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Digital Democracy: Bridging The Gap

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Andy Williamson | 09:46 UK time, Sunday, 30 March 2008

hansard_society.pngThis is part of a series of guest posts about the BBC's Digital Democracy plans, and is a response to Pete Clifton's post asking for your thoughts and feedback. Here, Andy Williamson of the Hansard Society calls for democracy where we can all get involved.

Or: Press The Red Button To Engage

The British people are radically disengaged from political institutions, with fewer than ever believing that their local representatives are worth voting for or even worth remembering. The result is that decision making is left to experts and consultants, with the views of ordinary people largely ignored and citizens left ignorant until it is too late.

Government has failed to keep up with the transformation of society made possible in part by the forms of networked individualism associated with the internet. Community action is increasingly self-motivated, viral, emergent and temporal. And this presents a significant problem for government, as old and new ways of engaging clash headlong like rutting stags.

Digital technologies can't of themselves change the nature of engagement. The strengths of the internet, most notably its ability to connect people to global networks, are resisted by government, whilst the latter fails to harness new technologies in ways that resonate with internet denizens. The new worldview enabled by the internet remains so alien to many of those inside the fortress of government that innovative ideas fail to gain any traction.

This is why the internet alone will not solve the problems of democratic disconnection, particularly when it is used to enable the very institutions of power that people no longer trust. Most government-led attempts at eDemocracy still rely on the structures of formal governance that cause and demand top-down, monolithic solutions to be imposed on communities. They operate via a "best practice" mindset of one-size-fits-all that often results in mediocrity. eDemocracy examples on the fringes, such as the 10 Downing Street ePetitions, attempt to address this problem but ultimately are likely to fail because they remain disconnected from the policy process.

governance_of_britain.png"Online" is still largely out of mind in government policy making. The Governance Of Britain green paper [pdf] published last year makes one reference to the internet and this is in relation to alternative voting methods.

hazel_blears_quotation.jpgWe need conduits that can connect an increasingly remote government to the changing society that it serves. This means moving the political debate back to citizens; for government to "do with" rather than to "do to" people. It means encouraging more dynamic and emergent forms of democracy which can be enabled by new technologies, which are grounded in our local communities and which emerge from the grassroots. This is easier said than done. I don't doubt that Hazel Blears believes that the internet "has the potential to open the door to a new kind of politics" and I most certainly believe that she is correct. However, she may well be underestimating the resistance to be encountered along the way.

Digitally enabling democracy will not overcome the entrenched barriers of social status, education and wealth, either. These are all fundamental and create inequalities in the accessibility of broadband and the acquisition of information literacy skills. eDemocracy can further exclude those on the margins unless strategies are developed to ensure these gaps are closed. There is also a risk that the "usual suspects" and extremes of offline politics simply set up camp online, again shouting over the voice of the middle ground.

Trusted institutions can help bridge the gap. While political trust is at an all-time low, the BBC remains relatively well thought of. Digital television and the internet increase the opportunities to connect people with democracy and to present them with choices. The risk is that these choices become illusory if they are not properly developed or connected to process.

Access and literacy are pre-cursors to digital adoption, but personal motivation through accessible, relevant and timely content is the key to staying connected. So when Mark Thompson talked about the BBC's rôle in building digital democracy recently, the idea resonated with me. The BBC's Charter makes it clear that it has a rôle to play. While it is just one piece in the jigsaw, the BBC does have the scale and trust necessary to mediate the democratic divide.

The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows-- (a) sustaining citizenship and civil society; (b) promoting education and learning; (c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; (d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; (e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; (f) in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

Can a new age of democracy at the BBC recognise that we live in a new landscape? Can it bring key stakeholders from both sides along with it? I believe it must because change is not something that can occur in isolation. I would like to see models of interactivity where all of us can get involved; where institutions such as the BBC provide not just coverage and commentary but red-button democracy, allowing citizens to pass judgement on what their elected representative do and say in real time.

This is democracy light, perhaps, and initially passive - but from here opportunities arise to create digital pathways, accelerating those who are motivated into increasingly deliberative spaces. New democratic forms will emerge beyond the original host because true digital democracy is multi-dimensional and no longer the domain of a privileged few.

Andy Williamson is the Director of eDemocracy programmes at the Hansard Society.


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