I think two terms is two short. We have Councilors that have sat for decades. It’s time they moved on and given that for some of them it’s become a job for life, we need to move them out to pasture.

Sitting on the Council should not be a full-time job. For two reasons. The Councilor slowly loses touch with the real world and can be motivated by staying in a job, as opposed to doing a job for the ratepayers.

Finally, some of the dinosaur elements of the City (it was your broken pipe that attracted my tree’s roots) need to be retrained or put out to pasture. The City is employed by us. We are not the enemy. We are the customer.

In order to build our Smart City we must move into the twenty-first century and demand transparency from our City Hall. This requires a mix of technology, new blood, and a strong will.

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