Clicking our way to democracy

The man who launched the government's e-petitions says our politics is based on granular issues but our political system is based on candidates

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ePetitions, crowd-sourcing, social media engagement and, God help us, tweet-ups are all becoming familiar features of the modern political landscape, symptoms of a new enthusiasm in government to ‘engage’ with the electorate and offer up a form of accountability. Are they going far enough?

The latest to the plate is the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), the first such initiative at European level, which allows 1 million European citizens able to launch petitions to directly affect policy from the European Commission.

The ECI is welcome, if a little limited in scope at the moment, but it does ask some questions familiar to those of us who ploughed through the UK’s early steps into digital democracy and engagement (and which we’ll be discussing on November 29th) what does this really change? Are the institutions ready for the sort of challenge this could bring? Are these processes representative? And does it make for better government or even better citizens? In short, is this stuff the new democracy?

The first signs weren’t hopeful. Back in 2007, I helped launched the UK’s original ePetitions service - through which you could lobby the government to change policy. It was up to you to raise enough signatures to warrant a response. A small, but useful, step in the relationship between digital government and digital citizen and one that remains still, though now housed in its more logical home in Parliament.

I’ve never been sorry about the petitions. I just wish I hadn’t read them.

Prejudice

I read the first 20,000 or more. Checking for obscenity, repetition, misunderstanding and libel, amongst other things and two things stood out.

There were one or two significant issues up for discussion at the time, but they barely scraped the surface. What motivated people more was the personal freedoms and prejudices - to be able to smoke in pubs, to drive as fast they liked, with no CCTV cameras and while smoking - and to challenge the freedoms of others (to build mosques or wear hijabs perhaps).

 And on top of that, there was the media prompts. A wholly spurious story might appear in a mid-market tabloid newspaper (let’s call it the Daily Mail or The Sun, for argument’s sake) and later that day, a petition would appear demanding that what had been invented in that paper be stopped or banned. This summer, 5 years on, the Red Arrows flew over London during the early part of the opening ceremony, finally contradicting the 500,000 or so who had signed a petition believing that the government had banned such displays of militarism. Which, in fact, had never been contemplated.

What this reveals is the simple truth that our politics is based on granular (often personal or local) issues while our political systems are based on candidates. Sometimes, often indeed, those issues are rather odd and we may need a rather more mature political culture than we sometimes have. And that political culture may have emerged from the fact that we vote for a candidate but we never like everything about them. Sometimes we like almost nothing about them, aside from the colour of the rosette. And that’s it for 5 years, until the stubby pencils and voting booths are wheeled out again. So there’s always something to complain, powerlessly, about.

Piecemeal

In contrast, democratic technologies, be it ECI, petitions or crowdsourcing platforms, give the ability to contribute regularly on a granular level - to do aside with party politics and make choices based on the policy not the man or woman selling it to us. The bundling of policies into packages by political parties just makes everyone rather unhappy about the choices before them. Instead, perhaps we should look to a kind of individualised democracy where we support or decline policies on an piecemeal basis.

It drives the party political system over a cliff, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and might well be truer to the way we view actually view political issues. We’d have to grow up a bit and leave the tribalism and the personal abuse of politicians behind, and that takes some of the fun out of it, but we’d get used to the new asceticism. And we’d have to get better technologies than mere clicktivisms, but it could even re-engage us with politics, just without the politicians. Instead, our leaders become deliverers, not promisers and the value comes from the mass insight of the population and the ability of a ruling class to implement rather than rule over us.

Who’s with me, and where do we click?

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