Friday 27 August 2021 6:30 am

A viral discussion on bin collections proves the case for digital democracy

Rosie Beacon is a policy analyst in the Technology and Public Policy team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change ,

Around midnight on Wednesday night, British Twitter erupted, united over a single issue: bin collections.

It all started with a “Twitter Space” – a public audio forum where anyone can join as a listener and up to 13 people can speak at once. What started out as an ironic experiment culminated in around 1,600 people joining in with the #binspace conversation, which ended up lasting fve hours.

Random and frivolous as it might seem, the episode highlights the genuine interest and strength of feeling around local government services: many people did in fact use this space as a useful forum to get answers that were seemingly difficult to get elsewhere. The discussion included people that were both happy and unhappy. Councillors from all parties in disparate parts of the country, from Somerset to Stockport, joined in to note grievances and answer questions. Can we have seagull or fox proof recycling bags? Why do some people have more types of recycling bags than others? What even happens to recycling when it gets taken away? People wanted transparency, direct interactions with those in charge of services and quick answers, some of which they got.

It may seem unlikely, but #binspace amounts to an extraordinary experiment in civic engagement. It demonstrated two things that governments should take note of: there is a public appetite for more engagement and technology is a powerful way of doing this.

Firstly, #binspace should serve to debunk a collective delusion among governments both central and local, that because voter turnout is lower than it should be, then people are not interested in public services. Many participatory and engagement initiatives are often dismissed on the assumption of low or no participation, but #binspace disproves this.

Mainstream party politics can be boring and disconnected from people’s lives. In contrast, bin collections, potholes and street lamps are issues that people experience almost daily and are actively invested in fixing. If someone has spent their life savings on buying a house in an area they love, they will be more focused on the condition of their local roads than in ticking a box for a political party whose aims and values seem abstract or vague.

Secondly, social media is a powerful tool of outreach and amplification. Twitter Spaces enabled a conversation of huge scale to happen with no prior planning, at a time when people were available, and encouraged vibrant public discussion almost instantaneously. It is highly unlikely that, had this been hosted on a council website during working hours, it would have gained similar traction. Meeting the public where they are – apparently, at a loose end at midnight on a Wednesday – enabled a remarkable turnout.

Social media is often characterised as a space for trolls and vitriolic abuse, which happens, of course. But there is no getting away from the fact that it is where a fair amount of public debate now happens. #Binspace showed that it can be more rational, reasonable and informed than you might think.

Beyond social media, delivering effective digital public services is sometimes seen as an add-on, rather than a central priority. But political parties should not underestimate the electoral importance of simply getting a job done well. In Leeds, there is an app where you can see your bin timetable. #Binspace illuminated this and now everyone wants one. Which political party will be offering this at the next election?

Perhaps in the future, collective discussions on bins will be less serendipitous and instead part and parcel of how public services are managed. The technology certainly exists, now it’s time for governments to use it.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.