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Digital Democracy

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Pete Clifton Pete Clifton | 16:35 UK time, Monday, 11 February 2008

It's a while since I've appeared in this kind of place, and I now have a different job with an unimaginably long title requiring a six inch business card.

I'm tasked with overseeing all the multi-media developments we have planned in Journalism at the BBC across the next five years - and that includes News, Sport, Weather, the Nations & Regions and Global News. All the plans are designed to make our excellent content more easily available on any platform, whenever and wherever the audience wants it. It promises to be quite a ride, and maybe I'll pop back from time to time to give you an update on what we are up to.

Anyhow, within this rather wide remit, other projects emerge that need me to get involved. One of these is "digital democracy", which some of you may have read about in Mark Thompson's speech a couple of weeks ago. It was a good read and the section most relevant to digital democracy began:

We want to take our coverage of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, as well as local councils up and down the land and turn them into the most engaging, the most creative multimedia portal for democracy in the world, using BBC Parliament and our other television, networks, radio, the web and mobile.

political__blogs.jpgI'm now working through the detail of what that could mean in reality: what it might look like; how could it be really useful for the audience and what we could start doing by when. And having the Director General talking about it so passionately gives it all a certain focus...

Some things are very clear. If you look around bbc.co.uk, there is already a lot of coverage of our democratic institutions. On the News site, BBC Parliament, around the UK and many, many more places besides. There are high quality correspondents offering real insight like the unstoppable Nick Robinson and Betsan Powys, a multitude of debates and no doubt more guides than you could shake a stick at.

mySociety logoAnd when you look outside the BBC, there is also a lot happening. Some of the institutions themselves are showing real ambition and projects like Tom Steinberg's mySociety have innovative ways to engage the public in more relevant ways to the democractic process.

The BBC's public purpose around informed citizenship means it must play a vital role in this area. We already offer more day-to-day coverage of our institutions than anybody else, but a dynamic portal that brings together the best of what we have in audio, video and text, the best that others are doing, something that is easy to find, searchable, personalisable and sharable, feels like a fantastic goal.

And now the thinking has begun, I'm also eager to hear what the audience thinks about all this, and what they would like most from the digital democracy project. I await your thoughts with much anticipation.


  1. At 05:47 PM on 11 Feb 2008, Tom Loosemore wrote:

    Please don't build yet another portal. No-one will care, let alone come.

    Build a high quality, searchable API for Parliamentary AV coverage.

    Then sort the rights out (easy, in this case), so as to allow anyone to integrate any bit of footage from Westminster/Scottish Parliament/Welsh Assembley/NI Assembley into their site.

    By "anyone" I mean blogs, wikipedia, newspapers, NGOs, MPs/MSPs/ASMs/AMs themselves - hell, why not even try to get bbc.co.uk/news to integrate it into their low-traffic, low market impact site?

    Sure, you'll need a home for this API - that can be your "portal" if that's what you think the DG wants.

    My betting is, he'd be happier to see BBC parliamentary coverage (correctly branded, natch) reaching a wide and diverse audience, scattered far and wide all over the Web, rather than bemoaning the failure Yet Another BBC Online Civic Ghetto.

  2. At 03:33 PM on 12 Feb 2008, Jeremy wrote:

    Just to let you know where I'm coming from, English, 60+, retired, liberal(I think)in my attitude to society, conservative in my attitude to the role of the state in society, and have voted for all three of the major parties in my lifetime.

    What I would be looking for is more unbiased analysis of current events. If I might take the example of the debate over Sharia law, and I don't want to express my own view here I hasten to add. I read the news, comment and the Archbishop's speech. I tried to find out a bit about what Sharia law is and in what way any of it could be incorporated into English law. I found little help in this task. It is not a legal requirement to charge interest in this country so a workaround to avoid interest but pay in another way is not a contrevention of the law in this country. Nor is getting married under any religious ceremony you like as long as it is properly registered.

    Nick Robinson is great but he can't cover all the issues. The whole business of local government cries out for some kind of overview eg Private Eye's Rotten Borough. Anyway good luck with the project

  3. At 08:24 PM on 12 Feb 2008, Ben Metcalfe wrote:

    Hello Pete, genuinely overjoyed to have you writing at 'this kind of place'.

    So I started reading the first comment, skipping the posters name. "wow, bang on with that point" I thought - then I realized it was my old co-conspirator Mr Loosemore himself. I should have known!

    To riff some more myself, I guess the take-away opportunity I perceive that BBC has is actually completing the loop.

    Sure, the BBC puts out loads of political coverage and parliamentary video, but I just think "so what".

    The UK has remains in an era of political disenfranchisement, where people not only feel as though they are not listened to by politicians but the reality is that they are not.

    Projects like ActionNetwork, was honorable and venerable are, in general, simply ignored by politicians and law makers. Sure there are gems of change in there somewhere, but in large it's a vacuum.

    The political system in the UK is stacked against the population, with few lines to communication back to the establishment. Those that exist (visit your MP one day every fortnight or write a letter) are inconvenient and don't allow for critical mass to form.

    If commercial markets can have conversation, so can politics. But it has to be a TWO way conversation that is listened to - one that is bought into by the government.

    If politicians can be convinced that an 'official' conversation mechanism would be a good idea then the BBC would be well placed to run/facilitate it. I certainly don't want the numpties at the office of the deputy prime minister running it.

    The key point is that the govenment has to buy in. Otherwise why do I want to plaster lovely BBC Parliament coverage on my blog and MySpace profile when no one in the government is going to give a shit?

    Creating a portal is 'broadcaster think'. The BBC is no longer a broadcaster, it's becoming a facilitator of conversation and this is the natural course to take in the political arena.

    The debate created and still be used in BBC political coverage, and thats where the broadcast hat comes in. But equally, I hope it would used by other outlets too.

  4. At 06:37 PM on 21 Feb 2008, alex wrote:


    Thanks for your post

    I think I recall Robert Peston claiming 1,000,000 readers of his blog. He regularly has 100's of comments. Clearly Northern Rock chimes more than Digital Democracy.

    Should there not be some sort of attempt by the BBC to engage with the licence payers in order to explore how we wish our resources to be used ?

    If the BBC could facilitate local democracy and community action by providing the means, we might be tempted to use it. Or it could sign-post such people to offerings already on the internet.

    There are already some community based blogs and sites that inspire participation. Perhaps centres for e-democracy have done the research to identify successful characteristics. If this is so, and you can replicate their design, and then prove to people and communities that their target audience responds, the people on the Clapham omnibus might come.

    At the moment, great numbers of us are deserting these democratic processes as we don't see outcomes.

  5. At 10:14 PM on 21 Feb 2008, Andy Martin wrote:

    As someone who runs a local site, if the BBC create an alternative local portal, no-one will use it. In the same way no-one used iCan or ActionNetwork.

    But if you pump out a bunch of useful localised APIs, lots of local sites could use and customise them.

    You don't have to host to conversation, but you can help to enrich local conversations that are already happening.

    Then, when people are visiting our site to talk about hairdressers or whether or not to use the self checkout queue in Tesco, they might also be able to access relevant local political info.

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