Last week I got the chance to attend civic tech pioneer mySociety’s brilliant TICTeC conference in Paris, where the agenda focused on a range of themes that included digital activism, participatory democracy and the need for civic tech as a sector to rethink the assumptions upon which it was built. As the conference closed I got the chance to sit down with mySociety CEO, Mark Cridge, to get his take on how the organisation is changing on where its focus will be over the next couple of years.
Given that much of TICTeC focused on the divisiveness of the current political climate in the UK and the US, as well as considering the role of civic tech in democracy over the coming years, it felt apt to get Cridge’s take on mySociety’s thinking on these ideas.
Cridge gave the distinct impression that mySociety is going through a period of reflection, considering how its development over the past decade has shaped its efforts and where it should be putting its focus going forward. He said:
“I think it’s part of a reflective practice, where you make progress, you consider what impact something has or has not had, you spend some time to reflect on that, and reintroduce the learnings back into the work.
“Sometimes that means pulling back and starting again, sometimes that means adapting and bringing in ideas from outside. I think there’s a general approach of that constant reflection of work. Digital transformation is not a one off activity, it’s a continual process. And what that means in practice is that what works today may not be appropriate as you learn more for tomorrow.”
Home is where the heart is
Cridge explained that mySociety grew in the early days as a result of volunteer efforts, primarily focused in the UK, but quickly grew through capital injections and income grants that saw it expand internationally. However, what’s clear is that Cridge is now taking serious consideration of the issues he can work on close to home. He said:
“So, suddenly we saw examples of our work in 40 odd countries around the world. The question mark is - and whilst we are certainly not pulling back from that - how many of those international interventions have truly been successful and impactful? Is it appropriate for us to continue to stay involved, versus handing over to a local partner? Maybe some of them aren’t impactful and should be retired.
“Also, I think there’s an understanding that there are many, many issues close to home in the UK that mySociety can be dedicating our time to.”
When I asked Cridge what issues close to him mySociety might be looking to play a part in, it’s unsurprising that the first response was Brexit. he said:
“Well, it starts with ‘B’ and ends in ‘rexit’. There’s no shortage of inequality in the UK. The society in the UK is becoming increasingly unequal and increasingly divided. Also, for me, a personal passion is around climate change and an understanding that addressing climate change really does start at home. It needs to come from a grassroots, local level. I think it’s incumbent on us to think, what can we do at a local level? Each of us needs to consider where we are and how we can bring some of the skills, knowledge and techniques we have to solve some of those problems.”
Cridge said that regardless of what happens with Brexit, it’s becoming clear that the UK will continue to live in a divided society and mySociety wants to play a role in how it can address those types of challenges. For example, it has started a new programme that looks at how it could develop common models of participatory democracy, borrowing heavily from some of the examples it has seen - or worked on - around the world. Cridge said that this is being driven by the reality that in the UK it is “not common to participate in democracy outside of election time”.
And mySociety isn’t going to shy away from playing a more activist role. Cridge said:
“I think there’s definitely scope for mySociety to take on a more active aspect to its work. But being non-partisan is an important aspect of our work. We need to retain that neutrality. But being neutral doesn’t mean that we lack values and ethics, and I think that’s an important distinction.
“Climate change is a good example. We are literally at the starting point of considering what our role should be, but I’m confident that there is a role for mySociety to play there. How we enact what we determine is the right way forward is going to be a really interesting challenge from a political point of view - how much it strays into activism point of view.”
Cridge drew on examples of participatory budgeting (PB) that he’s seen globally, where citizens play a more active role in how their local authorities spend taxpayers’ money. He said that part of the problem with divisive politics, such as the current problems surrounding Brexit, is that there has been no attempt to find common ground or consensus amongst the electorate. Equally, mySociety is considering the role that new institutions might be needed, or might be able to play in this. He said:
“I’m aware that creating space for all voices to participate is important. I think that’s why the PB stuff is interesting, because fundamentally when done right, it’s about bringing together different points of view to reach a consensus that everyone is comfortable with. And that’s certainly what led to Brexit. There was no consensus building prior to the referendum. There was no coming together prior to the referendum. And no one knew what they were ultimately voting on.
“What new institutions may be required to enable that? Because it’s not just carrying out individuals citizen assemblies processes every few months. It’s about a different way of carrying out democracy. It requires different institutions to enable that. What those institutions are is a discussion that needs to be had.”