Wednesday, May 03, 2006

e-Democracy 2.0.

This is the text of a talk that I gave tonight at the WeMedia conference fringe.

Excuse the dodgy grammar. I’ve written it the way that I speak. And it’s not word-for-word what I will actually say. The actual transcript will probably be even more of a gibbering mess.

Here goes….


My name is Paul Evans. I blog at ‘Never Trust a Hippy’ – I work for a company called Poptel Technology Ltd – we’re a social enterprise and a worker co-op. We build websites.

I also manage a project called – and it’s designed to get local Councillors to be more active managers of their own websites.

I think that the value of blogging is that you often get people saying things that businesspeople, civil servants, journalists, pressure groups, academics and all of the various hired spokespeople would never say. We’re not always right. But we are a bit different.

And my brief interruption this evening is intended in that spirit.


There are numerous so-called ‘e-democracy’ projects around in the UK at the moment – many with public funding

The e-democracy national project - £4m spent so far and another £1m rumoured.

‘Campaign Creator’ built by Bristol City Council with public money. It has had £395,000 so far.

The large majority of these projects have been focussed upon….


And the intended beneficiaries are primarily…

•Community activists
•Local campaigners

And the projects have usually been scoped and managed by…

•Civil Servants
•Council officers

These project are intended to....

•Improve ‘e-Empowerment’
•Involve more people in policy and decision-making

They often create a direct channel between the public and The Executive - the government

They often, these initiatives have sought to by-pass elected representatives

It may not be the stated intention, but these projects are, in my view, advancing a ‘direct democracy’ agenda.

•The UK is not, currently, a direct democracy
•We haven’t decided to become one.

If we had the debate, I suspect that we’d realise that it leads to..

•More powerful journalists
•More powerful pressure groups
•More centralisation of power
•More populism
•‘Sub-optimal policy outcomes’ (trans: bad government)

We should instead be promoting representative democracy – it's better than the other options

What the blogosphere says about this…

•I’ve tried to provoke a debate about this with my blog, and had little feedback.

This could be...

•A bad thing: Complacency: If we don’t want something to happen, and it does so by stealth, it can’t be a good thing, can it?

•A good thing: We are not turning into a direct democracy even though lots of public money is being spent trying to turn us into one.

Comments I have had:

•“In a direct democracy, great thinkers are made to drink hemlock, at the whim of the masses” (thanks Mat)
•“A direct democracy is worse that a fascist dictatorship: At least with the Nazis, you knew who was in charge” (thanks Bill)

So what’s the alternative?

•In it’s unimaginative stage, e-democracy tends towards more ‘direct democracy’ related projects
•BUT, internet users could fix some of representative democracy’s shortcomings.
•So, ask me, “give us some Representative Democracy-enhancing ideas then? Suggest some projects that will reverse some of the decline in representative democracy…”

I have three suggestions

1. Support Councillors
•Many of you will vote tomorrow in the local elections: More of you may not.

How many of you have a clue about the identity, character, or abilities of your local Councillors?

•I’ve worked for three years now on a project designed to get Councillors to be active managers of websites
•We’ve got 20 Councils working with us so far.
•We know how to do it – what the barriers are,
•How it can be done well, and badly,
•We have the software. We have training materials.
•We even have a course designed for Councillors.

•The average age of Councillors is 57. Often not internet users – often not aware of the possibilities
•A significant majority of them older white males.

Bill Thompson had an idea; (offline - he's never blogged it as far as I know)

•Bill said “lets get loads of politics / journalism / communications students to mentor Councillors in online communications for a while?”
•This could strengthen local elected politicians against their rivals – local media, political parties, pressure groups and Council officers.
•It could also expose those who aren’t up to the job – and make local elections meaningful:

So that’s suggestion no.1. Get students to mentor local Councillors and improve local representative democracy. Maybe next election, you’ll be able to vote for a person – not a party?

Suggestion no.2.
Representative democracy is a process that has an ideal expression. In the same way that a Court of Law has an impartial jury, a judge, barristers, expert witnesses, and so on, a good democracy needs….

•Elected representatives
•A high quality of policy formation
•An effective public conversation for the representatives to eavesdrop upon.

So, we will need….

•… to get the despicable guttersnipes that make up the bulk of popular journalism out of the way.
•We will also need to cultivate a sensible culture within the blogosphere.
Guido may focus on the misdemeanours of The Westminster Village.
Tim may focus on the campaigning possibilities

But we also need a network of bloggers who publish the whole context of public policy. The work of academics and think-tanks need to be more widely discussed by lay-commentators.

If there is a reason why bloggers must supplant sections of the MSM, it is because we have the potential to do this.

We need to make grown-up policy discussions more accessible. We need to find a way to motivate people to discuss policy and not court-politics. I have an idea of how this can be done, and I’d be happy to discuss it with anyone who will listen.

That is the second suggestion I have for you tonight.

And the third thing….
… lets make the Freedom of Information Act really work.

•The Freedom of Information legislation has backfired to a certain extent
•The only thing we get are oblique answers from bureaucrats…
•…unless we are well-resourced journalists or pressure groups. In which case, we get sensational and embarrassing scoops.
•The way FOI works, it actually makes us more of a direct democracy. The public is not more enlightened by FOI. Only pressure groups are.
•We need a constructive and well-managed explanation of how departments work and what the issues are – in their full context


Ban Civil Servants from managing websites

•Instead, Government department websites should to be managed by a public-interest external body with privileged access. A mix, perhaps, between the Open University and the BBC.
•Think of the work that the BBC do explaining current affairs and complex issues – often using special features on their site.
•I’d let Slugger O’Toole manage the Northern Ireland Office website, for instance. It is a responsible group-blog that discusses policy issues seriously.
•It would give the public an alternative source of information to politicians and journalists(perhaps the two least trusted groups around)

You wouldn’t ask Michael Crick to run it. Or Guido. But you would consider letting Slugger do so.

Decent citizen journalists are more likely to be trustworthy in this respect. Let us start using them in a joined-up way to improve democracy.



Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Hope it goes/has gone well!

MatGB said...

Y'know, you're going to have to find a new quote now you've used it.

And it really is time I tried to sleep seeing as I can't break the block. Overall reports from all over went well I see.

ShaneMcC said...


You mis-interpret the effect of some of these e-democracy projects.

1. The heaviest users of the e-petitioning software in Bristol are Councillors. They are using it to reconnect with their consituents.
2. CampaignCreator was funded on a similar basis that it would be a tool that Cllrs could offer to activists top help generate interest in the community.

Rather than by-passing Cllrs these tools have the ability to empower Cllrs to connect with more citizens.

That said. I agree that more Cllrs using more communication media (such as the internet) is a good thing. Go for it Media students.

Tim Neale said...

Who would have predicted the success of blogging a few years ago? But any one can start a blog. If there are people interested in the content then they will find it and return.

If politics repel people then no number of blogging politicians will change that. I find that debate quickly descends to abuse once 'professional' politicians get involoved. The nature of the delivery channel will not make any difference to the basic content.

The chaotic nature of the blogosphere is its strength. The idea of government getting involved in it (i.e. controlling who gets read - via plug or grant) is appalling.

If e-democracy is coming. It will be bottom up affair and will be nothing like any of the visions floating around at the moment. The IT revolution has always been that way (think of SMS success when every one was predicting 3G takeoff).