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Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week, I was lucky enough to see American social media evangelist Clay Shirky talking about his latest book, ‘The Cognitive Surplus’. Shirky argued that the new creative and collaborative possibilities unlocked by the internet will allow us to unleash this surplus – the vast reserves of time, skills and enthusiasm that we currently fritter away in front of the television – to solve some of society’s biggest problems. But, while I liked much of what he had to say, it struck me that Shirky is being both too too ambitious and too cautious. Too ambitious, that is, about technology, and too cautious about human potential.

To begin with, I have a problem with Shirky’s idea of an untapped ‘cognitive surplus’. Although many of us may spend a large amount of time passively consuming media right now, this has hardly been the case througout human history. The so-called cognitive surplus is a product of the hollowing out of social life through increasing atomisation. The decline in social networks chronicled by observers like Robert Putnam, and rooted in a labour market which demands increased flexibility, mass migration (both domestic and international) and the erosion of traditional class identities, is what has robbed us of ways to use our energies in ways which are both productive and social. And just as, once upon a time, we had institutions which offered us outlets for our time, enthusiasm and creativity – from evening classes, to amateur sports, to churches – there’s no reason why we can’t do so again. The internet is one place where we can spend our ‘cognitive surplus’ but it’s by no means the only place.

And there are reasons why it might not be the best place. In his first book, Shirky talked about how ‘ridiculously easy group formation’ enabled by the internet let us find people who shared our interests and collaborate with them. But this is not the only way to find people. The most vibrant cities and towns create spaces – parks, libraries, cafes, even pavements – where we can mix with people who are very different to us, and yet who we share something important with: that they are our neighbours. By keeping us away from what Jane Jacobs called the ‘serendipity’ of sidewalk contacts, online spaces filter our social networks to people just like us, potentially making us less tolerant and more extreme in our views.

There are other problems too. Online collaboration is very good at certain kinds of tasks. Shirky drew on three different examples. The first, Liftshare is an American site which lets people find others to share long roadtrips with. The second, Patients Like Me, lets patients log their condition, symptoms and medication and then aggregates and anonymises that information to share it with researchers. And the third, Wikipedia, needs no introduction. But all of these sites have something in common: they are about bringing together information and presenting it in a useful way. And all three approach that task by crowdsourcing – getting lots of people to make small, easy contributions which by virtue of their sheer number add up to something very big. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. If crowdsourcing is a hammer, it doesn’t mean that all the problems we face are nails.

What’s more, crowdsourcing, by reducing the work of individuals to bitesize, contextless contributions, offers a hollowed out idea of what it means to create things. In essence, it’s a new form of assembly line which transforms intellectual work into deskilled, mechanical processes. It may be extremely effective, but maybe that’s not the only criteria by which we should judge it.

Creation is important, not just because of the things that we create but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of the way that it effects the creator. Making art, music, software code, or even blog posts, has value not just because of it’s capacity to change the world but also because of its capacity to make us feel inspired, valuable and powerful. Working with other people in close collaboration at a human scale creates a sense of community which can’t be reproduced by making tiny contributions to a project that’s vast beyond our capacity to imagine. The inconvenient friction of working together with sometimes difficult other people in a shared space is not just an obstacle to creating wonderful things, it’s also a way in which creating them makes us better people.

Shirky, then, is too ambitious in that he argues that online collaboration is the tool which will allow us to solve the problems of the 21st century. It’s powerful, true, but it’s only one of the tools that we need. But he’s also too cautious in that he asks too little of people. He offers them easy participation, without perhaps, reflecting that there might be a value to doing difficult things.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

nef is on the road to producing a second set of its National Accounts of Well-being, as part of a successful bid to design a 50-item module of well-being questions on a prestigious European survey.

