03 February 2016 

Back to deliberations

The bees’ knees of online public deliberation has yet to appear. It’s about time I put my PhD degree to good use. After a long period of inactivity due to family and health issues and lack of opportunities in Melbourne, I have re-engaged my brain to begin the design of an open source project.

Public deliberation process designers are occasionally given the task by local councils and other governing bodies to engage residents to solve problems. This isn’t about the usual sort of public engagement in which residents tick boxes on satisfaction surveys. It involves facilitated jury-like events in which residents make substantial recommendations for action.

But some experts, public servants and politicians feel threatened by this apparent incursion on their leadership. Activists want to maintain the rage. Unaware of the irony, some residents believe their compatriots are too stupid to offer useful opinions. The mainstream media makes a meal of it.

The public deliberation enterprise is running up against a brick wall of cynicism and disregard.

So let’s re-think the activity of public deliberation. What should it do?

First of all, let’s not encourage more argument about pre-conceived solutions. In fact, let’s step back from solutions altogether.

More often than not, public officials who establish policies, set regulations and make operational decisions are disconnected from the complex diversity of beliefs, values and needs related to contentious issues in a community.

There are several causes. A few bad apples might be hanging on partisan or commercial interests. Some officials might arrogantly believe they have tickets on the truth.

But most civil servants do want to do a decent job.

The main problem is a lack of insight into the possible impacts of their decisions on residents. They don’t really know what is important to people. They don’t understand what really matters.

Rather than usurp the power of officials, public deliberation should collaboratively help them do their job well and correct their biases.

There are some innovative processes in which residents are invited to work directly with experts and officials to co-create policy from the outset. These processes are costly and demanding. I applaud those who enter into these processes, which produce exceptional results.

However, there should be an easier way to connect officials and residents at the start of a policy generation or decision-making process.

My mission is to promote the application of public deliberation primarily to the initial stage of identifying the relevant values in a community in relation to a contentious issue.

Too often public engagement processes just gloss over this stage. Like focus groups, they don’t investigate beyond surface attitudes.

Instead, public deliberation should facilitate a deeper exploration towards the foundations of resident sentiment. In a safe and supportive environment they need to be repeatedly asked “Why?”

In my doctoral research I discovered that deliberating participants spend most of their time listening and learning from each other. They use anecdotes to illustrate their situations. They have fun. This goes against the political theory that they “exchange reasons” in an effort to persuade one another.

With the help of active professional facilitation and structured group exercises, they can uncover and address the contradictions that inevitably lie at the root of their disagreements. They go beyond matters of mere preference for solutions and arrive at the values that are really important to them, their families and their section of the community.

Everyone who agrees to participate in a deliberative event comes with an open mind and a collaborative spirit. Deliberation privileges neither communitarian nor libertarian perspectives. I have witnessed deliberating citizens find unexpected agreement about what really matters, even after only a bit of digging.

An online event is cheaper to organise than face-to-face gatherings. It can be given many weeks to work slowly and patiently. Conversations can be organised in small groups, just as in face-to-face public deliberation. Participants can talk privately to their family, neighbours and associates before sharing their perspectives to their group.

An online event can attract a wider audience that is a microcosm of the community, often called a mini-public. This means that the range of demographic categories (e.g. age, gender, income, education level, owner/renter) and stances around the issue (e.g. conservative, progressive) exhibited in the community should be represented fully and proportionally in the conversation.

By weighing and qualifying the values, including minority viewpoints, preferred avenues for achieving common policy ground can also be identified. The participants then present the tapestry of deliberatively-normalised public sentiment to the governing body.

The final solutions presented by officials back to the community must include an explanation of how the tapestry of values exposed in public deliberation is taken into account.

Shifting such processes online and scaling them up poses significant technical hurdles. My current task is to figure out how lots of different participant statements in the form “X is important to us because of Y” can be automatically clustered and prioritised.

Google probably has it sorted already. I’ll let you know. My brain hurts.

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28 August 2015 

Too famous now

I am chuffed that my 2006 blog post about Personal Learning Environments continues to be cited in academic literature about education. I created a definition of PLEs that strikes a cord with many:

a Personal Learning Environment is a facility for an individual to access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artefacts of their ongoing learning experiences.

There is ongoing debate about whether the individual’s take-up of various Internet-connected software and devices constitute the complete platform of a PLE, or something more is needed to mediate and aggregate them.

Today I discovered my post has been referenced by an article in the 10-volume 10,000-page Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Third Edition

I had to laugh.

Here I was promoting the personal control of peoples’ knowledge-worlds. Then I am absurdly listed by a publication which at $US 4000 is inaccessible and as authoritatively institutional as it gets.

