Friday, February 03, 2006

Policybrief: what might have been

A few nights ago, I suggested that a lot of e-democracy tools may result in a bullying of politicians. I should qualify that (in the case of They Work For You) with the acknowledgement that this is not the intention, and that the people involved in that project have been aware of this view and have tried to shape the project to avoid it being used in this way.

However, I've worked on lots of on-line projects, and I know that the biggest problem that usually occurs is when the people responsible haven't fully decided what it is supposed to do. I think that this criticism could be applied to HMS E-Democracy as a whole, and I think that it's time that this was rectified.

Here is an attempt now.

On the question of how new technologies can improve the way that we relate to The Man, and how it can improve democracy, I'd say that the starting point should be to come up with a definition of how you would like to see people behave - regardless of the technologies used.

I've made the case here plenty of times before (scroll - go on!) that pressure groups / journalists / civil servants / party bureaucracies are too powerful, and that anything that allows them to conspire with the general public against elected representatives is a bad thing.

The best recent definition of representative democracy that I’ve seen was Roy Hattersley’s evidence to the Nolan Enquiry in the mid-1990s (can’t find it online though). He said that MPs should represent their constituents, their party and their conscience in no particular order.

On this basis, opinionated citizens are not rivals to elected representatives when they bring them good evidence. Instead, by interacting responsibly, they provide valuable help in allowing MPs to clarify where their conscience points them on a particular issue. They provide MPs with the arguments that they need to challenge their political party’s near-monopoly on policymaking.

They also provide MPs with clearer evidence of what is in the material interests of their constituents. They offer a more decentralised source of information for policymakers than the lying liars that write for our newspapers.

This should result in less centralisation, more deliberation, and better policy outcomes all round.

Yay!

People start to become rivals to elected politicians when they threaten to mobilise public opinion, to generate negative press-coverage or voter-revolts in support of single-issue campaigns. I would suggest that this could be an unintended consequence of the ‘They Work For You’ project. Whre the general public will do it badly, pressure groups will do it better than they could have done before.

Where they all have their CRM systems in place, the best that most of us can come up with is a contacts list in Outlook.

'They Work For You' will, of course, not achieve any of these bad things that I worry about on it's own. But, in the context of a £4m-funded e-democracy National Project that has paid for the promotion of lots of 'e-petitioning' systems and 'e-consultation tools', a potent mix is awakened.

And many of the people that draw conclusions from that project do not have that classical understanding of political science that TWFY's progenitors have. They will be more likely to explore the usual sterile ground of how like-minded individuals can be networked and can use new communications tools to campaign.

I don't know this for certain, of course. But I suspect that not everyone the will study the outcomes of the E-Democracy National Project's work would be able to write a good essay on Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol.

But they may end up spending public money tying up the various tools that are being built in a very worrying way.

*****
"But", I hear you say, "sniping is easy. What would you do instead?"

Well. I'd say, firstly, that I hope that none of what has gone before is seen as sniping. Then I'd start asking people for a bit of help with a project that I've got in mind.

In 2001, I developed a project called Policybrief. It's still there - www.policybrief.org - have a look (the back-end doesn't work anymore though, so nothing's been added for years...).

It was a flawed project. It was built using rigid databases, before Content Management Systems had evolved to the state that they are now in. It was very Web 1.0
It didn't have the ability to spider and search other sites. There is no XML, no tagging, and none of the content aggregation tools that are commonplace now. And I didn't know as much about future-proofing web-projects as I know now. This was not platform-neutral, and 'semantic mark-up' was but a pipe-dream at the time.
But, in its defence, it anticipated the concept of folksonomy, and it made an attempt at coming up with a strategy to get think-tanks and other policy-producers to work together. It had a bloody good classification system that was applied in a very effective way, though I say so myself.
I still think that the basic concept is a good one. It was intended to make it easy to aggregate and access high-quality information - something that would be useful for Councillors, MPs and MEPs, and something that would allow the public to lobby MPs on the basis of good research – not with the threat of various kinds of mobilisations.
Pressure Groups currently do both. And politicians often can't find much by way of high-quality published policy information- even now. Pressure groups often selectively deprive MPs of important information so that it can be used in an ambush when the time is right.

Again, I declare an interest here. I spent tons of my own pocket money on this site, and it ran out of cash when I stopped funding it. It was a non-commerical project anyway. But it was very well received as an idea at the time. I launched it at the ICA and Geoff Mulgan gave a very supportive keynote speech.

Either way, I'd really like to see a project designed to encourage people to become objective allies of representative democracy. And if someone wanted to help me do it, and call it Policybrief, I'd be particularly flattered.

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