Archive for August, 2011

TCC: making democracy work in Afghanistan

August 25, 2011

Whilst all eyes focus on the future of Libya, TCC has been contributing to the building of democracy and governance in Afghanistan; another country which still faces conflict and many other challenges.

TCC Chairman Jonathan Upton was invited by Democracy International to travel to its capital Kabul to contribute to the development of civil society groups in Afghanistan and in particular help launch one to consider the issue of electoral reform. The aim was to establish a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called Afghanistan Electoral Reform and Civil Advocacy (AERCA).

Jonathan Upton at AERCA Lauch

Picture: Jonathan Upton (second left) at launch of AERCA

Democracy International (DI), works on democracy and governance programmes worldwide. It provides analytical services, offers technical assistance, and delivers projects in this field. It started its operations in Afghanistan in 2009 and since then has conducted two international election observation missions, for the presidential and provincial council elections in 2009 and for the parliamentary (Wolesi Jirga) elections that were held in 2010.

For the current project Democracy International was supporting the launch of AERCA. Its purpose is to help facilitate an Afghan-led electoral reform initiative in order to strengthen Afghan democracy and foster innovations in governance. This initiative will engage Afghan stakeholders through an Electoral Reform Organisation and through innovative research projects.

Launch of AERCA

Picture: Launch of AERCA

The reasons for developing this organisation was recent criticisms of the current Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system in Afghanistan, which has led to protracted disputes over the election of some Afghan MP’s following the 2010 parliamentary elections. Jonathan Upton’s role was to provide expert guidance on the electoral systems in the UK and the recent Alternative Vote electoral reform referendum in the UK.

Jonathan Upton making a Presentation to AERCA

Picture: Jonathan Upton delivering a Presentation to AERCA

In summary, the objectives of the current project are:

1. To Strengthen Afghan Democracy through Genuine Electoral Reform:

  • Establish an Afghan-led Electoral Reform Organisation that includes representatives from the major non-governmental organizations that are stakeholders to the electoral process. The network will also include political party representatives, independent political coalition’s representatives, religious leaders, members of the business community and media, and representatives of Afghan youth.
  • Once the Organization is established, AERCA will assist the network to develop specific working groups that will focus on identifying key electoral problems and developing the public agenda for electoral reform around key issue areas.
  • Build civil society capacity to engage the Wolesi Jirga and the government on electoral reform issues. Activities will focus on electoral reform skills development workshops for practical legislative advocacy.

2. To Foster Innovations in Governance through Electoral Reform:

  • Provide both on-demand and unsolicited research services for the Organisation, its working groups, and other relevant stakeholders. Research will be facilitated by national and international experts and organisations.
  • Establish training programs to build Afghan capacity to conduct high-quality, fact-based research and analysis. Specific focus will be given to: (a) the introduction of modern methodologies of research and analysis, (b) the enhancement of an interdisciplinary approach; and (c) teaching about the practical application of policy analysis. AERCA will develop a roster of research organizations and individual researchers to participate in AERCA’s research training.
  • Based on the work conducted under activities A and B, AERCA will encourage its partner organisations to provide research-based recommendations to the Organisation and the Government of Afghanistan.
Attendees at launch of AERCA

Picture: Attendees at the launch of AERCA

On his return to the UK earlier this week, Jonathan said, “I was very pleased to be able to work with Democracy International to contribute to the launch of AERCA and hope there will be further opportunities to assist with the development of democracy and governance in Afghanistan and other countries facing similar challenges.”

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.


Dangerous Crowds? Riots, Anonymity and Deindividuation.

August 19, 2011

The recent riots in the UK have created a substantial public debate. TCC‘s offices in Croydon were very close to some of the worst examples of arson and looting, so we could see at first hand in the following days the terrible impact of those events as people lost their homes and livelihoods. At the same time the aftermath of the riots also brought out the very best in many people with riot clean-up websites coordinating voluntary activity within hours of the violence and crime occurring.

For many the focus has been on the need to tackle crime and bring people to justice quickly: “we need to punish more and understand less”. For some the issue is one of  addressing longer-term issues: “this is a complex issue and there are no simple answers”. These two outlooks are often counterposed to each other when they are both reactions to recent events stemming from wider values that individuals may hold.

How then do we move forward?

