The Scottish government has turned to crowdsourcing to come up with ideas to ease the coronavirus lockdown, setting up a website inviting people to debate the way forward. Are any of the ideas any good, and will they make any difference?
What is it?
The website is essentially a combination of the Scottish government’s consultation hub and a social network like Facebook.
People can post their ideas for lifting lockdown, and rate and comment on other people’s ideas. Thousands of ideas have been posted, some of them attracting hundreds of comments.
Obviously this is a self-selecting survey of people who are willing to sign up to a government consultation, and can’t be treated like a true opinion poll.
But it still provides a fascinating insight into what people are thinking and feeling about lockdown – and the future.
Some ideas noticeably come up time and time again, sketching out a picture of which aspects of normal life people are really missing – or perhaps what they think could realistically be brought back.
There have been scores of posts asking for golf courses to be re-opened, with hundreds of supportive replies. It’s impossible to scroll through the forum without stumbling across several of them, teeing off the same debate again. People seem to really like golf, or at least think this could be an easy restriction to lift.
Outdoor exercise is a popular topic, with suggestions ranging from hill-walking to sailing and even croquet (“there are normally no spectators”) – but debate over indoor exercise is far more heated.
There are personal trainers highlighting the physical and mental health benefits of letting people make the “personal decision” to go back into gyms – possibly with some kind of booking system to keep numbers under control – but plenty of replies from people calling it “madness” to encourage “hot sweaty bodies in an enclosed environment”.
Boozers are also a topic of fierce debate. One user suggested a “pub lottery system” where people could win a chance to visit their local (an idea with an average rating of one star). Practical ideas abound – from “plastic partitions at bar keeping your neighbouring drinker safe” to having outdoor portable toilets “with queues 2m apart”.
However there has been scepticism from some about the effectiveness of “drunken social distancing”. One pub owner posted to say “I cannot see a safe way to reopen pubs this year, or a financially viable way to do this – so please do not consider reopening pubs unless there are major breakthroughs”.
Another common battleground is the humble pavement. A number of users – clearly tired of crossing the street every time they see another person approaching – have called for “one-way pavements” or a full-on “Highway Code” for footpaths.
Dog grooming is also a hot topic. Somehow, there have been more calls for pooches to be allowed a haircut than for their owners.
In fact one (human) salon owner actually posted a “completely terrified” plea for their business to remain closed, saying “to risk the welfare of salon staff for this level of non-essential vanity seems wild to many of us”.
A place to vent
As well as finding out what people’s priorities are for returning to a semblance of normality, the website has provided a peek at the things folk have been finding most irritating about lockdown.
Passive-aggressive posts about pavement use are common. Pedestrians use the site to complain about joggers; joggers use it to complain about cyclists; cyclists use it to complain about motorists.
Some people are clearly itching to have the authorities crack down on their neighbours. One user, titled “Mummykins”, asked for the police to set up “an online form for reporting clear breaches of the lockdown rules”.
There is also clear frustration at the idea of carving up society into groups – particularly from the over-70s, many of whom rankle at being “lumped in with frail 95 year olds” and would like to go hill-walking.
But despite the obvious frustration, it is striking how many of the posts balance this with understanding. There are many, many posts advocating maintaining the lockdown until it is absolutely safe to lift it. This is a complex, nuanced thing – and seeing that people grasp that might be a vindication of Nicola Sturgeon’s “treat people like adults” approach.
It can be easy to bring a cynical attitude to these exercises, and presume that the site is either a talking shop which will be roundly ignored by ministers or a sort of weird ideas generator. But this flinty outlook can be hard to maintain when you read through some of the genuine anguish being expressed by users.
Grandparents pleading to be allowed to hug their grandchildren again, or even just see them outside of a video screen.
Couples who live apart asking when they might be able to be reunited.
Pregnant women asking if their partner will be allowed to visit them in hospital after the birth.
All of the big moments from life are mentioned in there somewhere – moving house, getting married, attending funerals.
Even if none of the ideas put forward are embraced, getting the reality of these feelings across to those making the decisions could be a genuinely significant thing.
As the site effectively amounts to a social network of sorts, inevitably some people have set about “trolling”, posting political rants or deliberately absurd suggestions.
There have been some clearly tongue-in-cheek proposals about “welding people into their flats” and posting armed guards at supermarkets. It seems possible that the “staceyb” who posted a rant about “mandatory state re-education” for the “young whippersnappers gallivanting around” is not in fact a real 83-year-old.
People have also found space to have political rows about closing borders and which government should be calling the shots, which appear to be mandatory on Scottish social media.
It is however notable – possibly just compared to other social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but still – how seriously people are taking this. There is very active moderation to root out bad actors, but the ratio of serious posts to silly ones is still encouragingly grown-up.
Will it make a difference?
When she launched the forum, Nicola Sturgeon said the pandemic had prompted “remarkable examples of our society’s ingenuity, compassion and kindness”, saying “your views are key” to informing policy-making.
However it’s fair to say nobody thought the website was going to come up with the slam-dunk idea that would change the course of the crisis. Nobody was expecting a “Eureka!” moment where a printout was slapped on to the first minister’s desk as the nation fell in behind BigStevie99’s brainwave.
But that isn’t to say the website can’t be useful. It’s effectively created a sort of national diary, a snapshot about how Scots are coping with lockdown.
It’s also turned what might have been a top-down government decision into something more akin to a debate. Perhaps not a truly democratic one – don’t expect an overnight count of the votes cast on the website – but one that people feel engaged with nonetheless.
Psychologists say creating a “we’re all in this together” atmosphere is by far the best way to maintain compliance with lockdown and bring people along with the government’s strategy. And somehow, letting them argue about golf on the internet could ultimately play a little part in that.