The original National Accounts of Well-being, published in January 2009, produced headline measures of personal and social well-being for 22 countries across Europe. The indicators and their constituent elements were made available for full interactive exploration on www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org. The results showed that Denmark, Switzerland and Norway had the highest levels of overall well-being, with the UK ranked 13th out of 22 on personal well-being and 15th on social well-being.

The data behind these results came from a specially designed module on the third round of the European Social Survey (ESS), a major survey of over 40,000 people across Europe. The module was designed by a cross-national team of experts from across Europe, led by Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge and including the Founder of the centre for well-being at nef, Nic Marks. Together with two other members of the original team, Professor Johannes Siegrist of the University of Dusseldorf and Professor Joar Vittersø of the University of Tromsø, and new member Professor Carmelo Vázquez of Complutense University of Madrid, we have now won the opportunity to design a repeat of the well-being module to be included in the sixth round of the ESS.

The new well-being module will repeat many of the original questions, which will allow ground-breaking analysis of detailed changes in well-being over time between participating European countries. In addition, the successful bid outlines the team’s intention to explore a number of new questions, including further measures of engagement, social well-being, and participation in activities described by our evidence-based Five Ways to Well-being.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

‘ “Want to grab some lunch?” ask a couple of colleagues as they walk past your desk’. This is the unconventional opening of the excellent MINDSPACE report on influencing behaviour through public policy, here taking its own advice in making information seem relevant to the people at whom it is aimed (in this case, civil servants designing policy).

Commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published earlier this year by the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE is a mnemonic for nine key influences on behaviour which should be given attention in the policy-making process. Drawn from the extensive literature on what influences our behaviour, MINDSPACE sets out that: we are heavily affected by the Messenger delivering information; respond to Incentives through shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses; we are influenced by the Norms of what others do; go with the flow of Defaults; we are drawn to Salient information and Primed by sub-conscious cues; are strongly influenced by Affect, that is, our emotional experiences; seek to be consistent to the public Commitments we make and act in ways which make us feel better about ourselves and thus protect our Ego.

The report contains lots of illuminating examples showing how these influences can be and have been used in designing policy. It also makes two very important observations about policy making as a whole. First, that

whether we like it or not, the actions of policymakers, public service professionals, markets and our fellow citizens around us have big, and often unintended, impacts on our behaviour. ‘Doing nothing’ is never a neutral option

This is of key relevance to those of us advocating a well-being led approach to policy-making. While we are often accused of wanting policy to overly interfere in people’s lives, in fact, given that all policy affects behaviour, it is also very likely to affect how people experience their lives. So policy-makers should see themselves as having to ensure that the effects they create through their policy decisions are postive rather than negative to well-being overall.

The second key observation is that

Government needs to understand the ways it may be changing the behaviour of citizens unintentionally…some priming effects work in surprising ways.

For me, this is an excellent summary of the reasons why nef advocates using well-being measures as ultimate indicators of society’s progress. When government focuses its energies on the growth of the country’s GDP, we are thereby primed to behave as though economic factors are the most important influence on our personal well-being, although the evidence, and much of our ‘folk knowledge’, suggests otherwise. By concentrating instead on the well-being outcomes of its policies, government could help us all to improve our own well-being by prioritising what really matters.

Bookmark and Share David Boyle is a nef fellow, a writer and the editor of nef‘s newspaper, Radical Economics.

“I pondered all these things,” wrote William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics.  Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.

When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result.  It’s confusing, but that is how it works.

This is one of those paradoxical moments, because we are about to see the Conservatives support electoral reform in the Commons, if not outright PR.  The political shift is not yet complete, and it certainly won’t be embraced by all 306, but it has begun.

A quick race through political history shows that this isn’t actually very unusual.  It was Conservatives who extended the franchise in 1867, who reformed factories and extended free education.  It was the Tories who made Ireland independent.

Not because they really had much taste for it, but because of something else.  When Conservatives realise that radical reform is inevitable, then – in the end – they prefer to do it themselves.

