Alan Stewart talks to Irving Rappaport, who is trying to forge a permanent electronic link between politicians and the public
Have you ever wished you could join in political discussions on subjects you feel strongly about? Would you like to tell Messrs Major, Blair, Ashdown and other party leaders what you think of their policies? Well, now you won't have to wait for Question Time to visit your locality, thanks to UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD), a series of World Wide Web discussion groups for important topics of the day.

"We were learning from previous projects in the States," explains Irving Rappaport, UKCOD's chief executive. "Over there, it was clear that some politicians just wouldn't entertain getting into a public arena. This way they have a choice. There's nothing to stop them entering the public forum any time they want."

Although Rappaport trained in medicine and dental surgery, spending seven years in general practice, his most recent background is in film production (The Company of Wolves, Absolute Beginners, and Mona Lisa) and ecology (MSc at University of Wales, and land resources manager of Lee Valley Park).

The online democracy service started life as one part of a project submitted to the Millennium Commission. "They turned it down," Rappaport says, "because they don't like information technology projects."

He decided to carry on anyway, using his own finances as well as looking for further support. This was forthcoming from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Computing Services and Software Association, and the Scarman Trust, as well as a number of companies in the IT field.

Transport is the topic of one current debate on UKCOD. Politicians are being quizzed (with the aid of MORI) on whether they favour road or rail, how government might limit traffic congestion and car pollution, and whether their party has a coherent transport policy that could appeal to drivers as well as those who use public transport.

Another discussion, on the Constitution, begins by asking politicians whether reform is needed, whether they favour devolution and what its implementation (or the lack of it) might bring, and what other policies might give people a more effective voice.

Future plans include an audio link to Parliament. "We've had talks with the various people concerned," says Rappaport. "Interestingly enough, the rules of Parliament are such that video comes under broadcasting, but audio doesn't."

UKCOD wants to institute a major research programme into the whole business of electronic democracy. "We're already having discussions with some rather high-up academics in that area," Rappaport says, "not least of which is our own political consultant, Dr Stephen Coleman of the Hansard Society."

It is estimated that about 5 per cent of people in the UK are online, including those who connect to the Net at work. "It's still a lot less than in the States, where figures are in excess of 20 per cent, and sometimes higher in the great conurbations," Rappaport says. "That's why the research needs to be done."

Brent Council in London recently conducted a survey of residents' views on this year's council tax, with help from UKCOD. "We were all delighted when 12 per cent of the response was online," Rappaport says. "That was twice what we expected." Local initiatives are set to take off in the coming year, he predicts.

UKCOD's general open forum has certainly proved to be popular, with discussions on bugging, a windfall tax, the Budget, House of Lords reform, public transport, Internet censorship, and voting in Britain for foreign nationals. Other main debates include Britain and EMU, and comments on government electronic service delivery proposals.

Why, though, are the discussions on the Web, instead of in a Usenet newsgroup? "You can click the 'participate by e-mail' button, and then you don't have to look at the Web ever again," explains Rappaport. He admits that catching up with the discussion means you have to be online, so there will be a newsgroup link - but later.

"It's not just a place for people to chat," says Rappaport. "We want to get things done."

The whole idea of UKCOD, he points out, is to bring politicians and public together, in the hope that politicians will take some note of what is being said. They need to be careful of raising peoples' expectations, though, he warns. "It's a powerful tool," he says, "particularly if politicians have their own Web site and get local people's e-mail. They can communicate with their electorate with no interference, no media censorship or editing. Don't forget, though, it's all an experiment at the moment".

UK Citizens Online Democracy