Monday, 10 June 2013

Rather dull note for Public Administration Select Committee about digital democracy

This is a note about the way forward for online participation of the UK citizenry in our government.

Public consultations justly have a bad name. So indeed do stakeholder consultations.

For a period of several years I was involved with private sector market research and, frequently, public sector consultations. Confidentiality forbids me from sharing specific examples, but I grew used to hearing the growing horror of stakeholders gradually realising how limited their scope of influence was, on issues on which they were more passionate, more informed, and more directly influenced by than whoever was driving policy, and despite the trappings of open and responsive governance.


(a) I think the government tends to forget that it has a responsibility to assess the invested interests of those who participate in consultations. In particular, there is a tendency to think that businesses are experts in their own affairs, and that they can therefore be expected to make the best decisions for the economy and the country on sector-specific issues. In fact we live in such an interconnected world that there is no such thing as a purely sector-specific issue; the government have a responsibility to be critical of these sources, and to try to work out what the big picture is.

(b) I think stakeholder mapping is usually very badly done. There is often a slippage in sense from "anyone whom this issue affects" (a good definition of a stakeholder) to "those who are already influential in this area, and/or already present themselves as knowledgeable" (a poor definition).

(c) My strong intuition is that no matter how hard government (or any organisation) promises to itself it really will listen to its stakeholders this time, the only way to genuinely drive policy change through stakeholder engagement is to delegate real power to stakeholders - or at least to allow stakeholders to impose penalties if, in their considered judgement, the engagement process has not been material.

The issue, of course, is then whether you have the courage to delegate power to stakeholders who may disagree with you!


None of the following suggestions really make my heart leap, but I find it tricky to come up with anything better.

I am slightly worried that such measures might be adopted and executed badly. They might then serve as evidence that online participation is simply impractical.

So here are a few thoughts on online participation (apologies; they are slightly disjointed).

The UK should be leading the way in online participation, not half-heartedly trying out experiments we know will probably fail, so that we can have the excuse, "Well, we gave it a bloody good shot!"

I suppose a good principle to begin with is what the de facto citizen is like.

We shouldn't romanticize the notion of the citizen. We are often: overworked, harried, short on time, money, patience, passionate about issues but also nervous and defensive about a lack of deep knowledge of them, willing to learn, but also distrusting of all information on topics of public interest, without necessarily the time nor the inclination to be critical of that information, and craving the security and simplicity of authoritative information sources, or of timeless truths (typically cynical and/or vague dogmatism).

So "involving" us isn't just a matter of making government more permeable to the pre-existing knowledge, energy & deliberative resources of the citizenry. It is also finding ways to cultivate & nourish those things.

The trouble about polls is that there are just so many of them. One avenue worth exploring is making participation in official polls a bit more like voting: for instance, you can only vote in these polls once per month, so you'll choose the issue that's important to you, and not feel guilty about the rest. (Twelve votes per year might be better than one per month, for the sake of flexibility).

Letter-writing & petitions obviously have their place, but they feel rather dated. They take time and energy. The results are often discouraging (38 Degrees campaigns are a partial exception). They are only indirectly educative. We surely now have the technology to make the activities of government far more transparent, and to be able feedback on those activities at a fine grain, and for our government to be minutely responsive to that feedback. We have social networking and social browsing; why not social scrutiny of government?

We need to think about the notion of the "popularity" of information, and how the effects of particular items "going viral" could be usefully included in the interface between public and government. Not everything can receive equal attention, but it is not for the government to decide what is and isn't important. Nor can we any longer trust the opposition and traditional media to make such a selection. We the public must also be directly involved in determining relevance. At the same time, this is obviously risky territory. Information can become popular based on shallow considerations.

So in terms of online interaction, we also need to think about the relationship between the serious & official, and the casual, satirical, just-for-fun. Obviously not every tweeted joke, every "OMFG!" or ever photoshopped jpeg is an equally venerable and sacred exercise of a democratic right. At the same time, if you simply exclude the flippant, anarchic & playful side of things, you risk creating an arena for engagement which is dull, excessively hard work, and unrepresentative of the citizenry - being dominated by anoraks, humourless sorts, and special interests. You fail to cultivate & nourish the knowledge, energy & deliberative resources of the citizenry. (We also need to think about trolls. We also need to think about astroturf).

I don't have any big answers, but a small example might point us in roughly the right direction. Scenario A is that there is a comments section beneath Parliament TV. It obviously looks rather like the thread of pretty much any YouTube clip, and it confirms everyone's suspicion that we, the British public, are idiots.

Scenario B is that Parliament TV is integrated with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., as well as bespoke social networking sites. Users can comment on issues raised and share specific segments of the filmed proceedings, or transcripts thereof, and can filter the annotative activity of other users in a variety of ways. There is, for example, a "readers who liked this comment tended to also like these comments" feature, so it's not just a matter of what's popular or not - people with common purposes or ideas can find one another. There are incentives for independent fact-checking to flourish. Where jargon or specialised language appears, it is easy to click through to get definitions and explanations. Those readers who persevere on such a path can even find educative resources in the underlying theory. You may start your day seeing a funny photoshopped pic, proceed to the news story on which it is based, then find yourself enrolling in an online course in economics or environmental science. Openness is a guiding principle throughout. The online architecture has been designed with the frictionless experience of the end user, the citizen, kept firmly in mind.

But at the same time, we learn what the culture of parliament is like. What is it like to be an MP or a civil servant? What restrictions do they feel upon their speech and action? What is it they think the public don't understand about their position? What is it they feel they are blamed for that is beyond their control? How do even those who are in government feel their ability to govern as they would like, to make the decisions they really want to make, is restricted by their party, by the markets, by the economy, by specific commercial interests, by existing statutes and case law, by the media, by the European and international context? It may sound paradoxical, but e-democracy isn't just about increasing and improving the participation of the public in governing. It's also about increasing and improving the participation of the governors in governing.

To summarise slightly reductively: online participation needs to be frictionless, fun, and educative. It needs to imaginatively exploit cutting edge technologies, not just transfer pre-digital practices online.

What have the more far-thinking and imaginative theorists of e-democracy proposed? Has the Public Administration Select Committee interviewed anyone who fits that description?

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