Tomorrow's tech: Politics transformed by the web

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.

Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones looks at how the internet revolution has changed government

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.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    'Online' isn't enough. Kafka would have loved the digital era as an even more desolate experience of alienated impersonal disconnection.

    The issue of trust, and of the integrity of communication, is fundamental to sanity. We tend to equate information with knowledge and are perhaps more interested in presenting an image to manipulate or placate perceptions, that to deal in communicating truly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    11. UU
    "It's high time we transferred, some or possibly all, Human Rights to the digital realm. My Avatar: My property."

    That would make Facebook stock worth a fraction of a cent! So as always big business/Wall Street is allowed to rob you yet again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @10 andrew99

    I agree. In a world where major IT corporations slug it out in the courts over all aspects of IP where is my right to my own IP. After all, I can't think of a greater property than my being; my personal knowledge and personal community.

    It's high time we transfered, some or possibly all, Human Rights to the digital realm. My Avatar: My property.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The secret to all of this is to give us as individuals control of all of our data - this means the end of the ridiculously expensive IT projects that seem to always fail, and empowerment and control for us. Not for profit organisations such as Mydex lead the way - - explains what they do, and there are plenty of others doing the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The internet has made "government" itself irrelevant!

    Whilst we still need people to implement our wishes, the concept of MP's (i.e. a representative of your local area you elect to travel to London and act on your behalf) is now completely redundant. We can vote on everything ourselves from home. That's a real democracy, and dismantles the old boy's oligarchy we currently have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A lot of the massive DirectGov website is unusable as it is so poorly designed. Worst is that relating to applying for JSA - now featuring in my web development classes as a classic 'how not to design an online form' casestudy... and of course HM Customs, who have not even heard of the Internet yet (try getting a parcel out of their Coventry hub!) and refuse to accept e-mails!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Cost is the family's worry of digital government.
    PC - £400
    You can get a decent 2nd hand PC for around £100, £150 tops
    Connection - around £30 per month
    £15 deals can be had at the minit

    There are some very good deals for internet phones about at the moment
    Phone £100 unlimited downloads £15 a month stuff

    Shopping about does reap rewards, it's a buyers market

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @4 penguin337

    True. WWW will always be viewed with concern by governments. It's bad enough that we have the content industry bullying courts into censorship and sanctions. Worst still that our governments ineptitude will waste any potential for democratic improvements.

    @5 Hastings

    It can be done cheaper, but I agree with your general point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Cost is the family's worry of digital government.

    PC - £400
    Kids Laptop - £400 (wants a tablet but still needs laptop for school work)
    Connection - around £30 per month - Gets more expensive every year
    Plus phones

    Do we have more info? No. We have it faster and we have more than we can use

    Internet = digital rip off.

    Sorry, not enough letters for full details. Must write a letter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I doubt governments will embrace the web with open arms; I doubt anyone shook the hand of the robots and computers that replaced them in the factory either

    The biggest problem is the secret squirrel mentality of Western, and any other ruling government for that matter

    This Julian Assange case is only the start

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Our doubt governments will embrace the web with open arms; I doubt anyone shook the hand of the robot that replaced them in the factory either.

    What governments will do is learn to use the web to their advantage while maintaining control over key aspects of society. The media aspects of the web will be used to the maximum while the social aspects will probably just give them nightmares.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Wouldn't it be lovely if you actually could book a GP appointment! Or be able to actually choose and book in the 7 minutes you get with a GP for taking medical history and diagnosis.

    Most GPs, in my experience, don't or can't even read patient letters or letters from consultants, let alone use their computers to advantage. Using the PC takes up too much of the 7 minutes!

    In summary nice idea!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    There are some limited efficiencies - such as buying a Road Fund Licence - but there are also some problems such as factual errors in the Ministry of Justice web site which cause confusion and delay - and are greeted by 'we must fix that'. E.g the continued listing of out-placed probate interviews sites that no longer operate.

    These two examples illustrate to good and the bad of HMG web use.



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