Demos/Google: How Has The Internet Changed British Democracy?

On Tuesday evening I found myself at a google/demos event, How Has The Internet Changed British Democracy?. Unlike most discussions about the net and democracy I’ve attended, the panel here was very ‘establishment’, consisting of Demos Director Catherine Fieschi , Spectator Editor Matthew D’Ancona, Stephan Shakespeare, the founder of online polling agency YouGov, and BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson. Tom Watson MP was detained in the House of Commons, or he would have joined the panel.

Given the establishment panel it was refreshing to hear a general concensus that while there have been lots of indications of change, the real potential of the net has not yet been realised in British politics. Catherine Fieschi concluded her introductory statements noting that she doesn’t think the internet has changed democracy “yet in our societies, but I think it’s gone some of that way in others.”

A recurring theme, first clearly voiced by Spectator Editor was that we should be looking for a genuinely new form of politics for the internet age, and not simply how the net “facilitates and speeds up” the old forms. There was a general consensus that Gordon Brown’s recently announced “new politics” has (in the words of Catherine Fieschi) “a distinctly 20th century feel” but while many ideas were thrown around, what was naturally lacking was any description of what a 21st century version might look like.

Nick Robinson discussed in some detail how he came to start blogging, first in the form of an “election diary” some years back, and more recently again on the BBC News site. He pointed out that as TV reporter he didn’t get much feedback and that by providing a feedback mechanism the blog had helped his reporting. In particular he pointed to the resignation of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, when there was a sense among some members of the public that reporters had know of Kennedy’s drinking problem and were covering it up. Robinson claimed that he had been unaware of that sense, and that the blog made him aware of it and so able to address it directly.

Robinson was particularly concerned that in an age of on-demand television and increasing narrow-casting it is all too easy for viewers to “opt out” of the political news he believes is vitally important. He sees blogging and other new media as a way to engage a new audience. His eagerness to engage is impressive but I found myself wondering if a better way to handle a situation where people are only watching a narrow selection of news is to try to make sure that reporters work harder to convey the contexts of (and hence the interweaving between) their stories. He hinted towards this in suggestions that he wanted the BBC to make better use of amazon-style recommendation systems for news but I think it bears further development to help people dig deeper into the contexts their interests exist within.

Tom Steinberg of mySociety challenged the panel to discuss a “non-media” aspect of the political process they could see changing in the coming years as a result of the internet and while they shared a focus on the somewhat obvious element of direct accountability (as demonstrated to some extent by mySociety’s projects) the key interest seemed to be in the position for co-creation in the consultative and drafting process. We have tools to gather opinion and to collectively edit documents, can that be harnessed to change the way the government writes Green Papers?

Perhaps the strongest sense I took away was that government needs to wake up to the possibility and need for stronger feedback loops. At the mySociety Disruptive Technologies session earlier in the month Stef Magdalinksi led a discussion that spent quite some time on the need for campaign facilitators to provide feedback loops so that campaigners can see the impact of their actions and all involved can refine their work.

The same possibility exists for government who could be proactive in their responses to petitions especially, as Nick Robinson pointed out, those gathered through the Downing Street Petitions system. Government can use these systems to identify people with specific interests and to supply them with information, whether persuasive or simply educational, to deepen that conversation. Similarly people can be identified to receive alerts about consultations, to be invited to discussions, and so on. It may be possible for expertise and interest at the grassroots to more effectively bubble up into policy making.

It would be naive to think that major change that will happen quickly or withour pressure, but the possibilities are enormous and this session showed that there are people close to the policy making process who are thinking seriously about the possibilities.

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