Does government have ears enough?

EarsIt is becoming downright tricky for the government to get our attention. Not for the old reasons of being mostly boring. Rather because our attention is increasingly elsewhere – immersed more and more in networks and relationships.

What I pay heed to is much more self indulgent now than it was 15 years ago. I want to know what I want to know. So I’m confident that what you, dear reader, might have to say to me is likely to be more interesting (for me) than the third headline on tonight’s 10 O’Clock news.

So what does this mean for how government should make best use of the web? Paul Johnston from Cisco writes at the Connected Republic blog about the Our Kingdom project from OpenDemocracy:

For example, I would be in favour of a mixed online and offline debate to generate the best and most popular ideas on how we can celebrate and reinforce the values of our society; if the debate got traction and generated some good ideas, presumably the government will want to take at least some of them forward or the opposition (or media) can champion then and force the government to adopt them. Similarly, I think online discussions and deliberate panels (on issues such as ID cards or road pricing) could really help shape the national debate – but with no presumption that if lots of representative citizen panels reach the same conclusion, the government must adopt that conclusion. Rather I would see the output of successful online discussions and deliberative panels as shaping media and parliamentary discussions – if these activities were organised in a way that gave them profile and legitimacy, then it would be hard for a government (or an opposition) to fly in their face. The point of the conversations would be to make “public opinion” a more genuine and effective force

I agree with Paul about the web being a great place to generate ideas, but these ideas will come from those who choose to join the debate, they won’t reflect “public opinion”. In truth a wide ranging debate on all areas of public policy can already be found on the web. All the government would need to do is to seed it with some key questions and stay in the conversation, not aloof from it. The art then remains the same, which is how to make sense of the outcome.

The business of journalist and politician talking to the public and then using what they learn to shape what they say, write and how they vote is nothing new. This might be on a slightly different scale and has the added advantage of greater immediacy and greater depth compared with most polling or consultation exercises. However it is not as clear cut as statisticians might like and “public opinion” on the web also tends to be a more global opinion.

Richard Wilson at Involve comments on this post about how he is sceptical about the web as a tool for changing the way people think. He makes this in reference to the points Anthony Barnett made earlier today on Comment is Free:

For me, the most interesting lesson is that the web should not be seen as a vast soup of individuals barking and raving and exposed to manipulation. Some of this happens, of course. But the web is best seen as a network of networks, of associations and communities from blogs to closed groups, of many sizes with their own energies and commitments. For a government to take a debate to the web the advice is: don’t compete with what exists. Rather go to the networks, link to what is, encourage communities to think through your key questions for themselves.

Right. Government (apologies for describing it as an amorphous blob) consults when it wants to, tries to generate a debate when it needs to. That’s no way to get my attention. If my mind is focussed on my own range of what Anthony calls “energies and commitments” then to involve me government would need to join in in some sort of sincere fashion. Stay in the conversation. Talk with us, not at us.

Does government have enough ears and eyes to stay routinely in the conversation? I think it does (certainly within the civil service) but major culture change will need to happen to allow people the authority to get involved. Just how significant is illustrated by David Wilcox. I’ll quote at length…

“…Tom Steinberg, who runs the hugely successful mySociety organisation (Pledgebank, FixMyStreet, No 10 e-petitions) spells out their philosophy in launching Free our Bills, a new initiative focussed around getting Parliament to publish bills properly. It boils down to – don’t expect Government to change except in very small ways, whatever you say.

Bill3In a post to the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange, Tom says:

mySociety has traditionally worked on the assumption that it’s basically impossible to ever get any part of any government to do anything of any real significance in the field of edemocracy, or in the wider field of greater access to data.
As a result we’ve always tried to pick projects that work as well as possible for the citizen without requiring government to do anything it didn’t do before (think FixMyStreet, or WriteToThem). Picking a project that requires a bit of government to move a single inch in order for your project to work at all is a sadly proven path to failure. Unfortunately, our need to campaign today is a validation of this highly pessimistic approach. It is absurd that this campaign is even necessary, given that we tried so hard to do it the ‘nice way’ with meetings, gentle encouragement and nicely written word documents in Whitehall-speak explaining why it was useful and cheap and non-threatening. But where it counted the unelected officials who hold the relevent power here just weren’t persuadable for reasons that we’re having to FOI to find out.

Tom suggests a new approach to evaluating e-democracy. Instead of looking at what e-democracy projects don’t achieve in terms of mass engagement, it is better to look at “pressure points, chinks in the armour where improvements might be possible, whether with the consent of government or not”. He concludes:

Anyway, if this seems like a counsel of despair, it isn’t supposed to be. I’m just saying that being realistic about the nature of actual progress in our field (tiny, incremental, currently peaking with things like TheyWorkForYou and ) makes for more interesting, useful discussions than comparing everything to the Holy Grail of True, Mass Scale Deliberative Democracy.”

So if government wants a wider and deeper conversation with ‘us’ (As Michael Wills says they do) asking us to do it at purely at government convenience will fail simply because it is getting harder to get our attention. Keep the lines of communication open though and I know I’m more likely to help.


  1. Thanks for this helpful overview. I agree that the Tom Steinberg is implicitly a response to the mails I sent out! Of course we are not trying to influence government policy in the sense that he has attempted, we aim for a debate that wioll be useful for any country/

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