Firstly anger and fear amongst the public needs to be fully addressed and communicated to in order to then have any rational debate as to what we do to prevent these scenes happening again. This is not just about addressing emotions, but also about reciprocation – ‘something for something’ – as many amongst the public have the expectation that the state will properly guarantee the safety and security of them and their families, before they might feel ready to give any thought to wider longer-term solutions.

Initially the media coverage focused on the actions of what some termed ‘feral youth‘. However as the justice system has processed offenders it may well have surprised people as to the significant number of previously law-abiding citizens in well-paid jobs caught up in the riots. How do they fit into that initial narrative as to the cause of the riots?

Whilst much of the initial violence may have been initiated by young people, with Blackberry messaging encouraging copycat responses, a lot of the subsequent looting seemed to feature a much wider range of people. Will attitudes on some aspects of the riots change as some people come to the realisation that it could have been their son or daughter or partner, completely out of character, who might have been arrested, perhaps for opportunistic looting? The most recent polling on evictions of social housing tenants does seem to show quite a rapid shift over the last week from initial reactions, perhaps in response to what may be a more mixed narrative? A Conservative MP demanding removal of benefits from rioters also seemed to make a distinction along these lines:

I am sad to see so many people go to prison, especially as there seems to have been two broad categories of rioters – weak minded, opportunistic, impressionable people who perhaps got carried away, and more serious, more sinister rioters who took a more professional and calculated approach and who may have played a part in the planning and orchestration of the rioting. Both categories should face prison sentences but if the courts are able to determine that rioters fall into the latter category, they should face especially long sentences, as should particularly violent rioters and arsonists (longer still).

Perhaps the word ‘mindless’ in the phrase ‘mindless violence’ should be looked at in more detail. One of the reasons for this wider mix of people than might be expected, is that crowds can create their own social norms where deindividuation occurs. People can find a form of anonymity in the crowd and lose their inhibitions and do things that their normal social networks would strongly disapprove of. Anyone who has been in a large crowd at a music or sporting event or at a political demonstration may well recall things happening that they might not countenance in everyday life as the crowd creates its own social norm and people copy the activities of people around them. Mark Earls, the author of the book Herd has also recently written about the ‘lure of the crowd‘. Pat Dade of Cultural Dynamics has written about the values of those most likely to be part of a rioting crowd. Thus by far the most effective Police tactic of the night was telling people to stay away as bigger crowds could have been even more unpredictable.

Someone reading this blog posting might well respond to that point, saying, “well, you would never catch me acting out of character in an anonymous crowd situation”. It is possible that some people, with very rooted social networks and values may find it easier to resist in those situations, but let me give you a form of deindividuation that is much closer to home to people writing and commenting online; in this case examples of the often appalling deindividuated behaviour of people who hide behind anonymity within the vast internet ‘crowd’ online. I suspect it would therefore be quite easy at present to find examples of deindividuated anonymous people online commenting in an extreme way about the behaviour of recent extreme deindividuated behaviour offline! Indeed, perhaps one might in future seek to reframe the term Internet ‘Trolls’ as ‘online rioters’ to better demonstrate some of the dangers of uncontrolled deindividuation online?

Some people have argued that these riots sustained themselves for a number of days through the desire for material goods. Early blog postings described events as a ‘Consumerist Riot‘. If this is the case people then need to think what actually drives this? One key aspect of consumerism is the human need to achieve self-esteem, the esteem of others and status amongst ones peers, by showing off or talking about their acquisitions. This can be as natural for upstanding law-abiding citizen’s telling friends of their purchase of an important material good as it is for young people showing off trainers or a mobile phone whether lawfully or unlawfully acquired. Consumerism can be a way for some to satisfy that need, at least in the short-term.

Of course for young people achieving self-esteem is also a particularly important aspect to growing up and thriving as an adult. Most young people may well be surrounded by positive and pro-social family and peer networks that help them transition well towards self-esteem in adulthood, but we also know that some may be surrounded by the opposite. Prior to recent events TCC had just completed research on Status Dogs, which can be seen by some as quite an intimidating aspect of current youth culture. From the research we conducted, we had recently picked up on the use of Blackberry mobile devices as a way to achieve private communication. The research also confirmed the use of the term ‘Status’ was very appropriate as Status Dogs contributed to the self-esteem, esteem from others and status for a segment of young people. If these are important needs to achieve at a certain point in life and satisfaction of them drives people’s motivation, self-efficacy and values, then communities and wider society may need to look at behavioural interventions that help people achieve these needs in different ways.

