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A rotten example of participation

23. November 2010 – 16:51 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

Photo by gumtau on Flickr.com

I recently heard about Hamburg’s scheme for composting biodegradable rubbish that the waste management service collects from households, and selling the resulting compost.

I’m sure Hamburg isn’t the only city that does this, but isn’t it a great example of citizen participation? Citizens know what they are being asked for and why, and they can see clear results when they buy compost to put on their gardens.

I think the analogy goes further: the problem of dealing with different types of rubbish is dealt with by asking citizens to sort kitchen waste, plastics and other recyclables from the rest of the rubbish that goes to landfill. Once this is sorted, the waste management service can deal with it more effectively. Note the element of trust, too – if citizens cannot be trusted to refrain from putting plastics in the green container, then the whole thing falls apart.

This aggregation aspect is akin to the problem of dealing with the huge amount of information that can be generated when people blog, comment and Tweet about issues relating to a public agency’s work. Increased numbers of people participating in government is good; but the increase in content that this implies can be problematic. Without going into the debate about easyJet councils, I think it is acceptable to ask citizens to take on some of this work and sort their contributions according to guidelines, in the same way that they do with their rubbish. So something like a “guide to influencing your council” stating which blogs, hashtags, forums and so on the council monitors and how to get your blog in, say, your district office’s RSS reader or ensure that individual posts get to the right officer would be a good start.

As well as making life easier for overworked officers in a harsh economic climate, this would open up the process for getting your voice heard and manage people’s expectations by making them aware that sheer volume of information is an issue that they can help address.

  1. 2 Responses to “A rotten example of participation”

  2. By John Diffenthal on Nov 26, 2010

    Householders have a major job to do in terms of segregating different waste streams but it would be naive to believe that they do it accurately.

    While there are few problems in correctly segregating paper and cardboard, plastics represent a huge gap in understanding a capability. Even if householders knew how to identify polypropylene in their waste, would they know whether their local recycling facility could accept it?

    That gap in knowledge means that a significant amount of time and money is spent by the recycler in segregating further the plastic recycling stream to eliminate products which can’t be easily recycled.

  3. By John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH) on Nov 26, 2010

    Thanks John. Is it fair to say that keeping things simple is important, as well as thinking about what you can realistically ask of citizens and what you need staff to do?

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