Back in November 2013 John Bercow set up the Parliamentary Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. It produced its report in January of 2015 which made a number of recommendations.
I’ve written extensively about the DDC in previous blog posts so I was very interested when a new “Library Note” (research briefing) was published in Parliament on the 13th of October 2015 titled Digital Democracy: Political Participation and Citizen Engagement through the Internet.
I’ve written some relatively detailed points critiquing the note below but I feel I need to state my overall disappointment in the document up front. It is not clear who it is being written for or what the objective is. It offers no proposals and so presumably is meant to simply inform, at a very high level, about some of the things occurring in the digital space related to democracy. This would certainly explain the analogies used at one point to compare the internet to the telephone, the television and the press.
However, if this is the case the overall paper saddens me in two ways. The first is the use of very 1990s style language such as the use of the “e-” prefix and at points the inclusion of “general purpose computers” and “blogosphere”. I kept expecting to read about “on-ramps to the Information Superhighway”.
The second is simple avoidable mistakes. When stating that “The Government’s e-petitions site was launched in 2011 as a project of the Prime Minister, initially hosted at the Number 10 website (now under direct.gov.uk)” this seems to show that the author is unaware of the existence of GOV.UK for the last three years. This is potentially just an honest mistake but it is a troubling one.
On to the more detailed reading.
The Note is brief, less than 20 pages, and seeks to cover a wide variety of topics from online interactions with MPs and Members of the House of Lords, consultations by Select Committees, e-petitions, citizen media, online activism, deliberative and delegative voting experiments, and the data-mining of online political communication. In most cases each one receives 1-3 pages including at least half a page of references.
It states that it will be focusing on “e-petitions, e-consultations, e-debates,and e-engagement”. What is troubling is that the Note still seeks to indicate that communications mediated by digital technology as something other to the usual way of doing things. Highlighting “e-petitions” seeks to tacitly show them as something new and different and not the evolution of the existing process to encompass new ways of interacting.
Interestingly, the Note defines Digital Democracy as “the enhancement of the democratic and legislative processes, through information technology” and specifically different from electronic voting and “e-government”, a new term to me, which is it states is “the exercise of government functions and service provision through digital technology”. In this manner it fails to appreciate the continuous spectrum of citizen and civic group interaction via consultations and other deliberative democracy processes. These can range from their initial conception, continuing on to the drafting of legislation, concluding with the discussion of detailed implementation policy specifics. The exemplary example of the last stage of this come via Policy Lab.
After touching on the oft-stated decline in voter turnout, political party membership, general political engagement, trust in government et al it covers a number of potential reasons that “commenters have suggested” for those situations including potential reasons such as lobbying, spin, globalisation and “reduced respect for elites”. It touches briefly on the potential of citizens moving to focus more on specific-issue engagement.
After a paragraph explaining the capabilities of the internet in reference to the telephone, television and the press it goes on to list ways Members and government have used social media. It highlights the Number 10 Youtube channel despite it receiving under 1,000 hits per average video. It also mentions the fear some Members have of interacting with the public via social medial as “the ‘inbuilt restraints’ of earlier forms of communication have been removed”. Again, it is sad to still see the attitude that just because communication is mediated by digital methods it is somehow specifically different to previous channels.
In the next section it refers to the “Several dozen e-consultations have been carried out by the UK government since 1998” without mention either that fact that thousands of laws (including fulfilling of SIs) are introduced every year or whether the the consultations in question differed from the usual ones either in terms amount or type or responses or changes in eventual outcome.
It notes how a site for citizens to express political opinions called CitizenSpace was created in 2001 and run for eight months before being closed because moderation of the site “proved too ambitious at the time”. How this would be addressed in future given that significantly more of the population is now online is not addressed.
Since 2008 “The Hansard Society found that e-consultations carried out by government departments and agencies served more to inform than to consult”. This despite the conclusion that “they brought unexpected perspectives to the because they were accessible to a wider range of participants than previous consultations may have been. Thanks to the transcending of time and place, both those who are busy during office hours, as well as people from remote, rural areas, were included.”
Moving on to “e-petitions” it notes that 21 of these have reached the 100,000 signatures required to nominate them for debate in Parliament but also mentions that most signatories don’t know that a backbench MP must also agree to raise the issue. Further, The Hansard Society states “he effect of petitions on policy has been minimal, or at least hard to establish”. It touches on the continued existence of general-purpose multi single-campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees without highlighting that this may be due to the facilities they provide beyond simple petition signing such as building a discussion community around the topic in question.
It touches on William Dutton’s phrase “the fifth estate” to cover aspects of citizen journalism that are intended to impact government policy as well as the use of the internet by organisations such as Occupy and the organisers of the Arab Spring before introducing the idea of the echo chamber effect in the “blogosphere”.
The next section is on “Polling, Deliberative and Delegative Platforms and Experiments”. This starts off by stating “When, in the 1990s, digital democracy became well known as a concept, it was direct democracy, with every citizen e-voting on every bill in real-time, that most people envisaged” without having anything to back up such a bold statement. It then blinks past online political polling before mentioning the “Open House” proposal from the DDC report and various other online deliberative discussion platforms.
Finally it discusses using “big data” related to what people post on social media as an alternative to traditional polling. This is touted as being “more precise” despite the possibility of such systems being easily gamed.