Thursday, July 13, 2006

Politics v Democracy

An e-mail from Tom Steinberg of mysociety reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago with a few people about how new media can improve the quality of public life.

I thought that there was an interesting difference among those present when political questions came up. Some people were very keen on the various parliamentary-focussed sites from the MySociety team. Personally, I think that these sites are of questionable value to civic society.

I’m not saying that they are a bad thing exactly, but I’d suggest that the real challenge that the notion of ‘e-democracy’ presents is how the quality of public interaction can be improved. Politicians are very strongly influenced by the more noisy aspects of public dialogue – and that conversation is, I would argue, becoming more debased in a number of ways.

Projects that reinforce the view that ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’ are largely the same thing don’t – in my view – contribute much to the improvement of civil society. I think that the most valuable thing that could be done would be something that would allow politicians to explain how they serve their constituents, exercise their conscience, and how their relationship with their political parties and the other groupings that they owe loyalty to effect the way that they make policy.

For the most part, the climate in which this fundamental issue is discussed often leads to the conclusion that politicians are blinkered / sleazy / lazy / stupid /incompetent.

And this, I would argue, is another example of fundamental attribution error. We get the politicians we deserve. Or, more to the point, we get the politicans that our dumbfuck media deserve. Any innovation that were to create a more suitable climate for this discussion would be an innovation indeed. I think that, in this climate, the exposure of politicians to the unfettered 'wisdom of crowds' would prove to be a cruel and unusual punishment. In the case of football referees, it certainly doesn't improve the quality of their decisions, so why should it result in better government?

I should add - less what I've said here appears churlish - that MySociety (and the various groupings close to MySociety) is one of the most impressive ventures I've come across. When they do a project, they do it fantastically well.

Pledgebank, for example, is an inspired idea that has endless posibilities. They way they created a forum to discuss the Power Enquiry was an example of how all of these reports should be discussed in public. And the voluntary nature of MySociety provides a model for social innovation that required a level of management that I know I'd not be capable of.

The idea of hacking out information from official sources and presenting it the way it should be done (as they do in 'They Work For You') is an idea that has endless possiblities. There are dozens of ways that this concept would improve the transparency of government - and make officialdom more accountable.

I just worry that everyone is keen to put politicans on the spot, while many of the other forces that dictate the course of modern life go largely ignored.

So for the avoidance of doubt, any criticism of MySociety here is heavily qualified.

As an example of how public debate is becoming gradually more debased, a while ago, a left-liberal columnist arguing that Judges should be subject to the kind of popular oversight that Murdoch’s rags are demanding.

I link to the rival case (not for the first time). It is important to recognise that the concept of duty is erroded when those entrusted with a role in public life become accountable for their personalities.

If Freedland and The Sun want to see judges (and every other class of official) grandstanding like Sir Ian Blair, I wish they’d say so.

Oh, and one more thing. Tom Steinberg's e-mail was requesting feedback on ideas that they have solicited over the past few months. I think that this one is a really excellent idea.


Anonymous said...

> questionable value to civic society

Unfortunately, much as a better civic society would be an improvement, we are starting from here; not somewhere else.

What's your suggestion for a practical improvement on WTT?

Or would you rather people didn't engage?

Paulie said...

Yes. I'd absolutely prefer that people didn't engage. That's why I said....

"Any innovation that were to create a more suitable climate for this discussion would be an innovation indeed."

I don't know what you mean by WTT either.

And why not say who you are rather than posting anonymously? It makes you come across as a troll and you'll get replied to like one.

Sam said...

> I'd absolutely prefer that people didn't engage.

you also say in an earlier post:
> He rightly identifies a "growing and
> potentially dangerous gap between
> politicians and the public"

So there's a "growing problem" which is "potentially dangerous" which you don't want anyone to do anything practical about right now?

If you want to actually improve things, t helps to start from where things are, not where you would like them to be.

Paulie said...


In this - and other posts - I give plenty of examples of things that I think should be done about the "growing problem". And I can't see why any of them can't be applied from where we currently are (as opposed to where I supposedly want us to be).

One thing I don't want is the 'growing problem' to be exacerbated.

My view is that initiatives that increase the level of 'accountability' of MPs (especially accountability to pressure groups) will make things worse - particulary when very little effort goes into making pressure groups, journalists or civil servants accountable to anyone.