The other democratic event today

If anyone doubted that politics was always bigger than the political class that has come into disrepute, today is the day. It is the Scottish Referendum, but hundreds of miles further south, I am participating in an other democratic experiment… called NHS Citizen.

NHS Citizen is a work in progress and will eventually be a participation infrastructure for NHS England, where participants can become citizens of the NHS, not just consumers of its services. Through NHS Citizen, the idea is that people are more able to hold the Board to account, set the agenda for discussions, and find others with shared interests – all in an open, transparent and public environment.

The lead design agency is Involve, the recognised national centre of expertise in public participation and open government and a small charity that is led by Simon Burall and of which (to declare my interest) I am trustee and chair. Other agencies are DemSoc, Public-i and the Tavistock Institute.

NHS Citizen will be a system that listens to citizens through both online and offline channels, curating these conversations and exploring evidence.

Today is the first, prototype Assembly, with 250 people brought into an open, facilitated space to talk about priorities for NHS England, with the Board present as equals and able to respond at its AGM later in the day.

NHS Citizen has three layers:

• The Discovery space where information and opinions are gathered through social media, public comment, online and offline tools. This gives a picture of the “state of the conversation” on health, allowing issues of public concern to bubble up.

• The Gather space which will give people opportunities to work together around particular issues, either those that NHS bodies want public opinion on, or those that arise from issues in the Discovery space. These might be issues concerning experiences of patients, users or carers, or those that highlight more general challenges (e.g. how services are commissioned). In this space, a participant “raises a flag,” seeking others who are interested in taking action on that issue.

• The Assembly Meeting will happen twice a year to consider the most important issues in an open and deliberative format, and hold the Board to account. The Assembly Meeting will be able to commission Citizen Panels to consider particularly challenging and controversial issues as part of its way of working.

Democracy is a tool that has far wider reach and potential than we give it credit – in many ways this could be a great age of democracy. It needs to work through across both society and the economy, and at different levels of scale.

The question of how mass membership or public organisations can listen and respond in ways that are open and authentic is a issue on which that the co-operative sector has an enormous amount to offer, but also, with new technology, new expectations, much to learn too.

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Save the Guardian? The infectious ideas of Stephen Lloyd…

Some people are impossible not to love – and the late Stephen Lloyd, lawyer and social entrepreneur, was one.

Some organisations you love or hate. And then it is possible to have some, more rare, that are organisations that you can love and hate at the same time – of which the Guardian newspaper is perhaps one.

So what happened, a few years ago, when Stephen Lloyd and a few of us had a go at trying to save the Guardian?

What’s to love? George Orwell wrote for the Guardian and the humanity he gave to the paper has never left. The Guardian has championed causes like freedom of information, something we now take for granted. The Guardian put Jonathan Aitken in prison at the height of misrule in the mid 1990s Conservative government. It was the whistle for the greatest of today’s whistle-blowers, Edward Snowden. The Guardian is unique because it is owned by a trust, the Scott Trust, that is dedicated to liberal, critical journalism and to preserving the independence of the Editor from political and commercial interference.

What’s to hate? Not the spelling mistakes…they’ve largely gorn. It is a bigger set of errors. Without a fundamental new model of business, it has long been clear that the Guardian is going down the pan. The Editor’s nest has been feathered, the headquarters plumped up, but it is an unhappy workplace and a commercial slow suicide note.

For the moment, it has enough readers who buy it most days, but the majority of people who read the paper now do so from abroad using the internet. And they get it for free. Just as content has moved online, so has advertising… but the result is a toll of losses, offset only by selling other business assets.

Stephen, I, Dave Boyle (author of Good News) and a number of others came together to have a go at persuading the Guardian that it could turn itself into a social business.

Stephen wrote that “in a cooperative a large number of members unite to meet their common aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. The common aspirations of the Guardian cooperative would be to further the principles upon which the Scott Trust was founded in 1936: to secure the future of the Guardian and to promote independent journalism. The basic premise of the cooperative model is that the Guardian would be owned by a huge group of readers who pay to own a share of the paper and pay a yearly membership amount. Thus the cooperative model generates an ongoing income stream.”

The Guardian would, if so, become the first mass UK reader-owned national newspaper. Rather than a transactional, consumer relationship, readers could become members, owners and supporters of something they love. In Germany, Die Tageszeitung shows the way – a newspaper owned as a co-operative by 12,000 readers.

So, did we get anywhere?

Well, it was and is a great idea – as so often with Stephen Lloyd.

But, no. Lots of words, glimpses of hope, endless circles – as so often with the Guardian.

Stephen Lloyd to size

Congratulations go to… new garden city ideas

URBED co-operative and partners have won the lucrative Wolfson Economics Prize for their proposal for a new garden city. Congratulations to them. Their proposals offer a super example of how the social economy can meet Britain’s needs for housing and community

With nice timing we are running a conference in the original garden city, Letchworth on Monday, with members and practitioners that include URBED, Wolfson Economic Prize runners-up Shelter and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. For more information on the co-operative agenda for land and housing, there is good stuff in the Co-operatives UK report and/or slideshow.