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Digital Democracy: A Response To Marko

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Andy Williamson | 11:37 UK time, Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Editor's note: Andy's response to Marko Tusar's comments on his post about Digital Democracy was so detailed that I thought it would be useful to turn it into a new post as well as a comment. Marko's questions are in italics. [Nick Reynolds, Editor, BBC Internet Blog]

1) Do you think local representatives are worth voting for or even remembering? Why?

Yes, I do. I believe local knowledge and connections are important. The internet might make things more global, but it also accentuates the local.

2) Do you think there should be more tangible evidence of politicians making decisions and having views?

Sticking to online, I think this already exists - TheyWorkForYou allows me track how my MP voted and to monitor what they said.

3) Politicians have failed to keep up with the transformation of society made possible in part by the forms of networked individualism associated with the internet. Why do you think that is?

It's a basic adoption cycle... our politicians tend to be in the demographic that falls into the later adopter category for ICT and the internet in particular.

4) Would you regard the popular march against the war in Iraq as "self-motivated, viral, emergent and temporal"? If not, why not? What criteria do you use to make your assessment?

Yes, I probably would and that's a very good parallel to draw. Why? Because it emerged out of a ground-swell of public opinion 1) deciding that was being done was wrong; 2) feeling motivated enough to do something about it and 3) getting together with like-minded people to act together. It's actually a classic internet model for disruption only carried out in the real world.

In fact, this probably makes a good argument about why we must focus on people and not technology (so thanks for the analogy). Of course, one might also argue that ultimately it has been a largely ineffective social movement in that it has clearly had an effect but has failed to secure the desired result. A warning for online too, I suspect.

5) "[o]ld and new ways of engaging clash headlong like rutting stags". Please describe what you mean in detail about new ways of working, and the main barriers that have prevented politicians from adopting them. What are the main sources of resistance?

Old democratic practices are elitist and inward looking; government values its own views above those of individual citizens. New media transforms this model so that more views can be heard, democracy can be more deliberative and - if anyone is listening - decisions can be made based on a much wider input. These models are polar opposites; the challenge is finding the balance between old and new - it's not either/or, but somewhere in between.

6) "Digital technologies can't of themselves change the nature of engagement". Why do you think you put down the role of digital technology? Isn't it allowing this very act of communication that wouldn't be possible otherwise, and therefore significantly changing the nature of engagement?

Yes it is, but to elevate the role is to be technologically deterministic and this is a flawed argument - change occurs because of people, not technology.

7) "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". Is this a general comment about traction of innovation, or one specifically associated with the Internet? What are the current communication channels for innovation?

Well, yes, I'd probably agree with you that this comment applies beyond the internet. Ironically, the civil services are now being encouraged to be more innovative but this has to be contextualized within the existing culture, I guess.

8) "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". I have difficulties following this logic. To me, this appears to be saying that it won't work because politicians don't use the internet?!!!

No, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that relying on technology without making the necessary process transformations or demonstrating the benefits to people won't work. Adoption comes from personal motivation; discontinuous adoption will come from value derived from new processes that technology supports.

9) "Online" is still largely out of mind for politicans. Have you asked politicians why this is so? If not, what answer do you predict?

Yes. See 3 above!

10) Have you asked politicans if they want to "move the political debate back to citizens"? Did they wholeheartedly agree? Perhaps they could post here.

Yes and yes many of them do... in fact, I still believe that most MPs are there because they believe they can improve people's lives and most want to find more effective ways of keeping in touch with constituents (not least, it can help secure their re-election, which might seem self-serving but see 7) above about personal motivation).

11) You confuse accessibility of broadband with having a dedicated broadband connection at home. Many very poor countries rely on shared communal connections in places such a libraries and cafes. Has the social status, education and wealth of politicians been a barrier to internet use such as posting opinions on a blog, or creating a blog?

No, I don't. This comment is absolutely intentionally written as it stands. I agree completely with your comment about access through places other than home, but I have seen over and over again in my own research that adoption and value is directly related to proximity of access. It should be a policy aim to ensure that people have access to the internet where and when they need it - that can and should include libraries and community centres but it must focus on access in the home, workplace and school.

12) After being elected, in what sense can an MP represent the views of thousands of people? Can you give examples of effective influence?

This goes back to the core tenets of representative democracy. I'm also not sure what you mean by "represent" versus "influence" here... there are certainly examples of the internet being used to influence political opinion. The obvious one is the 10 Downing St road toll petition. Personally, I don't believe this did anything that wouldn't have happened anyway but I do believe it significantly reduced the time it took the government to feel the full force of public opinion.

