Let them write columns

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.

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Paulette Neal-Allen

Great post Ingrid! I have a couple of curiosity questions – what generation is James Cousins? How big is Wandsworth?

Ingrid Koehler

Oooh, I should have US’d up this post. I wrote it for the UK audience initially. James is early 30s – a Conservative Councillor with a cabinet portfolio for regeneration. I know him, but he’s not my ward councillor. Wandsworth is one of the London Boroughs, and classified as “Inner London”. I’m taking a guess on population size, but let’s say 250,000, most London boroughs have about that many people. Geographically, it’s probably no more than four miles across in any direction – maybe? – I’m not very good at that sort of thing. But it’s not that big area wise. Sadiq Khan, the other person mentioned in Louise’s tweet is our MP for Tooting (Labour) – I think he’s my age, late 30s. There are three parliamentary constituencies within the borough of Wandsworth – Tooting, Battersea and Putney (I’m in the downmarket one).

Paulette Neal-Allen

So it sounds like he’s representing an inner city area?

I can usually look at metric measurements and get a general idea of how big something is, so that’s not a big deal. I was just kind of trying to get a feel for the kind of guy James is and the kind of folks he’s representing.

Ingrid Koehler

Yeah, it was showing up on my PC, but not on my work laptop. Thanks. I think I probably need to check my Picasa Web album settings.

Adriel Hampton

Good stuff, Ingrid. And yes, I think media elites are uncomfortable because there are losing not just jobs but also the undemocratic “gatekeeper” function they’ve long enjoyed. Looking forward to checking out your April event from over here. You already linked to it, but for folks reading this post, we’re addressing similar issues in California’s SF East Bay: Training for Citizen 2.0.

Pam Broviak

This is the second time I have seen someone bring up the notion that suggested the general population can be responsible for their own policy decisions and therefore their own representation. And both times, this has been from someone in the UK! To me, this idea is totally exciting. With all the problems we seem to have with some of our elected officials (I am from Illinois, the current poster child for this issue), isn’t it time we start considering the thought that maybe with Government 2.0 we can represent ourselves?

Your analogy comparing those with digital capabilities to the ability to read English or even to read at all is wonderful. I have started bringing up the idea of representing ourselves on a state or federal level with people in my community and one concern is that not everyone has a computer or would bother to get involved. But as you point out, we don’t avoid doing things just because there is someone out there who cannot participate.

To me, this concept is inspiring and would be true democracy. But could it ever happen? The other comment I get is: this will never happen because the representatives would have to vote to get rid of themselves, and they would never do that.

Ingrid Koehler

Pam, thanks for your comments. I would never argue that we should get rid of representative democracy. I posted here some reasons why we shouldn’t trust ourselves to govern in all circumstances. And there’s another reason – mob rule. Sometimes we need the checks and balances of a grindng bureacracy to keep us from doing some stupid stuff. Crowd wisdom isn’t always that wise. (The Founding Fathers set this out nicely.) But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some exciting opportunities for to do much, much more. And yes, there’s some great stuff going on here in the UK – we hope our online conference will be an opportunity to showcase and share what’s going on. And it would only be enriched by getting examples of what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

BTW, I know all about corruption and local government. I’m originally from a small town in Tennessee. When I was in college nearly all of our City Commissioners were simultaneously indited. 🙁

Pam Broviak

Ingrid, I realize your post did not come directly out and advocate for ridding ourselves of representatives. But when I see people comment as you did, it leads me to think we could take it to that next step. As you suggest, the issue that concerns people is opening it up to the “mob,” but as history has shown, when those who represent us fail to do so, the mob arises and takes over anyway. So purely from the viewpoint of an intellectual discussion, I wonder about how gov 2.0 can channel the masses to making change without having to actually revolt as our ancestors did.

The other side of the representative issue I wonder about is that we had to have representatives back in the days before transportation and the Internet because someone had to go to Congress (state or fed) to read legislation and represent us. But if that were the sole reason for the need to appoint or elect a representative, that no longer is a valid reason. If the reason was because people were scared of what the majority would do, then how can we be truly a democracy?