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07 July 2015 

Learning by performing

I look back at my undergraduate years with great fondness. I was fortunate to study the nascent discipline of Computing Science in the 1970s in a new department at Simon Fraser University. The university had a reputation for extending or ignoring rules. In many units participation was an important component of our grade, which was revolutionary then.

There were as yet no graduate students in the department, so in my third year I was invited to be a Teaching Assistant. A new second-year unit about data structures and algorithms was offered. It was about computerised problem-solving methods. I had picked up bits here and there, but I had much to learn. The Prof passed me his lecture notes a week in advance. Then to a cohort of about twenty students I ran the tutorials and marked assignments. The students responded well to me.

There were two exams given which I monitored from the front of the room. The students didn’t realise that I was registered alongside them in the course. I was genuinely sitting the exams right in front of them! I should be more humble here, but what the heck, I aced them. It turned out to be the perfect learning experience.

There were some very bright students in that class. I learned even better by really having to perform it every week.

In today’s world of standardised, assessment-driven, demarcated, institutionalised learning, I doubt such a stunt could ever be pulled off again….

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16 January 2015 

Medicare is appropriate

I’ve left filling in my 2014 tax return late. I don’t have much to report.

Here in Australia our income tax includes a 1.5% levy to fund Medicare. If you do not carry private health insurance, you are “liable” (according to the Australian Taxation Office) for a levy “surcharge” of up to 2%.

The conservative Howard Government established the fine surcharge in the late 1990s unashamedly to boost the prospects of the private health industry which offers facilities and services in parallel to the public system, and apparently in competition to it. It has been my bugbear ever since.

I neither want nor need private health insurance because the public health facilities serve me perfectly well. Living with cancer puts me in a good position to test my conviction, which continues to stand.

In my tax return I have to tell the government what it already knows: that I don’t carry private health insurance. But look at the question:

“Were you and all your dependants covered by an appropriate level of private patient hospital cover for the full year?” Yes/No

Yes. NONE!!

But the ATO is not asking me about what I happen to think is appropriate. I am simply being queried whether or not I pay premiums to an insurance corporation that plays by the government’s rules, with ‘excess’ or ‘gap’ service fees that are within regulatory limits, and whether my policy covers my whole family and level of risk. Am I still beating my wife?

I have to answer “No”. But I haven’t done anything wrong, you bastards.

Health costs are rising at an alarming rate. An increasing proportion of elderly people who need more frequent medical care are out of the tax-paying workforce. The government must raise more money for the public health system.

The levy surcharge is a tax on the rich in disguise, which makes leftist political parties silently happy. This is the wedge that Howard’s Government so ruthlessly applied.

Now the ATO, perhaps with political encouragement, audaciously coerces more wealthy people into the private health system. If you have enough income to pay into private insurance, but choose not to, then you will get stung because you’re not holding up your end of the Government’s deal to support the finance industry.

I should not have to feel guilty answering the question. Get rid of the “appropriate” nonsense.

I should not be asked the question at all. Kill the levy surcharge. The next Government should have the political courage to raise and tier the Medicare Levy according to income.

Don’t reward people for switching to the private health system. That should provide its own rewards, without subsidy.

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03 December 2014 

Tablets in schools

My 12-year old daughter is about to start secondary school (in Australia). I am obliged by the school to buy a tablet computer for her. I don’t mind, they aren’t too expensive any more.

A recent report by ‘BBC News education correspondent’ Sean Coughlan made me angry. He tried to make a point that tablets in schools don’t improve results.

The article completely misrepresents the place of tablet computers in school. The author could not possibly have teenage children, and he surely has little or no experience with teaching in school.

Tablets don’t “improve results.” That’s not what they are for. To foist this absurdity demonstrates only that he set out from the start to denigrate the very idea of tablets in schools.

It did not escape my attention that in the third paragraph he claims that students take their tablets to bed to do social networking—as if that is the norm. Social networking is strictly forbidden via the tablet that my daughter uses for school, and teachers check it.

The best argument he gives in support of tablets in schools is an out-of-context throw-away line from a headmaster that tablets “create a ‘sense of empowerment’ for young people and create an ethos in which pupils can feel ‘trusted and valued’.” This is true, but hardly the main point.

The author just wants us to accept his premise that using tablets in schools is just a worthless, artsy-fartsy endeavour.

That’s just crap. It is disappointing to find this article in the BBC press. People who are cynical about tablets in school are stuck at the 1960s model of education: line students up in rows, shove a curriculum down their throats, and make sure they know that the teacher is in control. For most older authors, that’s what they grew up with. Well, times have changed for the better.