In the case of PR, the alternative is that Labour will do it, when they next claw their way to power.  Then we risk Labour-style PR, with list systems that leave the party machines in control.

It is the historic destiny of the Conservative Party to introduce PR a different way, setting Britain on the path towards proportional representation in a way that retains that link between MPs and their constituencies.  The debate is about Alternative Vote now, but that is now so far from the Irish system of single transferable vote – giving the maximum amount of choice to the voters, and keeping van all-important constituency link.

That will mean bigger, multi-member constituencies.  But then, that is what Britain used to have.  It is a potential Conservative compromise.

What we are all learning this month is that strong, decisive and effective government isn’t quite what Conservatives thought it was.  In the end, giving absolute power to a minority isn’t either stable or decisive.

When we face the kind of problems that now face Britain – loss of confidence in the markets, the urgent need to cut the deficit – then minority power doesn’t work.  It isn’t stable and it can’t unite the nation.  The only thing that will work, and give stability, is government that is backed by a majority.  That applies now, but it will apply in the future too.

History suggests that this is the moment when enough Conservatives realise that, and grasp the opportunity to give power back to the voters.  In the heat of the moment, they agreed to back AV, but the logic suggests that many of them will go further.

Watch this space. They will wriggle, but in the end they will back PR.

This letter appeared today in The Times

Sir,

David Cameron defends the first-past-the-post system as he claims that it allows for voters to throw out a government (interview, April 22). However, our current electoral system denies this choice to the majority of voters. Voters can only instigate a change in government by returning a new MP and thereby influencing the balance of power in Westminster.

Yet more than 60 per cent of seats are so safe that it is all but impossible for them to change hands. Only voters in marginal seats can exert their full democratic power and all the main political parties know this. Politicians therefore spend their time crafting policies and soundbites for the swing voters in “key marginals”. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering what happened to the idea of “one person, one vote”. As the two-party system breaks down, growing numbers of electors grasp how the current system robs them of their democratic rights by serving only the vested interests of career politicians, suppressing the plurality of political viewpoints and breeding disengagement.

We must create a fairer and more representative way of electing our future governments.

Nic Marks, nef (the new economics foundation)

Professor Joni Lovenduski, Birkbeck College

Dr Ricardo Blaug, University of Leeds

Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society

Pam Giddy, Director, Power 2010

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, Democratic Audit

Stuart Weir, Associate Director, Democratic Audit

Peter Facey, Director, Unlock Democracy

Anthony Barnett, Founder, openDemocracy

Gavin Hayes, General Secretary, Compass

Jonathan Bartley, Co-Director, Ekklesia

Will Straw, editor, Left Foot Forward

Sunny Hundal, editor, Liberal Conspiracy

Bookmark and ShareNic Marks is a nef fellow and founder of the Centre for Well-being

I went to vote at the last general election with a heavy heart. I knew full well that my vote wouldn’t really count towards the result as I live in a safe seat.  Straight after voting I felt really angry about the whole system and while out walking my dog the idea came to me that I must be able to work out how much my vote didn’t count. Make a statistician angry and he’ll fight back with numbers.

To measure exactly how our system wastes so many people’s votes, I created the Voter Power Index. It’s based on the two main factors that determine how much or little power voters have.  The first is how marginal the constituency you happen to live in is: more marginality equals more power. The second is how many registered voters there are: fewer voters means each individual vote counts more.   The problem was how to estimate exactly how much power you have in a particular constituency.  I decided that if I looked at as many elections as possible I would be able to figure out what was the probability of a seat changing hands for different levels of marginality.  By creating a probabilistic model I could then estimate this probability for every constituency and hence calculate the Voter Power Index.

I must admit that when I first calculated the VPI, even I was staggered just how much most people’s votes don’t count.  It is clear that our current system is hugely inefficient at translating the will of the people into the result of a general election.  In fact the VPI allows us to put a number on the level of this inefficiency – the current system is only 25% efficient – whereas some sort of proportional representation system would approach 100% efficiency (for example the 2004 European Elections were about 96% efficient).

