Thanks to the Our Kingdom for noting that Justice Minister Michael Wills has now confirmed in a recent speech there will be a programme of events and online discussions leading up to a Citizens Summit about a proposed British Statement of Values later this year. This is one of three strands to implement the Green Paper Governance of Britain proposals I wrote about here.
The speech is interesting both for the details it give of this process, and asides on the balance of representative and participatory democracy.
After speaking about the Constitutional Renewal Bill - which will "surrender or limit a wide range of powers currently exercised by the executive, transferring them to Parliament" and the British Bill of Rights and Duties, Michael Wills said:
The final strand of the programme is the formulation of a British Statement of Values. Our national identity matters. Most advanced democracies have developed ways to express formally their view of who they are as a nation. This country has throughout much of its history vigorously discussed what it meant to be British. It was only in the years after the Second World War that we went through a period of introspection, lacking in self-confidence when such discussions were often regarded with embarrassment. We are now far more successful and self-confident as a country and the government believes the time is right to find a way to express who we believe ourselves to be in a way that is inclusive and commands broad support.
If we don't do this, others will. National identity matters to people. If there isn't a national process to discuss it, in ways that are inclusive of everyone on these islands, then there is a risk that this territory will be colonised by sectarian and sometimes even poisonous views.
For us, here the process of discussion and deliberation is as important as the outcome. That's why we are doing this through an innovative constitutional process. Shortly, we will start a series of discussions up and down the country, accompanied by print material and online forums, on what it means to be British, what's best about it, what best expresses what's best about it. This will all be fed into a citizens summit - a representative sample of perhaps 500 people, selected randomly, for example, from the electoral register, but filtered, in much the same ways as opinion polls filter their samples, to ensure it is demographically representative. And informed by these consultations and by presentations directly to them, they will deliberate - and we hope decide - on four main questions: should there be such a statement of values, if so what it should be, how it should be expressed and finally what it should be used for.
Their decision will then go to Parliament for a final decision.
Writing at Our Kingdom, Guy Aitchison highlights the Minister's caution about the benefits of edemocracy:
Wills discusses the transformational role of the web, but with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. He celebrates the ease with which constituents can now contact their MP, but is uneasy that new forms of technology and communication might challenge the representative principles upon which our democracy is based. “The electronic plebiscite”, he warns, “is just a click or two away” and we should be “very careful about embarking on a slippery slope towards plebiscitary democracy.” He imagines what might happen if an unscrupulous billionaire wanted a policy change and set about a nationwide campaign of mass emails and advertising to convince voters to support it online. Could MPs be trusted in such a situation to meet Burke’s ideal of the representative, using their “unbiassed opinion, mature judgement and enlightened conscience’”?
Wills’s misgivings, I’d suggest, reflect a much broader anxiety on the part of government towards the power of the web - something memorably brought home to them last year with the huge success of the anti-road charge e-petition. For government, the challenge is to use new technologies for deliberation and engagement between elections, whilst ensuring that, what has been called, the “mainframe” remains intact. Is this possible given that the mainframe belongs to a previous age?
However, Michael Wills does end with a general commitment to great engagement with citizens, saying:
In these circumstances of the changing societal base for our democracy and the advent of new technologies which, indeed can be a benign force enhancing democracy, this government is convinced that we need to work more vigorously to re-engage citizens in the representative democracy we all share - and from which we all benefit.
Hence the surrendering or limiting of the power of the executive, the development of new mechanisms to make policy development a collaborative venture between government and citizens, instead of a top-down exercise which can only be accepted or rejected at elections with no in-between options, and giving citizens greater opportunity directly to monitor and scrutinise the delivery of policy.
See my original post for references to Gordon Brown's ideas on engagement, including citizens juries.
The Ministry of Justice has rather a good Governance of Britain web site with news feeds that you can add to your own site, and a what others are saying section fed by del.icio.us bookmarks. If you tag your blog posts "for:governanceofbritain" you may get included on the site. You can read here how that was developed using Wordpress by Simon Dickson, working with the MoJ's own blogger and UKGovwebBarcamp organiser Jeremy Gould.
It's comforting to know that when the Ministry does start to roll out online discussion it has some in-house expertise.
Declaration: I did done some early work for MoJ with Drew Mackie, running a workshop with staff to help design the programme. We used a game like this to simulate the process, and I think it helped wok through how the mix of online and events might work.