The reason that our children use tablets in school is because tablets afford different and better ways to learn and connect to the world beyond the classroom, to seek out multiple authorities. Tablets open new learning pathways to autonomous and collaborative exploration and problem solving. Tablets free teachers to be mentors and facilitators, rather than just voices of authority. The methods also offer teachers more time to address the needs of individuals.

Learning is more than inculcating facts and procedures and achieving high test scores. It is about equipping kids with the skills for lifelong learning and performance. And becoming a global citizen.

Do we have to counsel our children not to treat their tablets like toys? Yes, of course. I accept that parenting challenge because it is worth it.

I hope my daughter takes every advantage of the developmental opportunities that tablets open.

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25 August 2014 

Downes: Beyond Institutions: Personal Learning in a Networked World

Stephen summarises his influential work in a speech at the London School of Economics.

We can have a way of looking at learning where learning is not structured, designed, and set up to create outputs, but rather run, operated, and controlled as an unorganized, unmanaged system by individuals. I say we’re moving beyond institutions in learning, toward a cooperative model, toward a knowing society, based on network knowledge. That’s the [anti-]model of the future.

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21 August 2014 

Paypal will rule

I’m not promoting Paypal, just hazarding a prediction. Many retail shops in Melbourne have signed up to accept payment from walk-in customers with Paypal accounts via its smartphone ‘wallet’ app. The ease of implementation and use, relatively low merchant fees and the high public take-up of Paypal are compelling retailers to sign up. I reckon it will catch on so well that I will soon be able to leave my credit card at home, and just take my mobile to pay for stuff.

But there is a catch: the merchant knows who you are. They can charm you by addressing you by name at the checkout. If they are motivated, they can instigate loyalty based advertising based on your patterns of activity with the shop. This is the secret weapon for Paypal, who will charge merchants for that information.

On the other hand, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin offer the same anonymity in the transaction as cash. So the café you visited last week won’t be profiling you and sending you a follow-up email with a discount offer to entice you back. I’m getting sick of all that from the supermarkets and online retailers.

Unfortunately, only a handful of shops in Melbourne have taken up Bitcoin. This is despite the absence of fees on retail transactions—fees are only charged by exchanges for conversion to and from national currencies. There is no central Bitcoin organisation, which sounds great in theory to those of us who deplore the unaccountable power of financial institutions. But nobody is coordinating the promotion of Bitcoin, and the movement is stalled.

This week, the Australian Tax Office echoed the American IRS in its decree that cryptocurrencies are tangible assets but NOT currencies. This may kill the cryptocurrency golden egg goose, as accounting for them becomes a nightmare. Bitcoin may remain in limbo, continuing only as the underground currency for purchasing psychotropic substances online.

And with Paypal here, there and everywhere, we will descend into perpetual ad bombardment hell.

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19 June 2014 

Play Helps Us Grow at Any Age

I have been a fan of Dr Lois Holzman and her “research and activist” work for several years. In this TEDx talk she presents her concept of “revolutionary play” which I find very compelling as a type of life-wide activity. Many public deliberation facilitators also see their work as playfully guiding processes of co-creation and becoming. Against all expectations, participants often find it as fun and effortless as play.

In play we:

  • go beyond ourselves
  • do things without knowing how
  • relate as who we are and who we are becoming—at the very same time
  • create something new out of what exists (that’s the revolutionary part).


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23 April 2014 

Citizens' Jury recommends policies for nightlife in Sydney

Congratulations to Sydney City Council for convening a beautifully-run Citizens’ Jury, who deliberated on the question “How can we ensure we have a vibrant and safe Sydney nightlife?” and made 25 recommendations. Supported by NewDemocracy and Bang the Table.

This is a terrific example of the kind of public participation we should see more of. But this will only happen if more people know about it, understand the benefits of these new facilitated and co-productive processes, and demand it.

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01 April 2014 

Melbourne Ride to Conquer Cancer 2014 needs riders

Last year I successfully completed the 200 km Ride to Conquer Cancer in Melbourne. Thanks mainly to friends, I was able to raise $6,400 for Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Living with metastatic prostate cancer, I rely on this public hospital.

Although I remain fit enough to ride again this year, I don’t want to press the generosity of my friends further. Instead, I have decided to participate as a crew member.

However, the Ride succeeds by the number of Riders it attracts. Last year we were down a bit on numbers, and I hope this year will see an increase. The Ride is in October. If you were planning to do the Around the Bay in a Day ride, consider doing this Ride instead. It certainly would mean more to me.

Watch the video above to learn more about the Ride to Conquer Cancer. Contact me if you want more information. Then follow this link to sign up!

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