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Sunday 11 March 2007

A graphic example of hi-tech democracy

Patrick Butler
Wednesday March 7, 2007
The Guardian

Graffiti by Banksy in Bristol
Vote of confidence... the majority of Bristolians chose to keep this illegal image by Banksy. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty
The graffiti artist known as Banksy recently put Bristol council in a quandary. Last September, one of his creations appeared on the side of a council building. Was it vandalism or public art? In January, the council decided it was a work of art, and voted to keep it, making an exception to its policy of removing graffiti. It is possible that the city's councillors possess a refined aesthetic sensibility, not to mention an acute awareness of the high monetary value of the work in the global art market, but the reality is that the citizens of Bristol in effect made the decision for them.

Whether the Banksy should stay or go was the debate that fizzed on the council's AskBristol online forum (and other blogs) last autumn, attracting thousands of contributions, most pro-Banksy. An online petition on the council's website (in response to an MP's demand that the Banksy be removed) resulted in more than 3,000 signatures requesting it stay. It was a colourful example of the power of internet technology to give sustenance to the ailing concept of civic engagement, and to give life to that hitherto rather abstract idea of the citizen as consumer.

According to E-democracy in Bristol, a guide, published this week, to the possibilities of electronic participation in public services, the council itself bravely instituted this debate. Like-minded public service organisations are embracing the possibilities of forums such as this (and webcasts, blogs, video sites and text messaging) to run discussions on anything from lollipop ladies to planning strategy. There has perhaps been a tendency to see this as a gimmick, or the preserve of geeks and activists. But when North Lincolnshire council transmitted a webcast of a meeting to discuss the transfer of council homes to a housing association, 617 people reportedly went to a school to watch it live. Some emailed questions to councillors in real time, which were answered, live and on screen. A further 400 people downloaded the broadcast from the council's website.

The beauty of interactive web technology for public services (or its disruptive potential, depending on your point of view) is that it allows citizens to set the agenda, hold authorities to account, and tell them about things they would otherwise know nothing of.

Today sees the launch of, a bright idea from MySociety and the Young Foundation (with funding from the Department for Constitutional Affairs). It is simple to use and allows users to type in a UK postcode, click on a street map, and report a problem (typically "streetscene" related, such as flytipping, broken paving stones or, yes, graffiti). The relevant council is emailed with the complaint. Users can also see all the other problems listed within a 10km radius of the postcode. Once the offending eyesore has been dealt with, the site can be updated, creating a real time index of a council's environment performance on a street-by-street basis.

My colleague Peter Hetherington wondered in Society Guardian last week whether consumer interests could truthfully be said to lie at the heart of a council performance regime that is built around meeting national inspection targets rather than efficiency measured by the everyday experiences of taxpayers. Sites such as Neighbourhood Fix-it (and, in the NHS, Patient Opinion) start to fill this gap, connecting public services with consumers and citizens with an immediacy and sensitivity previously undreamed of.

There is evidence that investing in such digital communication channels is not a priority for most organisations. No one is sure whether it will save money or add costs. More needs to be done to tackle digital exclusion among the poor. But the underlying message of Neighbourhood Fix-It is clear: public services cannot opt out of the digital revolution.

· Patrick Butler is editor of Society Guardian. For more information on E-democracy in Bristol (price £20), email:

Connecting Bristol - Meeting the Digital Challenge
Looking for more about Banksy in Bristol, there's a huge amount of debate + comment online.

I was led to a local website for the ward? area? community of St Werberg's in Bristol - I don't know what it is as there's no 'about us' page.

An excellent site but - strangely absent - is the Council. Yes, they get lots of mentions but few links + little promotion of online services.

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