Clearly the public does not want to see these terrible events happening again and Central Government, Local Councils and the Police will need to address the issue in a range of ways. Police tactics, the criminal justice system, social media, tackling gang culture and early intervention in families facing multiple challenges will all feature in a wide range of future preventative approaches. Again the role of crowds and social networks are important here. The Strathclyde Police Glasgow Gangs project, based on the U.S. Boston ‘Operation Ceasefire’ programmes, addresses gangs at a group, social network or ‘crowd’ level as much as at individual level and relies heavily on insight and intelligence on how gangs develop gathered by the Police, but also by the wider community.

Next May we are likely to see the first elected Police Commissioners and the aftermath of the riots is likely to remain a national issue for the forseeable future. The public debate on this may be often characterised between the two outlooks that I described at the beginning of this post. Those who are likely to most effectively address the issues at local and national level are those who are able to respond to both outlooks.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

Supporting self-efficacy in less resilient communities

August 4, 2011

As part of the TCC methodology we often make the point that there has been an understandable focus in public policy towards behavioural intervention on tackling ability without perhaps addressing the other key aspect within behavioural theory around addressing self-efficacy and motivation. Until relatively recently this second aspect was seen mainly in individualistic self-help terms. Look at the numerous books one can buy on the subject for personal use!

However this view is changing. Interestingly Oliver Burkemann of the Guardian, who often analyses self-help programmes has flagged up recent research into the impact of Poverty on will-power and motivation and set it in the wider context of research into willpower depletion when it comes to addressing challenges within life. In other words when confronted with many choices to change our lives we can be cognitively exhausted and thus find it hard to sustain the beneficial activity. An example of this might be giving up smoking and losing weight at the same time. What the combination of the two areas of research indicates is that poverty itself extracts a substantial cognitive cost, which does make it more difficult to escape it.

Utilising this research in the context of very poor communities overseas may well be clear. In an Indian village improving ability and capability through investment in education is reasonably straightforward, but making gains in complex western societies is much more difficult where there is already a substantial investment in improving ability, hence the need for segmentation that focuses on needs, motivational values and self-efficacy. This enables limited resources to be more effectively focused if we are to provide the additional support to less resilient communities through personal, social and structural & design public policy interventions that support the existing activity to support and improve ability. In other words understanding the why as well as what and how of behaviour. This is particularly useful in thus fully understanding the barriers to pro-social behaviour.

Once we know the values of a community we also need to map their social networks and the prevailing narratives that express the values within a community. We have hypothesised about the interplay between Social networks and people’s values suggesting that values help determine the type and size of the social network we are likely to have and that the people in our social network are likely to at varying times both reinforce and change our values. The results of early research in combined values segmentation and social network mapping (the latter based on the RSA Connected Communities methodology) in an English local authority so far seems to confirm the hypothesis.

In some cases reinforcing positive behaviours through social norms is a good thing. However the harder task is to change behaviour to lead to a more pro-social norm. The latest research by the Social Cognitive Network Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute indicates that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This is a degree of endorsement for the social epidemic aspects of Gladwell’s Tipping Point as well as diffusion of innovations theory. We would additionally suggest that those with inner directed motivational needs tend to be the segment that seeks to make significant change and thus when an idea or adopted behaviour reaches a certain proportion of them it rapidly tips others within that values set and then influences those with other values too.

From our work in addressing community cohesion challenges in very disaffected communities, we believe that one would be able to seed that less resilient environment with more pro-social ideas from authentic empathic advocates who share similar values and also crucially feedback information; however looking for specific individual influencers to be a magic bullet is unlikely to be the best use of resources as we all influence each other to a greater or lesser degree. What we therefore need to do is to understand the network as a whole and the values that exist within it in order to craft effective interventions. As Mark Earls the author of Herd puts it:

One of the ideas that most hinders our attempts to get to grips with human behaviour is that which sees the individual agents and not the ecosystem; the consumer (nuff said on that one) and not the social world which individuals live and which they help create.

Much of cognitive psychology (and it’s fair to say, much of the Nudge-gang’s work) remains rooted in understanding the quirks of individuals’ cognitive machinery; much of evolutionary psychology seems to be stuck in explaining the behaviour of individuals devoid of their real context – that is, other people. And in popular culture, we tend to go back to specifics (to excessive nodality as the network theorists would put it): to the specific individual and what causes or might shape that person’s behaviour. This is as true of our political debates as it is of our personal lives.