Not only is the system inefficient it is also chronically unjust. Voter Power is hugely unevenly distributed in the UK, with the most powerful 20% of voters having over 33 times more power than the least 20%.  Note that this is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK. Even before the redistribution through taxes and benefits – the richest 20 per cent of households ‘only’ earn 15 times as much as the poorest. After redistribution this inequity factor is reduced to under 4 times.

This year, as we approach another election, it’s more important than ever that ever that the scandal of our wasteful, unfair electoral system is exposed. That’s why it’s great that web developer Martin Petts has created a site that lets everyone quickly find out how much their vote is really worth.

The Voter Power Index shows that first past the post is profoundly undemocratic. It gives considerably more power to some voters than others. It betrays the fundamental principle of democracy:  one person one vote.  It is high time we changed the whole rotten system.

nef supports campaigns for democratic reform. Check out Power 2010 and the Electoral Reform Society.

Bookmark and ShareJosh Ryan-Collins is a researcher in the Business, Finance and Economics team at nef.

And yet another group of big business chief executives have signed up to the Conservatives’ policy to reverse Labour’s proposed 1% increase in National Insurance. Should anyone really be surprised that businesses would rather not have to contribute to reducing the public deficit? No, the interesting thing about this media furore is how few alternative suggestions are being promoted by any of the major parties in the run up to the election. The tax debate remains stuck in the ‘old economics’.

Critics of Labour’s policy are right that it is a tax on labour or ‘jobs’. But what is less clear is that government ‘efficiency savings’ are not equally a tax on jobs in the public sector. Anyone who thinks public agencies can achieve the kind of cuts the Conservatives are proposing without major redundancies is living in cloud cuckoo land. And given there are proportionately many more jobs in the public sector in the poorer areas of the UK one could also argue that cutting public sector budgets is more regressive than taxing business.

But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The ‘new economics’ is about replacing taxes on what we do want – productive jobs, investment in high quality public services – with taxes on what we don’t want.

And everyone’s pretty clear on what we don’t want. We don’t want fossil-fuel intensive production or transport. We don’t want another housing boom. We don’t want massive windfall profits for energy suppliers because its been a cold winter. We don’t want huge bonuses for bankers who have made speculative short-term profits by playing with our pensions or retail deposits.

If we tax these areas we not only raise revenue to meet the budget deficit, but we also steer our economy in the right direction and provide incentives for more productive investment. A land value tax, for example, would act as automatic brake on speculative booms in the housing market and might encourage us to invest our savings in industry rather than non-productive property. A carbon tax or rationing system would incentivise investment in renewable energy schemes and encourage more sustainable consumption. A financial transaction tax (FTT) would slow down and shrink the ‘socially useless’ finance sector.

Plus, these schemes would also be progressive, a land tax stopping the widening wealth gap between home owners and tenants, a carbon tax redistributing from rich to poor in most cases (as demonstrated in the recent report by the Green Fiscal Commission) and an FTT would bring city pay back down to earth.

This is not rocket science. And its not simply a call for more ‘green taxes’, although even that seems to have dropped off the political radar. It’s a call for a taxation system that promotes ‘economic goods’ and punishes ‘economic bads’. A new economics of tax can be win-win for the economy, society and the environment as well as improving the public finances. Lets hope the party (or parties) that come in to power in May feel able to turn over a new leaf in the tax debate.

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

I’m hardly the first to observe that more and more of the things that we do are made easier by being online. From reading the news, to paying our taxes, to political campaigning, to keeping in touch with friends, we all benefit from the power of the internet.

Actually, I should probably qualify that ‘we’ a bit. I benefit, and since you’re reading this on a blog you probably do. But nearly one in three British adults don’t use the internet, and as more and more opportunities become available online, they are increasingly disadvantaged. Tackling so-called ‘digital exclusion’  is a real concern for government – though an increasingly they understand that it’s inseparable from broader issues of inequality.