13) "allowing citizens to pass judgement on what their elected representative do and say in real time". Would some tangible record of an MPs choices and decision help in this case? With the existing "Have Your Say" forum, can you demonstrate how this has influenced MPs?

It's problematic that there doesn't appear to be any real evaluation of the effectiveness of sites such as this or TheyWorkForYou. Anecdotally, they appear to have value, but it's hard to draw conclusions beyond that.

14) The government has naturally filtered out blacks, Asians and women from the highest levels for many years. Why do you think politicians are going to be any more objective with the views of the public, if they are so easily swayed by skin colour and gender?

Yes, sadly the current system continues to be skewed not just by race and gender but also social class. I think there is a strong movement within disenfranchised groups to raise their profile and voice their opinions, the internet assists this but nothing will guarantee that people are listened to; again, this is a social issue and it requires a shift in culture. Hopefully, this will occur over time in part because of the way the internet can break down silos and barriers.

It's a depressing thought to end on, perhaps, but there remains the risk that the internet is simply colonized by those in power as a way of retaining their power. It requires others to stake claims in these spaces for this to change; passivity won't work.

Andy Williamson is the Director of eDemocracy programmes at the Hansard Society. Marko Tusar is a Support Consultant, Journalism, BBC Future Media & Technology.


  • Comment number 1.

    theyworkforyou is indeed a great site. It needs more publicity.

    Though I'm not sure I'd use the anti-toll-road petition as a great example. Since its not people thinking about what might be best for the country or others, merely that they don't want to pay themselves.

    ps/ this is my fourth try at posting... it just pops up a window telling me how to post???

  • Comment number 2.

    Thank you for responding to my questions. Continuing the threads...
    1) Do you believe the local collective knowledge and connections of a constituency (as a result of the internet) are superior or more sophisticated or knowledgeable than the local conduits a single politician can create?
    2) Why do you think tangible evidence of decision making does not come directly and clearly from an individual politician but from a third party site such as theyworkforyou.com? Why don't politicians articulate decisions and changes in a tangible and efficient form directly? Recording this in a blog is now trivial process.
    3) So politicians have failed to keep up with the transformation of society associated with the internet because of their demographic (age/income/ethnic origin). Do you have confidence that this demographic can grasp other new societal transformations and not be a late adopter in recognising or responding to other changes? or will failure to solve a problem be just due to this narrow demographic?
    4) So the main difference here between real and online is that the internet has provided the communications glue to make the aggregation much quicker and probably more precise in its direction. You keep focusing away from technology, but technology is the enabler for this expression. Why do you think that the example of the war march failed to secure the desired result, even though it appeared to represent a significant view?
    5) Do you value the government's views above the collective view of its individual citizens? Why?
    5a) Ok, so the main reason that has prevented politicians adopting new ways of working is because the new model is so new and different to the old ways of working! Why does it have to be a balance? Why do politicians have to hang on to elitist and inward looking practices? Why can't they just choose a better way of doing their business? Typewriter to word processor?
    6) I don't really understand this, how is it deterministic, a flawed argument? People includes people's ability to communicate, so this use of technology blurs into a person's identity. I just see your comment as mildly technophobic and resulting from a need to comfortably separate human from technological. Change occurs because of technology e.g. global satellite navigation. Are you saying that you are only influenced by people? A volcano erupts and people run away. Are you arguing that geology isn't affecting people's behaviour?
    7) So the problem is really being able to do new things. Why does the culture have to remain the same with things having to be contextualised within the existing culture? All you're saying is that the civil service is reluctant to change. How then can it reflect and be sensitive to people's views and opinions?
    8) The new "process change" is to actually choose to use the internet! So politicians can't see the benefit of using technology to improve the political process? or the benefits haven't been demonstrated enough? Politicians are lacking motivation? What is the main inertia in the current processes?
    10) Doesn't the reluctance to show tangible individual views/decisions/changes demonstrate that a politician values securing re-election above improving lives etc. Blog technology devalues the skill of generating spin.
    11) This proximity of access does not seem to apply to politicians. Repeating my secondary question: Has the social status, education and wealth of politicians been a barrier to internet use such as posting opinions on a blog, or creating a blog? Why?
    12) "Influence" should be loosely implied in "represent".
    13) There seems little investigation of the correlation between public opinion and policy during a term of office.
    14) You have commented on, classified and validated the question but have not answered it. Specifically are politicians more/less/or at about the same level of objectivity where views of the public are concerned? Why?
    Some extra questions:
    a) Can you list things that have been important agents or direct causes of cultural change, perhaps the top 5?
    b) How has lack of transparency helped politicians in the past?
    c) What do politicians make that people use?
    d) Is the average self interest of a group of politicians less than the average self interest of the electorate?


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