But that’s not what human life is like: it’s not individuals, living in splendid isolation…..for us social creatures, life IS other people (even if we find it hard to see it as such for our own lives).

This means it is important to map broad social networks at the relevant population level and understand the values that are more likely to support the diffusion of pro-social change within less resilient communities. In other words the most effective ‘self-help’ for an individual there is for their community to change as they are more likely to go along with and have behaviour reinforced by the social norm that emerges and also lightening the load of individual cognitive exhaustion I referred to earlier.

Is Government ready for this approach? Possibly not quite at this stage, if you look at the Office for National Statistics recently published consultation findings and reflections on National Well-being measurement, one might see that it does tend to be more focused on indicators that reflect mainly inner directed values. This might be fine if one is prepared to wait for a tipping point for pro-social norms described above to diffuse change over the long-term, but will it tackle the difficulties in supporting a broader spread of self-efficacy more immediately? Will it also tell us fully about the well-being of people who do not share those inner-directed values, or will it simply illustrate the Values Gap we have discussed previously?

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

Social Networks and the offline ‘Filter Bubble’

August 2, 2011

In the book the Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that the internet is becoming more personalised. Some of this makes sense as the Internet is vast and we need ways to make it more relevant to us. However he argues that the new personalisation filters are changing things without us knowing and they are focused on making money. Websites increasingly need clicks to justify investment in them and they are going to show us whatever articles, search results, ads, or data they can to get those clicks. He contends this is dangerous, as there are issues within public policy we might need to see, but might never click on, such as more unfashionable news, for example from the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. We also tend to get fed only information that reinforces our own views once we are inside, what he goes on to describe as a ‘filter bubble’. He argues that this poses significant problems for democracy and civic engagement.

Journalist Will Heaven writes about the story of how Eli Pariser came to write the book:

Eli Pariser was looking at Facebook one day when he noticed something peculiar. On his news feed, where he usually enjoyed reading through his friends’ comments and links, there was something missing. “I’ve always gone out of my way to meet conservatives,” says Pariser, a liberal tech entrepreneur from New York. “So I was kind of surprised when I noticed that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed.”

Facebook had quietly scrubbed the feed clean of anything Right-wing – nothing Republican, nothing anti-Obama, was getting through. So what was going on?

“It turns out,” says Pariser, “that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on. And it noticed that I was clicking more on my liberal friends’ links than on my conservative friends’ links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.”

In other words, Facebook decided that Pariser’s conservative friends weren’t relevant. It didn’t matter that he liked to hear their point of view occasionally; because he clicked on their links less frequently, they had been exiled from his online world.

Having heard the case made, the first question to ask is whether this is really a new thing? Years ago families and communities were, for example, much more tribal about their politics. These things were even talked about at home. Just as you are may find a person with religious views whose parents shared the same religion, then it used to be the case that political views were in the past so much more ingrained into young people through family influence. In addition how many friends do we actually choose who are completely dissimilar from us, when we quite naturally tend to seek points in common?

In other words there have always been filter bubbles influenced by a combination of our social networks, our local social capital and the prevalent values within our community. Some of these differing offline filter bubbles are very narrow and insular and comprise bonded social capital and some are much more open to new ideas and experiences and have much more bridging social capital. Indeed the biggest challenge when it comes to these offline filter bubbles nowadays are those social networks that may reinforce poor health outcomes as Nicholas Christakis has documented in his book Connected?

Perhaps for short a while with the start of the internet, these structures existed far less as initial internet networks developed from a lot of random connections, but as the network matured, a whole range of filters will have developed, just as people sign up to offline mailing preference services to reduce the amount of unsolicited mail they receive and often choose people relatively similar to themselves to establish long-term friendships with. With the audit trails of the online world it is much easier to measure and record online filter bubbles, however we also need to understand their role in the offline world too!

Perhaps it is some people with certain values – perhaps inner directed – that are also most concerned about the issue? Those with safety and security needs and values may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information in front of them and actually prefer the narrowing down that filters provide. Others who are more outer directed will think this issue is not important and that they already have the wide choice they need through the click of a mouse.

Eli Pariser has raised some important points that should certainly be debated; especially from a personal privacy perspective and triggering research into the offline filter bubble too; but we should not see this as a new phenomenon or even something that everyone will be shocked by.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.