Two contrasting approaches to UK e-democracy emerged over the last few days. On the one hand OurKingdom is promoting the idea of a massive online conversation leading up to a Citizens Summit to discuss the British Statement of Values, which I wrote about here.
I've been one of a small group offering ideas on how this might work, and OurKingdom is now inviting anyone else interested to join in. This isn't the big conversation itself, just how to plan it. The assumption is, if we talk sensibly Govenment will listen.
On the other hand Tom Steinberg, who runs the hugely successful mySociety organisation (Pledgebank, FixMyStreet, No 10 e-petitions) spells out their philosophy in launching Free our Bills, a new initiative focussed around getting Parliament to publish bills properly. It boils down to - don't expect Government to change except in very small ways, whatever you say.
In a post to the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange, Tom says:
mySociety has traditionally worked on the assumption that it's basically impossible to ever get any part of any government to do anything of any real significance in the field of edemocracy, or in the wider field of greater access to data.
As a result we've always tried to pick projects that work as well as possible for the citizen without requiring government to do anything it didn't do before (think FixMyStreet, or WriteToThem). Picking a project that requires a bit of government to move a single inch in order for your project to work at all is a sadly proven path to failure. Unfortunately, our need to campaign today is a validation of this highly pessimistic approach. It is absurd that this campaign is even necessary, given that we tried so hard to do it the 'nice way' with meetings, gentle encouragement and nicely written word documents in Whitehall-speak explaining why it was useful and cheap and non-threatening. But where it counted the unelected officials who hold the relevent power here just weren't persuadable for reasons that we're having to FOI to find out.
Tom suggests a new approach to evaluating e-democracy. Instead of looking at what e-democracy projects don't achieve in terms of mass engagement, it is better to look at "pressure points, chinks in the armour where improvements might be possible, whether with the consent of government or not". He concludes:
Anyway, if this seems like a counsel of despair, it isn't supposed to be. I'm just saying that being realistic about the nature of actual progress in our field (tiny, incremental, currently peaking with things like TheyWorkForYou and Stemwijzer.nl ) makes for more interesting, useful discussions than comparing everything to the Holy Grail of True, Mass Scale Deliberative Democracy.
The OurKingdom approach does rather fall into the Mass Scale Deliberative Democracy frame. It started through a conversation between Anthony Barnett of OurKingdom and Michael Wills, the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice responsible for the Citizens Summit, and Anthony gives a summary of the private discussion a group of us had, now public here. Buried in there are my reservations about how far it is possible to plan something like this in the abstract: I think you need to be very clear about what you are trying to do, with whom - and to do that in the room, with the client. Others more experienced in the ways of e-democracy were able to be more constructive and it turned out to be a quite interesting discussion.
However, the question for me - highlighted by Tom - is whether it is worth having big conversations with Government, local or central. The Minister and civil servants may be very well-intentioned, but it is going to be very difficult to manage, and to analyse ... and even trickier to get agreement with all the different interests within Government. I remember Tom at UKGovwebBarcamp, when asked for his three tags (keywords) of self-description, saying "code not talk". So - is it worth trying the big conversation, or is it better to focus on the small steps? Or can we afford the time, energy and public money for both? "Image what you could do for one million pounds", was thrown into the OurKingdom discussion as a hypothetical. You get a lot of mySociety sites for that.
Update: the BBC has a very interesting way of displaying comments and emotions in relation to its discussion Is white working class Britain becoming invisible? I wonder if something similar might be relevant for a British Statement of Values conversation if that did get started? Hat tip to Nico Macdonald for the link ... who then points me to Healthcare for London, which I see is done by my friends at Delib
Technorati Tags: governanceofbritain