Opening up Democracy

By way of Matt Jones, I found the Open Democracy site this morning (those of you who know me will be wondering what I’m doing posting in the morning, couldn’t sleep last night). It’s a good site, with posts from exactly who you’d expect, people like James Crabtree and Bill Thompson are there, so it’s worth visiting. James has posted a long article, “Civic Hacking“. The essence of it is that sticking something called a consultation process or a discussion forum on the Internet doesn’t mean you’ve kickstarted democracy online. What’s needed are more applications – James uses Napster as the example catalyst for music sharing online. Someone said to me that there’s no demand for a product that doesn’t exist – before Napster, files were shared via burning CDs (before CD writers, it was by copying cassette tapes). Napster triggered massive (and, it seems, illegal) sharing. So, there must be a fabled-Napster like thing that will spark demand for e-democracy. This is probably true – for most of e-government, it’s clear it’s a supply problem, not a demand problem so if the right thing is delivered, people will use it. James does caution that making the “entry route sexier” does not solve the problem – so e-voting, say, by itself doesn’t make more people vote. My favourite passage is …

“What you definitely do not do when stuck in a computer game (or how to load it, or how to make it work better) is e-mail the software designer and ask them to make the game easier or better. Yet this is precisely the current British government’s strategy for e-democracy. Got a problem? Go take part in an impenetrable consultation exercise that might, in some distant way, improve the system. Not exactly a hot selling proposition.”

True enough … for instance, despite all the noise on entitlement cards, the absolute count of people responding was low – although there were some high quality responses that spoke for many people.

James goes on to misquote the title of a book by Marshall McLuhan, who actually wrote “The Medium is the Massage“, way back in 1967 (before I was born). Still a good read.

What James proposes in the end is some kind of fund to sponsor applications that might facilitate democracy online:

Such a system would be about helping people to help themselves. It would create electronic spaces in which the communicative power of the internet can be used to help citizens help each other overcome life’s challenges. Most importantly, by making useful applications, it would help make participatory democracy seem useful too.

I’m not sure how a fund like this would be setup in government. Like the lottery fund? With people making bids for worthy causes? I guess the issues would be around how would you police delivery, check that you were getting Value For Money (a wonderful government phrase), make sure that you weren’t being scammed.

We used to have a discussion forum on UKonline, but it was taken down because a very small number of people persisted in making abusive posts, disrupting the experience for everyone else. Perhaps that was because it was on a government site. Certainly people write things in emails and online that I very much doubt that they would say over the ‘phone or by letter – the act of putting a signature on a letter seems to make people tone their language. I get abuse mail most days of the week, ignore most for sure, but the ones that I write back to usually become polite when they realise that someone actually reads the junk they’ve sent. I’d like the discussion forum to make a re-appearance, but I’d want to be sure that it was a safe place to be where James’ aims could be met. If people want to help me get that working on UKonline, then I’m happy to take advice and guidance as we figure out what it should look like.

I wandered through the various discussion forums on Open Democracy, but couldn’t find much going on. Not many recent posts and a low total number of posts. I have no idea if the forums are moderated (something that was done with UKonline, but after posting), I doubt that they are (the overhead of trying to do that is enormous, the rules difficult to establish and the sense of big brother difficult to overcome). But, if this is not the place to post, where is … Maybe …

Anyway, after all that, the link that got me to Open Democracy in the first place was to a note about the BBC trying to setup exactly the kind of forum or application that James talks about. Again, there is caution …

The net is not a panacea for the ills of an ailing British democracy. Too few people have access to the net and, let’s face it, reinvigorating our democracy requires change in many more important quarters – the media, political institutions, government and not least politicians themselves.

But hope too …

However, there is enough evidence that institutions like the BBC should be taking the interactive plunge. And when, as we hope, this BBC project strikes out into this new world, it must open itself up to being carried in very different and unexpected directions.

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