Still, with all the efforts being made to adsress digital exclusion, it’s a little perverse that this week the government is attempting to rush through legislation which could throw tens of thousands of people off the web.

The Digital Economy bill will set up a ‘three strikes’ system where any person, family, or organisation accused of downloading copyrighted material three times will be disconnected from the internet. No trial, no judge, no jury: just a simple administrative procedure to take away something which 80% of the world’s population believe is a fundamental human right. The provisions have attracted criticisms from organisations as diverse as Liberty, The British Library, The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights and the British Computer Society, but are strongly backed by the music industry which is concerned by the effects of piracy on record sales.

The disconnection provisions are so controversial that a leaked memo from the British Phonographic Institute says they are unlikely to survive a full parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, the government is insisting that the bill is forced through before the Election, even though this will mean that MPs are not given time to debate the new powers. There’s still time, however, to write to your MP and ask them to fight for the time to subject this bill to the scrutiny that it deserves.

While the disconnection provisions are a real threat to human rights, there’s a bigger issue at stake here: the power of parliament to act as a check on the executive. MPs are, in theory, our representatives in the legislative process. It is their role to scrutinise government legislation and ensure that is both well designed and in the public interest. By steamrolling bills through parliament, we will inevitably end up with more and more legislation which is neither.

Our current system has given us a parliament which is willing to vote through controversial legislation, without demanding the chance to subject it to scrutiny. That’s yet another sign that we need to look again at the first past the post electoral system which almost always delivers an unchallengeable commons majority for the government of the day.

Fixing the Digital Economy bill is just the start. Making sure that more bad bills can’t be pushed through parliament in the future is a much bigger task.

You can take part in the Write to the your MP campaign organised by 38 Degrees and the Open Rights Group at http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/extremeinternetl

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week’s National Digital Inclusion Conference was a relatively upbeat affair – a thousand techies and bureaucrats itching to do something – anything – to take the digital revolution to the rump of luddites who remain stubbornly offline. The solutions proposed were many and varied – from paying the unemployed to lay fibre-optics up people’s driveways, to teaching your neighbour how to email. But lurking amidst all these juicy carrots was a worrying undercurrent of stick. Several times across the last couple of days, I’ve heard people have talking openly about using the withdrawal of offline services to force people online.

To be fair, these were all reasonable proposals by reasonable people: laden with humanising caveats about support, education and showing people the benefits of online services. But still, they sent a little shiver up my spine. The idea of withdrawing service to drive people across the digital divide is, in my view, dangerous and short-sighted.

Firstly, and most obviously, there is the danger of excluding people from vital services. In a time of huge financial pressures on all parts of government it will be easy for those comforting caveats to slip away, as agencies rush to withdraw but skimp on support. This is especially troubling where the responsibility (and the budget) for service delivery is held by an agency with little or no direct responsibility for digital inclusion. It will be easy for them to withdraw offline services to save money (indeed, cost saving was explicitly cited as a motivation by some) and assume that support with going online will happen elsewhere. Inevitably, the effect of withdrawing offline services will be most keenly felt by the already excluded who will have to use cumbersome work-arounds or simply miss out.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, this idea reflects an impoverished view of what digital inclusion could mean. Just accessing the same services as before, albeit with quicker turn-around times or less hassle, is hardly the transformative prospect that we might aspire to. Real digital inclusion means much more than being a more able consumer of public services, or for that matter, a more able consumer of cheap flights and cheap DVDs.

Inclusion means being a part of something – a family, a community, a workplace, a network of friends. And digital inclusion means being a part of something online. Making people digitally included means giving them the tools and skills to build relationships online.

Rather than forcing people online to do the things that they already do, we should be thinking about what digital public services can offer which will make us want to be a part of them – and how to connect them up to people’s valued real-world networks.

