I remember back during the 2010 General Election campaign, there were no (that I could discover) fully open public hustings events organised for my then-constituency, Birmingham Ladywood. The nearest to any hustings event I could find was one organised in the Council House by the Fawcett Society, which was supposed to be women only – I turned up to that and basically argued my way in as it being the only hustings event! And generally over the years, I’ve noticed – in Birmingham with the exception of Moseley and Kings Heath ward – rarely are there any hustings for the local elections.
The big thing that was described about that election campaign was that it was supposed to be the first ‘Internet election’ – or rather, the first general election campaign where the penetration of what had become to be called social media in the form of Twitter and Facebook had become such that a significant amount of public discussion and campaigning took place online.
Of course, Twitter and Facebook are great places where candidates and activists can connect with voters, but the nature of how both platforms work doesn’t make them so great for deep question and answer and discussion formats – Twitter’s 140 character limit naturally inhibits detailed queries and responses, and although notionally both platforms are public spaces, they are more like semi-public, semi-private spaces; when posting in both places, one can only really be read by people who are actively following *you* rather than people who are casually browsing.
Winding forward to this election campaign, it was just after Christmas that I had an idea – what if there was a platform especially created, specifically with the intention of being a platform where voters can ask questions in a place where as well as there being spaces to ask questions related to the national campaign as a whole, there were also spaces where specific questions could be asked of candidates and activists in specific constituencies, councils, and wards?
So I went to my domain registrar, was quite surprised to discover that nobody else had previously registered the domain www.hustings.org.uk, and got to work assembling a database structure and some .php code around it, promoted a skeleton site around some friends within a couple of days of starting, and have been gradually building upon that ever since in an agile manner with a product roadmap in my head (and outlined at a very high level on the site’s home page) rolling out functionality as and when I’ve had time.
Early in the development I presented it at UKGovCamp, the annual unconference for people working and interested in digital government, and one of the comments made by people in that session was that it’s grand and all, but what would be really good would be if it could be used to have a life after an election so people could continue to hold their local representatives, candidates, and activists to account for the work they’re doing (or not doing…), so hopefully after May 7 I’ll be able to make some subtle changes to the wording on the forms and content pages to encourage this.
Another thing I realised once a few elections, questions, and answers had been put into the system was that the user interface was a bit clunky (in many respects it still is – although I’m sort-of kind-of OKish at design and UX, I tend to see my skills more as having the idea and then starting to implement the idea rather than being able to finesse it afterwards!), and the solution that occurred to me was to build in an extra facility where users could follow elections and people and have questions and answers relevant to who and what they’re following on their own ‘My Democracy’ page – effectively making the site a social network for democracy. There’s still work to do on making the usability just right, and indeed there’s still more features from my original roadmap to deliver in due course.
Will it make a difference to public engagement in this and future elections? That remains to be seen – I have to admit that user uptake of it hasn’t been as enthusiastic as I’d hoped, especially from friends and other people I know who are activists and actual candidates themselves, as well as friends involved in other forms of digital advocacy. It maybe that now the campaign proper is underway there’ll be more interest from people actually using it rather than just looking at it, and telling their friends about it. But whether it takes off or not, I’ll know I’ve actually done something to try to promote civic engagement, to try to raise the level of public interest and debate in politics and the political process, rather than sitting there moaning about it!