Yesterday’s UK policy paper Working Together – Public Services on Your Side includes some encouraging noises about greater interaction with the public online and greater access to information – what some people call Government 2.0:
“Renewed and reformed public services are the key to strong communities and a more socially mobile society. We will put people first by placing power in the hands of those who use our public services. “We are ushering in a new world of accountability in which parents, patients and local communities shape the services they receive, ensuring all our public services respond not simply to the hand of government, but to the voice of local people.”
But it doesn’t take long before those with with an overweening sense of equality speak up and try to ruin the party. Their argument is that if everyone can’t/won’t use the Internet than no one should. It’s a little like the mad boyfriend who says “If I can’t have you no one will!”
Take Marcel Berlins writing in The Guardian for example:
…it was the announcement of yet another lazy, ill-considered initiative based on persuading people to express their views on the internet. The usual weasel words and phrases were bandied about: “put people first”, “new world of accountability”, “information revolution”, “transparency” and so on. The idea is that people will go online to tell the government what they think about a range of services – hospitals, GPs, nurseries, schools, local councils, the police and so on. It cannot be denied that these plans will increase democracy in the sense that more people will be able to state their opinions on a number of issues affecting them. But true democracy is not just about numbers. It is also about quality. If significant sections of the population are denied the opportunity to join in, it cannot be called democracy. And if the way in which people’s opinions are gathered is itself unfair and unbalanced, that too is a perversion of democracy.
Well, maybe. We already have significant portions of the population who cannot join in policy or service discussions – i.e. most people. We already have significant portions of the population who don’t have elected or appointed office or a weekly column at The Guardian as a platform for their views – i.e. almost everybody. After all, if we can’t all write for a broadsheet, then no one should. Or maybe Marcel thinks the great unwashed masses can’t provide the quality of commentary on Government policy that he can – and so, the rest of us should just shut up.
But maybe the majority do have a computer and access to the Internet. In fact, six in ten UK households already have access to broadband at home and nine out of ten could have access to broadband. And if Government opens up and starts to encourage debate online, that starts to look a little bit more like democracy.
The information revolution
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I think this Government 2.0 stuff may be as transformational as the printing press. Before the printing press, hand copying was ridiculously expensive and beyond the reach of your average rabble rouser or Puritan reformer. Afterwards, the world changed. Without it, I would argue, the American revolution, increased power to Parliament and the Protestant reformations could not have happened. Political pamphlets, religious tracts and vernacular Bibles changed the position of power between ruler and ruled in the West forever.
But the printing press was introduced in a time when very few people could read. Political pamphlets were distributed amongst a largely illiterate population. But people aren’t stupid, folks could see that this reading thing might now have some merit. And literacy rates rose. Not as fast as we would have liked nor as universally, but it did happen.
Still today not everyone can read English or at all. These people are seriously disenfranchised. But that doesn’t stop us conducting the business of government, including consultation and voting, largely through the written word. Should we instead be smashing all the presses?
The digitally illiterate
Yes, there are people who don’t have access to the Internet and there are people who don’t know how to use it or use it effectively. But I’d argue that these people won’t be increasingly disenfranchised because much of the real digital engagement is an as well as and not instead of . However, there will be a real and widening gap between those who weren’t already connected in and those who have new channels of access via the Internet.
Of course, as public servants we must find ways to help people get engaged and use new and existing paths to empowerment. We will never reach full success, and we must never stop trying. But whatever we do, we must not ignore tools because some people don’t have them yet. And we definitely must not ignore those citizens who are already gathered online and ready and willing to engage, critique, join-in and collaborate on the services and issues that matter to them.
The digitally empowered
Last night, James Cousins, a councillor, was Tweeting from a Wandsworth council meeting. That’s where I live. I thought it was kinda cool to get a glimpse, 140 characters at a time, of what was being discussed about my local area. It’s certainly more than I’ve ever had before. I’ve never attended a local council meeting even though it’s a public meeting.
|From Screen Captures|
And clearly other residents thought the same thing.
I’m fully aware that Louise and I and other Wandsworth twitter users are very much a part of a small (but growing) set of the digitally privileged. But I’d say I feel a greater connection already.
And this connection is very different. It’s not like being chummy with a local politician. Because it’s visible, it’s much more democratic. As people see that, they’ll be able to see that this could be a real path to power and a way to connect with other residents who feel strongly about the same issues.
And that’s real democracy.
The shameless plug
We’ll be discussing these issues and more in Councillors Connected: the social media online conference April 6-8, which takes place on the IDeA Communities of Practice Platform at www.communities.gov.uk in a dedicated conference space. Councillor James Cousins will be presenting – and invitations have been extended to CLG ministerial team and shortly to Louise Brown, who works on digital engagement for the NCVO.
Update: James Cousins blogs on the Working Together paper from a local perspective.