Forcing people online, if it works at all, will create a class of digital refugees, isolated and disempowered. But by supporting people to come online and form meaningful, effective relationships, perhaps we can create a nation of digital citizens – confident in their power to work together for their common good.

Bookmark and ShareJosh Ryan-Collins is a researcher in the Business, Finance and Economics team at nef.

You know that something is amiss in the world when the entire Greek civil service goes on strike as an indirect result of  hedgefunds speculating against the Euro. 

Perhaps an answer might be found in Gordon Brown’s reaction when questioned as to whether Britain might offer financial assistance to Greece, as now appears inevitable for Germany and perhaps other big beasts on the contintent: ‘This is a problem for the Eurozone and its a problem that the Eurozone members will have to deal with…’, he said with just a hint of smugness.  

Quite.  The UK is not a member of the Eurozone, for whatever complex political and economic reasons, and right now that is looking like a pretty good choice.  It is often forgotten in these discussions that currencies, if allowed to, can serve an important role in providing economic feedback to the markets about the health of particular economy.  Following the financial crisis, the UK economy was left in a bad way.  Sterling depreciated rapidly against the Euro and to some extent the dollar.  This naturally helped to make UK industry more competitive in terms of exports as well as encouraging more domestic demand for goods and services – or ‘import substitution’ (more people holidaying in Cornwall and Scotland than Spain for example).  This, in turn, helped us with our budget deficit.

But Greece and other less robust European economies – Portugal, Ireland and Spain (the delightfully named PIGS) – have no such economic feedback.  Instead, when their economies faltered, they had to borrow more and more in Euros to maintain public spending, with their native industries competing directly in terms of exports with economic powerhouses such as Germany and France. 

The late ecological economist Jane Jacobs had a clever biological analogy describing this kind of situation.  Imagine the Euzone countries as people each doing different kinds of activities – sleeping, swimming, playing tennis, collecting the rubbish – that require different amounts of oxygen.  These people are properly equipped with diaphragms and lungs but share only one single brain and breathing centre.  Their ‘brain’ receives consolidated feedback on the carbon-dioxide level of the whole group without discriminating among the individuals producing it.  Everybody’s diaphragm contracts at the same time, with potentially catastrophic results.

The Eurozone is made up of discrete economic units at different stages of development.  This worked more or less (although Italy would probably disagree) when the Eurozone was growing, as the larger states were happy to make up for the lack of natural feedback to their less developed cousins through large income redistributions and subsidies. But when a shock like the financial crisis hits the system and everyone faces budget problems, redistribution (or bail outs) suddenly becomes problematic and inefficient, with the danger of moral hazard raising its ugly head once more. 

Leaving the Euro is not an option for PIGS – their debt is in Euros and this would not doubt trigger another financial crisis.  Another option, suggested recently by Charles Goodhart in the FT and long-championed by nef, would be to allow the creation of dual currency systems in these states, following the example of California when it ran in to trouble and in Argentina during the Peso crisis of 2000.  An internal Greek IOU currency could be created, to enable teachers and binmen to carry on working and businesses to continue internal trading, at a devalued rate against the Euro, reflecting more accurately Greece’s real exchange rate.  It is a radical option but the alternatives don’t look promising – IMF style austerity measures resulting in mass unemployment and violent protest (the Greeks have a record on that) or a bail out which could permanently undermine the integrity of the Euro project.

Jacobs argued in ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ that the City and its hinterland is the true economic unit and the optimum size for a currency in order to ensure efficient feedback and allow effective import substitution effects.   We are a long way from that but the financial crisis has revealed the danger of the merciless pursuit of economies of scale – both in terms of the size of financial institutions like banks and now also currencies – at the expense of diversity and increased economic resilience. 

Probably not what Gordon was thinking when he declined British responsibility for the Euro mess, but you can bet your bottom ‘dollar’ he’s glad the UK never quite passed those five tests.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.