Tomorrow's tech: Politics transformed by the web

  • 16 August 2012
  • From the section Technology
  • comments
Computer keyboard with vote key

For the World at One on Radio 4 I've done a series of essays on how technology will change our lives over the next few years. Today's essay examines how much government and politics have been transformed by the web and whether we can expect the rate of change to accelerate.

As the internet revolution sweeps through our lives, upending the established order in business and society, one area has been left virtually untouched. For all the eagerness of politicians to prove that they're digitally aware, government has been little changed.

True, the business of getting into power has been transformed since the Obama campaign of 2008 showed politicians how to mobilise millions of potential voters through the deft use of social media. But even if every MP now feels the need to tweet 10 times a day, the business of making laws carries on much as before.

In Britain, both the coalition and the last Labour administration have talked about digital government without making much progress. They've experimented with crowdsourcing - asking the population to contribute ideas for policies - and there've been online petitions with a guarantee of a response but neither initiative has produced a significant change in laws.

Public services - from paying your tax to booking hospital appointments - are gradually moving online, though the motive here may be more to save money than increase accessibility. Then there's the move to free up the vast stores of data held by Whitehall departments so that anyone can map crime or monitor public transport.

The web's creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee with his battle cry "raw data now" has prodded the politicians into action though there is still some reluctance to open up completely. Tom Steinberg - who has pioneered citizen engagement in the UK with sites like FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou - thinks there's still a long way to go but the best is yet to come:

"There are going to be old laws and old policies that get challenged and become irrelevant because of the internet - and so governments everywhere - or at least governments everywhere that there is the internet - are going to have to go through the next 20 years through a very rapid process of changing and reviewing laws and on a positive level introducing new policies, new good positive policies that can only exist because the internet makes the world a better place."

Perhaps it is to countries where democracy is a more fragile flower that we should look for most digital progress. The role of social media in popular uprisings from Moldova to Egypt - may have been exaggerated. But governments around the world are finding that once citizens are connected to the internet, they are revelling in the opportunity to get their voices heard - and asking them to just shut up and be governed is no longer an option.