Leading article: Click here for democracy

Share
Related Topics

We extended a cautious welcome to the Government's Spending Challenge when it was launched last summer. It was a consultation on the internet, which invited members of the public and public servants to submit ideas for cutting public spending. As we report today, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is running a parallel exercise called Your Freedom to seek suggestions for laws and regulations that should be scrapped.

As we said in the summer, such digital plebiscites are gimmicky, unrepresentative and risk being exploited by lobby groups. Yet they can also breathe new democratic life into government. The Your Freedom exercise is a way to find out what unnecessary laws cause most irritation. It is also, like the Spending Challenge, a good way to mobilise the expert knowledge that is locked away at the lower levels of bureaucracy and among the users of public services. Unless you have run a small business or have had to look after a severely disabled child, for example, you are unlikely to know how frustrating simple interactions with the authorities can be.

All governments are attracted by the metaphor of a bonfire of red tape. Harold Wilson, as President of the Board of Trade, won favourable headlines for authorising a "bonfire" of war-time controls in 1948. More recently, Al Gore's main claim to fame before he discovered climate change was the Reinventing Government initiative that he ran as Vice President. And who can forget the Better Regulation Taskforce set up by Tony Blair in 1997?

One of the abiding weaknesses of the Labour governments of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown was that they tended to see regulation, legislation and new public bodies as the answer to almost any problem. By the end, Mr Brown was reduced to passing a series of laws – to halve the deficit in four years, in the most pointless example – as a form of press release.

The British Liberal tradition, now represented around the cabinet table, should be dedicated to the ceaseless struggle to limit the reach of the state and to cut back unnecessary rules, laws and quangos. Mr Clegg and his party are more instinctively sensitive to the threats to civil liberties than their Labour predecessors or their Conservative partners – although David Cameron's "liberal Conservatism" represents a welcome shift from his own party's authoritarian past. And it is instructive that the Your Freedom website has given expression to strong popular feeling about a number of threats to liberty – notably the abuse of anti-terrorism law, including to harass photographers and restrict protest; the US extradition treaty; and arbitrary powers for too many public bodies to snoop on electronic communications.

This valuable opening up of Whitehall has yielded insights and examples of burdensome and unnecessary form-filling, back-covering and public-sector make-work. Many of the submissions to the website are from people with many years' experience of running a business, or experience of minority, but not exceptional, circumstances, or from public servants on the front line. Many of them contain the sort of specific, specialist knowledge that managers find it hard to acquire, and which management consultants rarely supply.

The internet is an as yet barely discovered tool for transforming the public sector – usually a little behind the private sector – into more level hierarchies that innovate to meet the needs of the people they serve. Asking for suggestions is the easy bit, and only the first stage. The next stage, getting rid of pointless regulations and changing the way the public sector works, is harder. The cull of quangos carried out by the Government in October turned out to mean much less bureaucratic blood spilt than suggested by the advance publicity. But the change in the ruling assumption is clear.

As with the Spending Challenge, Mr Clegg's Your Freedom consultation is more than just a chance for poujadists to sound off. It may not be the Great Reform Act of his ambition, but it is potentially an exciting way to exploit the intelligence and experience of millions of people, either in their roles as citizens or as public servants. It is a pioneer example of how the democratic potential of the internet could be harnessed for the common good, and for that, Mr Clegg's reputation, which was built up and battered so extravagantly last year, deserves a small measure of rehabilitation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat