Weblogs for helen

Posted by helen on Wed 17 Nov 2010 at 19:08
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Tomorrow is the one hundred year anniversary of Black Friday, November 18th 2010. When the Conciliation Bill, which would extend voting rights to a small number of wealthy, land-owning women, reached its second reading, the prime minister refused to let the bill be further discussed in Parliament. In response, three hundred suffragettes - all members of the Women's Social and Political Union - marched to Parliament and tried to enter the Houses. They were met by six thousand police.

Two hundred women were arrested; many were physically and sexually assaulted. Two were wounded so badly that they died of their injuries.

The Suffragette movement was not popular. The WSPU in particular, dedicated to "deeds, not words", were renowned for their disruptive direct actions. The most famous image is of women chaining themselves to railings, but suffragettes also used tactics such as smashing windows, disrupting public meetings with megaphones, fighting with police officers, and arson. They were condemned by the press and the law: suffragettes were imprisoned multiple times, subjected to batterings and force-feedings, and many died.

Although the movement was split between those who thought destructive direct action was justified and those who did not, the actions were vindicated by history. Once the war had shifted perceptions of women's capabilities and society had adjusted to women's suffrage, their tactics became seen as a justified means to an end. These days, the suffragettes are honoured as heroines and martyrs, who risked their dignity, reputations and lives to win their female successors an equal vote.

Tomorrow night there will be a vigil outside Parliament in memory of Black Friday. Remember the Suffragettes already has more attendees listed on Facebook than marched outside Parliament one hundred years ago. Named attendees include Helen and Laura Pankhurst, the granddaughter and great granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurts, and speakers Caroline Lucas MP and Dr Diane Atkinson. They will gather with other women and men in solidarity tomorrow not only to honour the actions of the suffragettes, but to call attention to the continuing inequality in our society and politics, in which fewer than a fifth of MPs are women, and women control only 1% of the world's money.

The vigil is being organised by Climate Rush, whose energetic tactics have been criticised, but still fall short of the most extreme actions resorted to by the suffragettes. Like women's suffrage one hundred years ago, environmental activism is currently scorned and marginalised, receiving minimal public and policy attention. When approximately 7/10 people displaced by climate change are women, it is appropriate that climate campaigners should show solidarity with the suffragettes.

Like the suffragettes, modern activists are divided in opinion on justifiable tactics for direct action. Some praise the destructive occupation of Millbank last week; others condemn it. But history has shown us that peaceful protest is rarely successful. Even the most famous pacifist movements had destructive counterparts which arguably contributed to their success. It is important, too, to note the difference between the tactics used by the suffragettes, Climate Rush and UK Uncut movement - such as vandalism, fire-starting and destruction of property - and violence against a person. Breaking windows might be spun as "violence" by press and police, but there is a clear moral and legal difference.

In 2003 between one and two million people marched against the Iraq war. They played by the rules: a peaceful, civilised march by a coherent coalition speaking with a united voice. And yet they failed.

I will be attending tomorrow's vigil not only to honour the brave women who fought, suffered and endured so we might vote, but also to express solidarity with their controversial but effective tactics of direct action. We should not listen to the press and police in deciding how best to fight for what is right, but to history.

Join us at 6.30pm on 18/11/10 to remember Black Friday. Wear mourning black and bring a jam jar and a candle. Remember the Suffragettes.


Posted by helen on Thu 2 Sep 2010 at 15:27

Appropriately, it was through Twitter that I ended up agreeing to speak at dotActivist, a new online campaigning conference organised by Turnfront. I re-tweeted a call for female speakers on web activism, which said that they had four men and one woman already booked, and they'd like to redress the balance a little. After a couple of days in which no female web activists stepped up, it occurred to me that I arguably fit the bill. I'd never spoken at a political conference before (in fact, I hadn't even attended on) but since I'm the first to kvetch when I read about all-male panels, I thought I should probably put my money where my mouth was.

Six weeks later, I arrived at the Hub in Kings Cross on a Saturday morning clutching a bag containing my precious, hastily-written talk, sleep-deprived and jangling with nerves. A couple of weeks earlier I'd attended the vast and ambitious ORGCon, which had given me a slightly distorted sense of what to expect. The mission statement for dotActivist was impressively big - "share tactics, and explore exciting new ways of changing the world " - but to my relief, the reality was somewhat more contained. Thirty or forty people of a range of ages and genders, seated informally in an airy vertical space, contrasted reassuringly with the echoey, intimidating lecture hall of my imaginings.

Pietro Speroni di Fenizio speaking about models for e-democracy

The first lecture had just started, and Pietro Speroni di Fenizio was talking about potential models for e-voting with the aid of slides projected onto the huge screen behind him. He has published collaborative research with Chris Anderson, the face behind Turnfront, on human-based, participatory consensus decision making. I started getting interested in e-democracy in the run up to the general election this year, during which I worked with Denny de la Haye's Get a Vote campaign, and Pietro's talk expanded the horizons of my thinking. As I arrived he was discussing the value of "open" rather than "closed" questions (the difference between "Should we do x" and "What should we do?"), and the talk covered a huge amount of ground. He discussed the possibilities introduced by cyclic writing and voting in response to a question, allowing the refinement of answers towards a consensus, and the potential structures for facilitating useful discussion. The highlight of the talk was an enlighteningly clear explanation of the Pareto Front, a concept I found myself re-explaining to interested friends a number of times over the next few days. The topic was far too broad to cover straightforwardly in 45 minutes - I would have liked to have heard more about the social consequences of such time-consuming participatory models, or how e-democracy could be scaled up in such a way as to be useful on a national or international scale.

The conference was organised with space for collaborative discussion between each talk in place of traditional Q & A, with participants separating into groups and the speakers circulating to answer any questions people had. I was too busy calming my nerves and greeting friends who had arrived after me to make the most of these discussion spaces; I'm not sure how useful others found them. By the end of the first talk the day was already running behind schedule, which further cut down on the time available between presentations.

The next talk was by Paula Graham of Fossbox, on privacy, social media and tools for activists. I had expected discussion of which social networking tools were best suited to campaigning activities, but instead she focussed on the activist's need for privacy and which networks offer online anonymity. It was a good overall guide to the strengths and weaknesses of software as a service and the opportunities offered by open software; I made a note to investigate GNUPG and Enigmail - easy to install encryption for Thunderbird - when I got home. You can watch a video interview with Paula here, filmed by visionOntv, who were operating on the mezzanine above the presentations throughout the day.

I hadn't originally planned to be interviewed - I figured I was already going to get the chance to say my piece during my talk, and didn't feel the need to seek another platform that day. During the next presentation, however, Sandra from visionOntv quietly dropped a card on my table inviting me up for an interview, saying that they were looking for a better gender balance and needed more female interviewees. Again, I was impressed by their good intentions - but as it worked out, Pete Speller's talk on high-tech digital action was so interesting that I never made it up to the studio. I hope some of the other women in the room took them up on their offer!

Pete Speller is involved with campaigns including Students for a Free Tibet, and has worked with high-tech actions such as Free Tibet TV 2008 and the Great Wall banner. He focussed more than any other speaker (myself included) on tools for direct action. Several of the ideas involved projections - from using a standard projector to beam attention-grabbing messages or images onto the sides of buildings (best done at night; remember to invert the colours so light objects emerge from a dark default background), to using laser pencils with micro stencils at the tip to generate an image, or open source laser-tracking projection software called Laser Tag. He also touched on the role of citizen journalism in successful actions, and the expense of using satellite broadband such as BGAN to stream live video. The presentation went down very well with the crowd, and there was a lot of twitter activity during it as listeners propagated ideas that excited them.

In general, I found myself engaging in more discussion of the topics via the twitter hashtag than in the discussion period after each talk. Others seemed to get more out of the discussion periods, and so I wonder if this was a consequence of my own nerves rather than the format of the sessions. I would have liked to see a live twitterfall displaying the hashtag on, say, a screen or wall throughout the day. This would not only have been thematically appropriate, it would have helped connect the online and offline conversations in real time. I know that some people find this kind of parallel data-stream distracting, but for me the challenge of parallel processing enhances my concentration. I enjoy being able to publically engage with the material through a tweet without disturbing a presentation in the way that a verbal comment would.

We paused for lunch, next - a short break as we were running late, which resulted in a slightly haphazard affair as we tried to find affordable places to buy food within walking distance. A lot of people ended up buying food at the local Tesco - I think a longer lunch break, or a venue which served food, would have improved this experience at future events.

I gave my own talk after lunch, on government engagement with online social enterprise, which went better than I'd feared despite temporarily mislaying a page of notes. There was time for a single question before we split up into discussion groups again. I wasn't sure what my role was as the speaker during this session, and found myself nodding and listening a lot as people offered alternate perspectives on my material - no bad thing. I did feel able to answer one specific question by someone interested in starting up a new social project online, hopefully in a helpful manner, but otherwise I wasn't sure how much I was able to contribute.

By this point I'd realised that all the speakers were expected to give a short TV interview to promote the conference, but it was too late for me to do so after my presentation, as Hamish Campbell and Richard Hering from visionOntv were themselves giving the final talk of the day. They gave us a lively introduction to their service, which is essentially an open source, independent video service, aimed at activists and citizen journalists but open for use by anyone wishing to broadcast open content. They aim to help raise the standard of citizen journalism by offering courses in (and easy-to-use templates for) creating news stories rather than video blogs, and provide a platform through which not only can anyone upload a video to one of the channels, but anyone can present those channels through an embedded player on their own site. At the moment visionOnTV is in beta, with several improvements planned for future phases, but a number of grassroots projects are already using it to promote their videos, and it's an exciting work-in-progress.

Several of the participants joined a post-conference pub visit, where many of the discussions were continued. The strongest asset of dotActivist, for me, was as a networking event - I put a number of faces to names I knew online, and connected with many new people besides. In future, I think I would like to see more, shorter presentations, perhaps with less unstructured discussion time between talks, but including an "open contribution" session near the end permitting anyone with a point to make to stand up and speak for 5 minutes. We were running behind for most of the day, which shorter presentations might have helped with - and I would have happily stayed until 5 or 6pm if a longer day would have eased the schedule.

I very much hope that Turnfront will put on another dotActivist conference next year - I'll buy a ticket (and would have happily paid the entry fee to this event had I not got a guest ticket as a speaker, if that's any measure of success). Despite being somewhat pre-occupied by the terrors of my first public speaking experience, I got a lot out of the day as a whole, and came away feeling positive, inspired and better-informed.

Crossposted from Our Kingdom.


Posted by helen on Tue 10 Aug 2010 at 16:25

Below is the text of the talk I gave on Saturday at the dotActivist conference, with added hyperlinks. It was a really good day, and great to meet people and listen to the other talks. I was particularly pleased to finally understand the concept of the Pareto Front, and I thought the visionOntv project looked really interesting, although I didn't find time to get interviewed (have been invited to come back and do so later).

The Elephant in the Room: web activism and the state


I'm Helen Lambert, I'm a web designer and developer by profession and have been involved in online activism for a few years. Last year I co-founded Police State UK, which is a civil liberties themed news and commentary site.

We've already heard about some fascinating and useful web tools and techniques for activists to use. I want to come at the topic from a slightly different angle and talk about the interaction between web activists and the state. What is the role of online grassroots and third sector projects in opening up politics and helping government engage with the public? And what are the state's responsibilities, here - how should government engage with grassroots social enterprise, and how can the state and the third sector best work together to improve our society?

The democratising power of the Internet

Over the last ten years, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises have seen a significant period of expansion, with 55,000 new charities created since 2000. The voluntary sector has seen its income increase by £10 billion over the same period (source). This is partly thanks to the Internet. The web is a uniquely democratising force in our society, making knowledge more accessible and offering politically engaged people an unprecedented opportunity to connect, discuss, and collaborate. It facilitates civil engagement on a national scale, without the same barriers of class and finance which prevent access for most people to the political world.

In some cases, the Internet has acted as a direct interface between members of the public and politicians - such as the recent YourFreedom site, or web-savvy MPs making themselves more accessible to their constituents through Twitter or email. But it's also allowed inspired individuals to offer new public services via the web, creating a new form of user-focussed interface between the public and the state. The Internet allowed social innovators to make their ideas directly available to the public, bypassing the bureaucracy required to start a social enterprise by traditional means.

Huge numbers of third sector/voluntary projects are springing up online, offering feedback, oversight, or enhancements of public services, tools for activist and reformers, and innovative ways to improve our democracy. People have always been interested in this stuff, but the Internet has facilitated it in a unique way, leading to a cascade of resources for activists online.

There are a thousand examples of this sort of online, third-sector grassroots project. MySociety, who offer a range of online tools with the aim of teaching the public how they can use the internet to improve their lives and our democracy, are probably the most well-known. At the other end of the scale are projects like Simply Understand, which is run by activist Corinne Pritchard, who has a background in adult literacy training. She translates parliamentary documents and consultations into simple, easy to understand English. In between are hundreds of grassroots projects which use technology to improve public services - from School of Everything, which connects educators and learners, to Rewired State, which puts developers who can build web tools in touch with government officials who have ideas about what is needed. Unlock Democracy, 38 Degrees, Social by Social, Headshift, Think Public, FutureGov - I'm sure you can think of dozens more.

Not all of these are strictly non-profit. Some operate as consultancies or commercial businesses; others as charities or free services. What all these projects have in common is a vision of a service which needs providing or improving, and the freely chosen implementation of that vision by self-motivated people. Activists aren't being forced or coerced into this by the state - these projects are truly bottom-up rather than top-down, and the Internet provides the means to develop these ideas free from government curation and control.

Advantages and disadvantages of online social enterprise

This kind of social enterprise has advantages and disadvantages.

Web-based social projects usually have the advantage of being:

  • truly democratic -in the sense of representing the popular interest
  • neutral
  • direct
  • efficient
  • quick and cheap to implement
  • not bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape
  • accessible
  • not biased by party politics or commercial interests
  • able to benefit from the direct advice of experts which government may ignore
  • appropriate, personal and tailored to the user
  • up to date.

However, they also tend to have the following disadvantages:

  • lack of resources and funding
  • lack of breadth of perspective when the product of a small group
  • difficulty of scaling up, resulting in great ideas which are too thematically or geographically specific to be of use to everyone who is looking for that kind of service
  • lack of government support or sanction - resulting in projects which are ignored, duplicated and overtaken by well-meaning government departments, and sometimes actively squashed by a government that doesn't appreciate the competition.

Although government is starting to make the right noises when it comes to effective use of the web, state-developed web tools are often wasteful, inefficient and off-putting to end-users. A Guardian article this week revealed that "The NHS spends up to £86m a year on thousands of websites that are difficult to find, badly designed and irrelevant to patient needs." It pointed to "confusion and inefficiency at the heart of the NHS. There were thousands of sites but 'none of them helps the public which needs a single point to access the information'." In many ways, the government still has a lot to learn from the third sector when it comes to service design and optimising user experience.

The web offers a unique environment for third sector innovation in tools which improve the interface between public and state. State projects, on the other hand, have the advantage when it comes to reach, resources and publicity. How can these two extremes find a compromise which makes a efficient use of the energy and resources invested in these projects?

Government is an elephant

Labour's government was the first under which the web became an important vehicle for activists. It didn't have the greatest track record when it came to effective collaboration with third party services. Public Strategist earlier this year wrote an article entitled Government is an elephant, in which it detailed the innovative third sector projects which were unwittingly squashed by a clumsy and unwitting government. Such as Impower, a tiny e-startup which facilitated the online purchase of fishing licences, and was subsequently duplicated and overridden by the Environment Agency. Or Entitledto, a small company which ran an online service to calculate entitlement to welfare benefits long before the Department for Work and Pensions cottoned on and took over.

This suppression of third party services may be well-intentioned on the part of the government, who want to offer a satisfactory service themselves rather than relying on third parties. A public sector worker or civil servant may even have had the idea first, but the government engine has a notorious lag-time between idea and implementation. Nonetheless, the effects are damaging for several reasons:

  • It often results in needless duplication of effort, where government bodies repeat work already done in the third sector at the taxpayer's expense, often less successfully or efficiently;
  • Third parties can be in a position to offer a better service than their official counterparts. The third sector moves faster than the government and tends to be more up to date. Third parties frequently benefit from expert advice which the government chooses not to take, and are better able to offer a neutral space for engagement. One example is Patient Opinion, an NHS feedback service which benefits from being outside the system in question. The NHS itself offers feedback mechanisms within its website NHS Choices. But, as Public Strategist has argued, the public may well have more faith in a third party which is seen as less vulnerable to filtering results or responding defensively. As a public service, the NHS generates a huge range and intensity of emotional responses, and a neutral, third-sector agent to receive comment and feedback surely has a valuable role to play.
  • Unwitting or not, the outcome of such unintentional government takeovers is to dissuade third parties from offering public services - which is surely detrimental to the health of our society.

Now, no-one is arguing that the state should avoid offering essential services, or fail to improve simply because a tiny start-up somewhere is already doing somewhere similar. But if the government is serious about encouraging innovation and civil engagement, an obvious first step would be to acknowledge, support and work with the efforts already being made.

One example of the "government as elephant" phenomenon which you're probably familiar with is myPolice.org, a grassroots feedback agent for national police forces, created by volunteers with expertise in service design and user experience. It aims to offer a forum for constructive collaboration between police officers and members of the public- another facilitatory interface between people and state. HMIC made headlines earlier this year with their decision to launch an 'official; state-driven feedback service called MyPolice.org.uk. This uses HMIC's long-planned Report Card system, but lacks the neutrality of its grassroots counterpart.

I was struck by the fact that, at the same time as bemoaning budget cuts and decreased resources, HMIC thought it made more sense to develop their own site from scratch, at great cost, and then fight a lengthy media row over the name - rather than to make use of the resources created by web activists who had already done a lot of the work for them, and were in some ways uniquely placed to do the job better in the first place. Would it have been so hard for HMIC to have pulled their head out of the sand, and sought a way to pool HMIC's reach and resources with MyPolice's innovation, hard work and expertise to build a service which embodied the best of both worlds?

After a public battle HMIC changed the name of their project, and the mypolice.org.uk domain now leads to a disambiguation page linking to both their own and the original, grassroots project - a happy ending. MyPolice (.org) acknowledge that the two products are different and have different roles in improving service for the user. They hope that "in bringing our vision and consumer-focused data together with HMIC's accurate statistics we can create something genuinely powerful and useful to citizens". We can only hope that HMIC shares this enthusiasm and energy for collaboration. More often, however, the state lacks the quick-footedness and flexibility to respond to grassroots innovation as quickly and efficiently as the web demands.

There are some positive counter-examples - such as the development of Directgov and data.gov.uk, which uses CKAN, a registry of open software developed by activist organisation the Open Knowledge Foundation. These definitely represent steps in the right direction. But when it comes to working with existing grassroots projects rather than developing new tools from scratch, so far the elephant of government has tended to ignore web activism when left to its own devices. Given the current cuts being made to public services, it seems to me that an obvious solution would be for the state to collaborate and work with grassroots social innovators, avoid spending public funds on duplicating effort or reinventing the wheel, and support the efforts of self-motivated people who are giving their time freely to provide a public service which they think is needed.

Web activism in the 'Big Society'

So how much of this applies to the new Coalition government? Well, so far we don't have much data, but the question is especially interesting in the light of David Cameron's "Big Society" proposals. These would seem to be talking about government encouraging and engaging exactly this sort of grassroots innovation. Is it possible that his ideas might change the way that government engages with the third sector? To what extent does the Big Society idea intersect with and make use of existing social enterprise and web activism?

In his video for the launch of the Big Society, Cameron said that he wants to empower people to run local services such as schools, post offices and transport networks. He said: "We need to create communities with oomph. Neighbourhoods that are in charge of their own destiny." (source) So far, the Big Society rhetoric has been almost universally focussed on this sort of traditional, geographical 'neighbourhood' which is defined by the people you live near. For many people in the UK, location is not a factor in the communities they feel part of, particularly people surrounded by the metropolitan anonymity of city neighbourhoods, or people who don't have much in common with the people they live near. Modern technology allows us to connect with people remotely, and many people now have networks, communities and tribes which are not predicated on geography. While locality is important, the idea that it constitutes the only valid form of community is regressive and outdated. The Big Society should look beyond this village ideology - and the obvious place to start is online.

There are already some examples of best practice when it comes to marrying locality and technology. FlockLocal, for instance, aims to harness the energy of flashmobs to organise spontaneous community volunteer events, inviting people to create 'flocks' (for instance to help paint a community centre' or search for flocks in their local area. Another example is OpenlyLocal, which makes local government data public and accessible, publishing council records and other data which legally belongs in the public domain but which has historically been hoarded by local government officials. FlockLocal has only been launched in Edinburgh so far - but both projects are potentially national (or international) in scope. Even if they start in a single area, the eventual aim of enterprises like this would be for every community to be able to use them - they are local in focus, but they aren't geographically specific.

Interestingly, in origin the Big Society concept draws heavily for its inspiration on the web, and specifically on some of the key concepts of the Web 2.0 era. I read an article recently on How To Think About the Future which informed me that these concepts were codified in a 2007 essay by Charles Leadbeter and Hilary Cottam called 'The User-Generated State: Public Services 2.0'. This argued for public service reform empowering end users and for a more participatory and flexible funding model allowing investment to follow demand.

This thinking must have seemed like gold dust to a government struggling to improve public services without increasing public spending, and perhaps goes some way towards explaining why the state is increasingly offering web based services. Not only does the web offer improved efficiency, but it reflects the Conservative ideology of de-centralisation, individual control, the stripping away of bureaucracy, and the other trappings of small-statism. Cameron has described the Big Society as "the biggest redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street." This seems to describe the Internet pretty well.

A generation of innovators and activists had already been acting on this principle by the time government caught up, developing services that are more efficient, flexible and responsive than the unwieldy, centralised, impersonal state offerings already available. Now, on the face of it, this sort of third sector project would seem to be exactly what Cameron is talking about when he says 'Big Society'.

One criticism of the proposals is that volunteers require just as much funding support as any professional setup; the idea that encouraging members of the public to innovate will save money is one we need to be careful with. Grassroots projects may be cheaper due to increased efficiency, but they also tend to be smaller in scope. To scale up any social enterprise to a national scale inevitably takes funding.

One of the big 'problems' which the Big Society seeks to address is the question of how government can stimulate greater civic engagement. It seems to be that this is answering a false question. Cameron would do better to ask how the government can collaborate effectively with the civic engagement which already exists.

The elephant in the room

A lot of campaigns are now advising members to use Big Society rhetoric in their funding bids and grant applications. It has already become a bandwagon for small projects to jump on in hopes of receiving badly-needed state resources and support. Some activists are worried by this developing trend of grassroots organisers tying their project to the Big Society agenda without critically challenging it. It is certainly very rare for public funding to be awarded with no restrictions attached. Is there really a place in the Big Society rhetoric for web activists? Can the idea be useful to online innovators who are already offering public services?

Many social organisers acknowledge that the Big Society proposals seem similar to their own aims, but are cynical about whether it will result in any practical support for their project in practice. There do seem to be some key ideological and practical obstacles:

  • Firstly, all the publicity and commentary about the Big Society to date concerns offline, local community volunteer projects. Web activism and online services seem to be the elephant in the room when it comes to the state's agenda. Despite promising rhetoric concerning tech and open data, this doesn't seem to have changed with the change of government.
  • Third sector projects can offer a unique contribution to society - a non-state-sanctioned voice necessary to provide services, such as watchdog or feedback agent. Neutral third parties often have a unique advantage in avoiding party political or commercial bias. It is unclear to what extent this advantage would be compromised by a project's engagement with the Big Society agenda.
  • Activism, social or political reform movements don't seem to be included in the Big Society mission statement, which is more about encouraging state-sanctioned volunteer contributions. There is an important distinction to be made between grassroots service providers, who seek to enhance the services already offered by the state, and reform campaigns which seek to change the state's agenda entirely. The Big Society could, perhaps, encompass the former - but can it ever really speak to the latter?
  • Web activism operates independently of the state by definition; as soon as volunteers are pursuing the state's agenda, or are trained, briefed or curated by the state, they are arguably no longer grassroots or activist. While astroturfing and crowdstamping (where the government goes through the motions of consulting the public on an issue, but then rubber-stamps it anyway) are becoming increasingly common, the majority of online services are still bottom-up rather than top-down. The ideal engagement between grassroots and activist organisations and the state is therefore collaboration rather than curation. It could be possible for a grassroots project to receive state funding as long as the conditions of that funding are not prescriptive; however, this is highly unlikely, and in any case funding is one aspect of the Big Society proposals that is in short supply.
  • Liam Barrington-Bush of Concrete Solutions has argued that the biggest thing missing from the Big Society idea is trust. Enforcing and regulating grassroots projects does not encourage innovation, and any attempt to control activism will inevitably put people off. The government apparently does not trust society to improve itself, and thinks volunteers need to be given incentive to engage. This is not only missing the point that a lot of civic engagement is already flourishing with no expectation of reward, but also that meaningful government collaboration, support and engagement is exactly the sort of incentive that would encourage most web activists.
  • Few social innovators would say that the best way forward is for grassroots enterprises to replace state-curated public services entirely. It cannot be denied (despite attempts from the Coalition) that the Big Society agenda is being developed at the same time as a frightening level of public sector cuts. Fears that third sector organisations will be saddled with more responsibility than they have the resources or scope to meet are understandable. A collaborative approach combining third-sector innovation, expertise and efficiency with the increased reach and resources of the state would seem to be the best implementation of the Big Society idea.

Certain aspects of the Big Society proposals, then, seem to be missing the point. Firstly, the complete absence of web services from the dialogue seems a worrying omission for a government ostensibly committed to improving the use of technology in public services. Secondly, the point of some third sector services is not to pick up the slack for things governments can and should provide (although lack of adequate public services has historically motivated many grassroots organisers), but to allow people to make contributions which government by definition cannot make: the voice of dissent, comment and criticism on government action. These, and bottom-up projects from popular perspective, all have a role to play in a healthy democracy. Like MyPolice's stated ideal of collaboration with HMIC, public service design would be improved by state-curated and grassroots projects working together, each offering different strengths and perspectives to create a joined-up user experience.


Contrary to the implications of the Big Society rhetoric, web activism and grassroots social enterprise does not flourish only when the government disengages. Instead, as journalist Hopi Sen argued recently, innovators should be able to use government as a tool to help develop public services: "you won't get a big society by starving it to death". If the new government is serious about encouraging grassroots organisers and volunteers, it would do well to ask them how it can make itself useful.

Here is the sort of state engagement which social innovators have said would be useful to their project:

Abi Broom of MySociety told me:

Our project FixMyStreet interacts with local authorities on a daily basis - some of them love the idea, some think it's an annoyance because they have an existing system that they'd prefer everybody used instead. But it's not just about us badgering the state - My Society would love the engagement to work both ways. It was this thinking which informed the development of HearFromYourMP, which allows MPs to send messages to groups of their constituents, and constituents to comment on those messages. We love it when government institutions engage with what we're trying to do - seeing our services not as a threat or an irritation, but working out how they can learn from what we show them to improve their own systems. In the example I gave above of a council preferring their existing system, we could potentially work with them to post FixMyStreet reports directly into their database (rather than sending them by email which someone would then have to type in).

Simply Understand has a more campaign-oriented goal for institutional change. Corinne Pritchard said:

Eventually, I'd like this idea of speaking plainly and clearly to be the first thing a government thinks about when it gets out of bed in the morning! We need to strip away this idea that authority comes from your ability to wield a large vocabulary. That takes time, retraining and a huge attitude adjustment."

Richard of edemocracyblog, which offers in-depth commentary on how government can be improved using techonology, said:

I think the big thing is really a basic point about using the Internet for engagement. Any number of experts will say that the point about discussing things online is that you don't ask people to come to you, you should go to where they already are an engage with them there. That being the case, it seems a missed opportunity that the government consultation process is still wedded to the traditional system of you responding to them. It would be much more interesting if they included a section where they looked around the web for relevant thoughts about the consultation subject and included them.

Despite the rhetoric, then, government still has a way to go when it comes to effective collaboration with online activism. The Big Society proposes that citizen volunteering should close the gap that currently exists between public service demand and resources. It seems to me that it's up to government to close a different gap, and respond to the overtures of web innovators who can see clear and achievable ways that state engagement would improve their services. The biggest society may yet be the society of mind represented by the Internet, and it is there that the government should look to improve the efficiency and usability of public services.


Posted by helen on Wed 21 Apr 2010 at 18:15

I've just sent the following email to all my candidates except Labour, Tory and UKIP (because I am not considering voting for them) through this handy website.

This got long.


I'm a Tottenham resident and political campaigner who's been following this election very closely. I am still deciding how to use my vote, and I wondered if you could answer some questions to help me decide.

My desired outcome for this election is a hung, balanced or coalition Parliament. I remember the Conservatives too well to want them back in power, and I have no trust in their manifesto pledges. On the other hand, over the last three terms I have felt disenfranchised and betrayed by New Labour, and appalled by their increasing tendency towards authoritarianism, invasive Government and vaguely-worded, ill-thought-out, repressive legislation. Specifically, I have been deeply disappointed in David Lammy as an MP. My letters have been answered late or not at all, and he has been two-faced about replying sympathetically to letters about issues, and then voting the other way in Parliament.

In general, my feeling is that the two-party system has failed our democracy. The party whips ensure that MPs put the wishes of their party over those of their constituents; career politicians are more interested in climbing the ministerial ladder than representing their constituents. I am therefore looking to the small parties and Independents in this election for a way to disrupt the corrupt stability of Parliament, break politics open and vote in more MPs who are serious about representing their constituents in Parliament, even if this makes them unpopular in the Commons.

It seems to me as if several of the candidates in Tottenham have very strong local policies, and great ideas for ways to improve our community. I admire that, but it isn't my only concern. As my MP you will also represent me in Parliament, and if I am campaigning on a single issue which I care deeply about, you are the person I will turn to. I therefore need to know firstly, to what extent you intend to represent your constituents in Parliament on single issues, regardless of whether you agree with their concerns; and secondly, what your personal stance is on the issues I care about.

I realise you are very busy with your campaign, but if you could find time to answer as many of the following questions as possible, I would deeply appreciate it. I will probably post the answers on a public blog or wiki to help other Tottenham residents with their choice - please let me know if you would prefer not to be quoted.

A. Civil Liberties

1. Do you support the introduction of ID cards?

2. Do you think that police are abusing stop and search powers, and anti-terror legislation?

3. Do you think that police violence is justified in public order situations, such as against peaceful protesters blocking a highway, or football supporters in a crowded stadium?

4. Do you agree with the European Court of Human Rights that the retention of innocent people's DNA on a national database is illegal and unjustified?

5. Do you support calls for greater regulation of surveillance powers, including the number and use of CCTV cameras?

6. Do you oppose government powers to track and store communications data from private emails, text messages and telephone calls?

7. Do you support the Human Rights Act in its current form - or if, not, the need for a constitutional document laying out the unassailable rights and liberties of the citizen?

8. Do you support the detention of terror suspects without trial?

9. Are you in favour of a public inquiry into allegations of British involvement in torture?

10. Do you support a review of New Labour's legislative programme in order to identify and then repeal those laws which are found to have curtailed individual liberty?

B. Digital rights

1. Do you support the recent Digital Economy Act 2010? If not, which bits concern you?

2. Do you support reform of current copyright laws to bring them up to date in the digital age? If so, do you have any thoughts on the best way to balance public fair use rights with intellectual property rights?

3. Do you support reform of patent law, especially pharmaceutical patents which inhibit the development of generic, affordable drugs, and thereby the availability of needed medication in the UK and abroad?

4. Do you support the introduction of stronger data protection laws, requiring companies and governments that hold personal information to give consumers more information about their rights, to apply a reasonable level of security to data, and to be clear about their policies on data retention and amendment?

5. Do you support a full review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000?

6. Do you support increased governmental transparency and accountability, i.e. that all available information that could be released through a freedom of information request should be made public by default, that all international treaties be passed through the UK parliament as a standard bill requiring the full approval of both houses, and that minutes of all meetings of officials on government business to be accessible through freedom of information requests?

7. Do you believe that government censorship of the Internet should be disallowed for anything but the most extreme reasons (such as military secrets or images of child abuse)?

8. Do you support the open source movement, and think that the public sector should make use of open source software, or collaborate with grassroots or third sector services, wherever possible?

9. Do you support the right of citizens to take photographs and film in public places without fear of police harassment or arrest?

10. Do you believe that public services should have a strong Internet presence, to facilitate outreach and interaction and encourage feedback, constructive criticism and support from users? Do you agree that making such online content especially accessible to disabled people is an absolute priority?

C. Equality

1. Do you support raising the current time limit on abortion, lowering it, or keeping it as it is?

2. Do you believe that a time-limited, carefully considered programme of all-woman shortlists will help lower the glass ceiling and raise the standard of politics and business?

3. Do you support the Equality Act in its current form? If not, do you think it went too far, or not far enough?

4. Do you support the right of gay couples to marry or get a civil partnership, and adopt children?

5. Do you agree that Section 28 should have been repealed?

6. Do you support close scrutiny of our immigration system, particularly the conditions in which asylum-seekers and their families are detained, and the resources and support available to them? More generally, do you believe that immigration makes the working class stronger or weaker?

7. Do you believe that change is needed to stop people of colour being unfairly targeted by police? Do you have any thoughts about how to enact that change?

8. Do you believe there is a problem with how our justice system approaches rape cases, and particularly how those cases are reported by the media? If so, do you have any thoughts about how to address this problem?

9. Do you believe that parents of either gender should have equal rights to take paid leave from their careers in order to give primary care to their child?

10. Do you support reform of the welfare state to offer improved services to people with physical disabilities, mental health issues and chronic illnesses, making it easier for people in need to claim benefits, and easier for those who want flexible, part-time, or from-home work to do so without it disproportionately affecting their access to benefits?

D. Political reform

1. Do you believe that FPTP should be replaced by one of the proportional voting systems?

2. Do you believe we should replace the House of Lords with a new model of second chamber - perhaps a house of nationally elected representatives, a focus group taken from a cross-section of society, or elected representatives taken from different sectors?

3. Do you believe our society would be improved by developing a written constitution which all future Governments must adhere to?

4. Do you support the introduction of fixed term Parliaments?

5. Do you believe that MPs should be held to a higher standard of accountability than unelected citizens? Do you believe constituents should have the right to force a by-election in the event of loss of confidence in their MP?

6. Do you believe that party whips should be abolished?

7. Do you believe that Members of Parliament should also be able to be Government Ministers, or do you believe that the job of Parliament is to hold Government accountable, and therefore needs to be separate?

8. Do you believe select committees should be strengthened, their membership weighted less towards the party in power (if there is one), and their role in advising legislative debates increased?

9. Do you support a reduction in the use of Statutory Instruments?

10. Do you think the voting age should be lowered to 16?

I realise the above list is very long, but it will have the biggest impact on how I vote on May 6 of anything else I have seen. I very much hope you will be able to take the time to answer and let me know your position on these crucial issues.

I look forward to reading your reply.

Regards, Helen Lambert


Feel free to nick any/all of the above questions - the observant among you will have noticed that I've cobbled together most of them from the Liberty Central list, the Power 2010 leaderboard, and the Pirate Party UK manifesto.

I'll be surprised if any of them answer all of the questions, but Denny tells me he'd be delighted to receive an email like that, so here's hoping.

I'd previously thought that Neville Watson, as a high-profile Independent and POC, stood the best chance of ousting Lammy in Tottenham, but as time passes I'm less convinced. I got a leaflet from TUSC (the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) through the door which was surprisingly credible, so I'm considering going along to their election rally next Tuesday to see what they have to say. Their candidate Jenny Sutton is on twitter (the only one I've found so far apart from Lammy) and seems very sound. I've heard absolutely nothing from the Green or Lib Dem candidates so far - in fact I'm wondering if there are any Lib Dems in Tottenham - so the answers I get really will be a significant factor in who I decide to vote for.


Posted by helen on Thu 18 Mar 2010 at 19:16

This is a bit thirteenth hour, but it's important, so.

Dear David Lammy

I'm writing to you because I'm very worried that the Government, driven by Lord Mandelson, intends to rush the Digital Economy Bill into law without full Parliamentary debate.

This bill is highly controversial and contains many measures that are potentially damaging. Enough people are unhappy about the bill in its current form that the Liberal Democrats were forced to officially reconsider their position at their spring conference. Many of the Lords recognise the dangerous potential of this bill, but it will not get proper scrutiny unless MPs stand up and insist on a full debate.

Clauses in this bill will damage schools and small businesses (including my own small web business) as well as innocent people who rely on the Internet. It will allow the Government to disconnect people it suspects of copyright infringement, which is worrying not only because proper investigations may not occur before disconnection, resulting in effective punishment without trial, but because the Internet is one of the most exciting tools our society has for inclusivity and social mobility. Disconnection - which would apply to all members of an affected household, including children - will impact on individuals' ability to inform and educate themselves, engage with society, interact and converse with other people nationally and internationally and involve themselves with important issues they care about. This bill will make public wifi punitively difficult to maintain, which will effectively disconnect a lot of poorer people from the Internet, who cannot afford their own connection at home. Its greatest impact will be on those who are most vulnerable.

Disconnection is a draconian measure which has no place in a free society which is trying to improve public resources and services. The Internet is the biggest, best free public resource we have. Access to it should be a fundamental civil right.

Industry experts, Internet service providers (like Talk Talk and BT), music industry professionals such as Billy Bragg, activists such as Mark Thomas and huge web companies like Google and Yahoo all strongly oppose this bill. It is worded without proper consultation to the realities of the industry, by people who do not seem to know the difference between a web host and an ISP. This issue is complex and deserves full scrutiny before punitive legislation is passed.

I am writing to you today as your constituent and a struggling small business owner to ask you to do all you can to ensure the Government doesn't just rush this bill through. This bill will have far-reaching consequences and it desperately needs proper scrutiny before it is passed. Please do not deny us our democratic right to full and rigorous debate.

Helen Lambert

The Open Rights Group have teamed up with 38 Degrees to create an easy web form if you want to write to your MP about this. Literally the only chance we have to stop this bill being rushed through before the election is if MPs, especially front-benchers, speak out to insist on full and proper debate. Thousands of people have already written to their MPs in the last couple of days; if enough people do, there's a chance we can still stop Labour from passing yet another piece of repressive and badly-worded legislation before the election.


Posted by helen on Wed 17 Mar 2010 at 16:53

For the last few days I've been helping Denny with a secret project. This morning it became not-so-secret.

For each vote coming up in Parliament, I will put a poll on this website. Every voter living in Hackney South and Shoreditch will have a login for the site, and will be able to vote in the polls using their computer or their mobile phone.

Whatever the majority vote is, I will vote that way.

My partner Denny is running for Parliament as an independent candidate, on a platform of direct digital democracy. This is very exciting! If he's elected, he'll use his communications budget to develop a secure site for the polls, based on authenticated individual logins and the electoral roll for his constituency. (Non-constituents may have a separate poll, but their vote won't be counted.) Many aspects of the idea will be refined democratically through the website, and engagement is very strongly encouraged. The hope is that other candidates will eventually want to stand on a similar platform - and in fact in the last few hours he's already had an enquiry or two along these lines.

The campaign is launching quite late in the day, so he needs all the help he can get. If you believe in the need for bottom-up democratic reform and think the idea has potential, please help spread the word. If you could post about the campaign on twitter, facebook, blogs or other social media that would be brilliant - his main chance of publicity is through word-of-mouth. In addition, he is particularly looking for:

  • journalists and bloggers who might be interested in covering the campaign;
  • magazine, newspaper or website editors who would like to run an article;
  • people to print and/or distribute leaflets or sheets of stickers (an office printer will do);
  • printers who might be able to offer a discount on print runs;
  • people to design promotional materials such as leaflets, postcards, business cards (I'm doing my best, but I'm already very short of time - I can send you all the assets and resources you need);
  • people to write to papers, journalists, MPs, Lords or other public figures, to call their attention to the campaign and ask if they're able to help.

He also needs donations to cover the compulsory deposit and campaign costs, but publicity is just as important at this stage - if not more so.

There's already been an exciting response from the internets so far today. Stoke Newington People ran an unsolicited article by Seamus McCauley, and blogger Jonathan MacDonald surprised us with a second. Twitter seems to like the idea. Online publicity is his main hope of success, especially if the campaign is covered in local and national papers, but of course it doesn't translate to support in his constituency, so he'll be canvassing and doing all the normal things as well. Any support you can give would be very much appreciated.


Posted by helen on Sat 6 Mar 2010 at 17:59

I've just signed the Power 2010 pledge (you should too). I've been following the campaign with interest from the start, and voted on 20 or so reform ideas, three of which made it into the top five. Here's the message I sent accompanying my signature:

I support the Pledge because I think it's an awe-inspiring demonstration of grassroots activism, and sets an interesting precedent for the value of the web in democratic reform. The internet has radically altered the way we engage politically, and the future of our democracy needs to take that into account.

I voted for the following reforms:

Introduce a proportional voting system

The two main parties, both unpopular with so many people in this country, have dominated Parliament for too long. First Past the Post in its current form is unrepresentative and undemocratic. The Government is too easily able to manipulate the system to increase their own power, as Labour did by re-writing the constituency boundaries in their favour before the last election, and as the Tories did by destroying the trade unions before that. Power should be devolved to allow small parties and independents more chance to have an impact on policy.

Scrap ID cards and roll back the database state

I believe compulsory ID cards attached to a national database, the DNA database and several other national databases constitute an infringement of personal privacy and civil liberties. I do not think the cost in money, time and effort is worth the benefit to society, and I do not trust either of the two biggest parties to use databases ethically, responsibly and securely. While databases are sometimes essential for the provision of public services, separation between departments should be maintained, and I don't think the Government should generally have access to that data except in exceptional circumstances. We have seen enough evidence of data breaches and database-related abuses of power to know that the current Government cannot be trusted, and without a radical reform of our democratic system I do not believe future Governments will be any more trustworthy.

Draw up a written constitution

England's government has historically operated based on tradition and precedent. Our society has seen radical changes in the last century, with the rise of social equality and the information revolution, and the onset of climate change. How things were done in the past is not always the best way to proceed. We should draw up a new constitution that reflects modern values going into the 21st Century, which should enshrine and protect such things as equality for all and the rights and liberties of the citizen, and prevent future Governments from undermining these basic principles. A written constitution is particularly important in a system with proportional representation, which lacks the conservative safeguards of FPTP.

I did not vote for English Votes for English Laws, as I think the United Kingdom is strengthened by being as united as possible.

I also did not vote for an elected second chamber, as I feel the value of the Lords is in their ability to engage in long-term thinking without having to play popularity games. I think the hereditary and class-based aspects of the House of Lords are deeply flawed, and would like to see a second house with a more diverse membership and equal representation from different sectors of society. However, any second house should be set up so that it can continue to offer checks and balances to the Commons - the two houses should not be identical. I might be in favour of an elected second house with a substantially longer term, but I think there are other options. Still, I would like to see reform of the Houses and would be happy to see the question put to a referendum.

I'm still thinking a lot of this stuff through; it's incredibly thorny and complicated and I don't pretend to have all the answers. I think that reflects more or less my current state of thinking on these specific issues, though.


Posted by helen on Sun 14 Feb 2010 at 17:04

Someone sent me a link to this list of independent candidates running in the next election on Your Next MP. 28 so far - one the ex-leader of the BNP - including only two women. Which is interesting in itself - why so few female Independent candidates?

Anyway, I idly scanned the list to see if there's an Independent standing in my constituency. And - what are the odds? - there is! Disappointingly, there's no information about him on the website (in fact, there doesn't seem to be any information about any of them on the website, which somewhat limits its usefulness). So I'm doing a bit of investigating.

Neville Watson is apparently an executive member of the Independent Network. His campaign page seems very community-focussed, which is good, I think, but doesn't tell me much about his more general policies. He talks about mental health support, alternative education, working with young people to reduce crime, providing farmer's markets for people to sell locally-grown organic produce, affordable low cost housing and energy conservation projects. He seems to be an active social worker with youth groups, managing the local football club, doing volunteer work prisoners and psychiatric patients. Which are all good things. He seems to be passionate, engaged and inspired on a local level.

But an MP isn't just a local leader - they're also an elected representative. And his campaign says nothing about his wider politics - nothing on how he's likely to vote in Parliament. One page of his site says both "he believes in equality and justice for all" and "a strong family unit is imperative for the development of our children", which leaves an amibiguous impression - does he favour the conservative idea of the family, or feminism and LGBT rights? Race politics are arguably more of an issue in Tottenham, and he addresses that to some extent, but there are a lot of gaps. How does he feel about civil liberties? The war on terror? Democratic reform? When you're voting for a member of a party, you can (to some extent) look to the policies of their party for anything they don't specifically mention. With an Independent, there are no such guidelines.

The current MP in Tottenham is David Lammy - a Labour minister whom I am inclined to distrust. His voting record goes against many of my principles, and he seems to tow the party line most of the time. On the other hand, I remember hearing from Penny Red that he spoke very well at the Labour party conference, and the left seems to generally approve of him, although I'm not clear on exactly why. He's never responded satisfactorily to any of my letters - he leaves it late enough to reply that I have marked my letter "unanswered" on writetothem before I heard back from him, and I've only ever got form letters vaguely related to my question. (For instance, when I wrote to him expressing my concerns about police brutality and strategy during protests, I got a form letter six weeks later about Ian Tomlinson, which completely ignored my actual question.)

This election is the biggest opportunity Independents are likely to get for some time. (If the Tories get in, the current democratic system is rigged to keep them in for two or three terms - the yo-yo effect between the two big parties is well-established. Democratic reform is necessary to undermine that, and what are the chances of the Tories voting for something that will decrease their chance of staying in power?) The MPs expenses scandal combined with general disillusionment with the two-party system is going to give Independent candidates a better chance than they've had in years. Neville Watson, like David Lammy¹, is an Afro-Caribbean (important in a constituency with the racial demographic of Tottenham) family man (Tottenham is very Christian, and the last six MPs have been male). Lammy's expenses record isn't too bad, but it seems to me that Watson has a reasonable chance.

Locally, he may be as good a bet as the LibDem or Green candidates (or better - David Schmitz doesn't seem to have much of interest to say). But in Parliament? I have no way of telling. Of course, I may well not be here anyway - even if we move in March, I might well be voting here as I'm not sure there'll be time to get on the electoral register of our new constituency before the election. So in some ways it's in my interest to vote for a national representative rather than a good local MP. But I'm not sure if that's missing the point.

1. And, apparently, the 2010 UKIP candidate, although he's not listed on Your Next MP so I'm not sure what's going on there.


Posted by helen on Tue 10 Nov 2009 at 17:50

I've been thinking about online democracy a lot since my post the other day. Some of it's pretty exciting.

Mostly I'm just overwhelmed at how big the conversation is. I'm seeing new stuff everywhere I look. I think these next few months, the closing months of the failed New Labour project when no-one really wants Cameron to be Prime Minister, are going to be key for the conversation about democratic reform. I don't think there's time for anything to happen now but the energy is now, before the change happens, when everyone's excited by the possibilities. After the Tories get in I expect the fire will go out of the talk for a bit, but then we have the next four years to actually make something happen.

Anyway, so I've talked about Open Up, and linked a couple of the huge number of blog posts in the wake of the success of the Trafigura/Jan Moir temporary collectives. Seriously, these articles are everywhere. Here's another one. This isn't new, of course: people have been talking about reforming democracy online since Usenet, and I still think of MySociety as the pioneers in using online technologies to improve the quality of our democracy.

But recently ... I dunno, maybe I've just been getting more involved, but it feels like in the last twelve months it's really been gaining momentum. Our Kingdom has an ongoing conversation about democratic reform, and Guy Aitchison, the dude who runs it, is also heavily involved with the Power 2010 campaign.

Then there's 38 Degrees, and Louder, The Downing Street Project ... and that's just in the UK: worldwide it seems that new social innovation campaigns like The Girl Effect and the World Appreciative Enquiry Conference are springing up all over the place. Then there's thinktanks like IPPR which seem to overlap a surprising amount with the grassroots movements. It's inspiring and hopeful - so many people agreeing things need to change, and pouring so much ideas and energy and time into working towards that! - but also chaotic and dizzying. There's just so much of it! To what extent are all these different groups even aware of each other? Are they duplicating each other's work, are they all trying to reinvent the wheel? If none of this has any effect on the current system, is it so much shouting to the void? Are the messages reaching the people who need to hear them, or is it just a big echo chamber? With so many diverse groups, all with their own agenda, won't they just drown each other out? Do we need to get together and find points of commonality? Is that even possible?

Probably not, but today I've been thinking not about campaigns but about the tools they use. Yesterday I was utterly thrilled to read The Future of Politics is Mutual, which is by an awesome person I hadn't heard of before, called Hannah Nicklin. It's on the differences between the traditional press and online media, narrative vs information and the information economy, and the concept of wikipolitics.

What is Wikipolitics? It is a starting point. It takes the open-source ethic and applies it to government. I don't propose that we edit policy documents. I do believe that parliament should be opened up, demystified, and the power taken back. How do we do this? We've already started, look at projects such as Louder, 38 degrees, look at the Trafigura backlash, the Iran election, the G20 protests.

We now live in a world where we construct our own media consumption, where we pull together, build our own stories. Politics and the mainstream media are clinging on to old methods of distribution and delivery.

Whilst still acknowledging that at least 2/3 of the world does not have access to the internet (the UK figure is something like 30%, with a further 7-8% only having narrowband access - source) and those who do are likely to be from more affluent, developed backgrounds, we also need to be aware that instant publishing and access to our own media channels is incredibly empowering.

We also need to pull ourselves out of the luxury of political disempowerment. It is our responsibility to be involved in politics. If it is not one with which we wish to be involved, then we need to change it.

You should read the thread, because there's some really good stuff in there. I've been spamming the thread with comments and thinking lots. Like,

You don't have to be good looking or charming to speak powerfully online. It not only makes it easier for more people to engage on a more level playing field, in text, but it also would reduce the amount of verbal faff that goes on so much in BBC politics. All the "And I'm going to tell you why that is, that's because..." methods of answering questions, all the automatic verbal filler that gives the speaker more thinking time.


Think about the potential of online conversation. Previously, this sort of live conversation has been between a small handful of people, with a passive audience. Interaction takes place in the form of solicited questions from the audience, or phonecalls - that's not a real exchange of ideas.

Compare this with the comment threads on the big political blogs, where a single conversation can include 800 or more people. When have that many people ever, in the history of the human race, been able to simultaneously and actively engage in the same conversation?


First we need to fix the problems with candidate selection (what do you think of the ideas put forward in Open Up, such as open primaries?), then we need to facilitate direct public engagement between representatives and their constituents - a wiki format would be ideal. Representatives who didn't engage would face consequences - if they persisted in refusing it might have to lose them the seat. The wiki format would facilitate fact-checking, research, comparing differing reports and bringing in the opinion of experts. It would be chaotic, possibly a much bigger and messier project than Wikipedia, but I think wikipedia is a testament to what the public can achieve. Sort of like a counterpoint to the comments on Have Your Say.

You'd need language support, of course. Accessibility is an issue, but there could be free-to-use terminals in all public libraries, schools, universities, public centres - perhaps they would only connect to this system, to prevent people hogging the terminal to use Facebook.

MySociety have already pioneered online tech to facilitate engagement - I think something like this is the next step. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that you want something like Google Wave, with built-in live language support, live chat and playback features, rather than a traditional wiki. Wave's still in beta (although if you don't have an invite and want one, we have some spares), takes a lot of memory and a fast connection, and still has lots of bugs. But I think it has a lot of potential in this context.


There's a connection in my mind between the idea of Wikipolitics, the open source movement, the social consultancy method of groups like Tuttle ... The common threads are decentralisation and collaboration, and I think that MySociety-inspired consultation might be the seed that could take root in our present system. Tuttle is more a coalition of experts which filters down to a relevant group: the Wikipolitics idea is more hierarchical, if we're talking about improving dialogue and information exchange between the people and their representatives.

The open source movement's hierarchy is informal, based on expertise and experience. Getting our elected representatives to listen to those with expertise and experience of specialist issues would be a good start.


Rather than only being able to find out the politics going on behind a decision I disagree with if I turn up and badger a politician in person, I want that politician to have a mandate to explain their process publically, online, where it can be read and queried and challenged if we find it inadequate. We may not like the answer but if we can see their reasoning we may become more aware of the complexity of the issue. Or we may continue to disagree, having found the counter-arguments lacking. Either way, more information and transparency can only be good.

This sort of system would work best if it was completely universal: if you could access it anywhere, in any language, if kids were taught to log on at primary school and there was a kids section on the wiki where they could have their say and ask questions.

I don't think we've come close to hitting on the answer on it yet. I don't think a wikipolitics project as described would be likely to have wings: it would probably just turn into a community of hypergeeks bickering over details. I think Wave has the potential to be useful in the longterm but it's not ready yet, and neither is society.

There are a couple of "unconferences" on this stuff happening this week: Open 09 and £1.40. I can't get to either, but I'll be interested in hearing if the discussions went anywhere useful.

I don't know how to harness the energy of this conversation into action. I don't know how to get the disparate online groups to work together. But I think there's something in this, I really do.

I think the only way to fix our current broken democracy is to decentralise it to some extent. I think the internet not only offers strong models for governance in the form of open source ethics and the open source community, but also a unique opportunity for discourse, collaboration and development.

Anyway. This is me brainstorming. Feel free to join in.


Posted by helen on Mon 2 Nov 2009 at 14:17

Couple of good articles on the sacking of David Nutt, which I find abhorrent for all the obvious reasons, plus those articulated by JQP in his two "Expertease" articles written at the start of this year.

This isn't the first time this issue has been on our radar. Drugs legislation is one of the easiest targets. Then there was the debate about Green Party science policy earlier this year. Now this, which some commentators have compared to the way policy on ID cards continues to ignore expert advice. Detecting a bit of a theme?

[Democracy] relies on one very important variable, which British society has utterly failed to deliver: accurate information. In theory, democracy works for the benefit of mankind because the government responds to public demands. This requires two things to be fulfilled. The public have to be rational, which sometimes pertains, and it has to have access to reliable information, or else its demands rest on false assumptions. But the media, its main source of information, does not deliver. It provides truth, yes, but it also spews out myths and nonsense to substantiate its editorial agenda.

(Drugs policy and the death of reason, politics.co.uk, Monday, 02, Nov 2009 12:00)

Ah, everyone's favourite rant about democracy and the media! Excellent: I always enjoy having someone else do this one for me. It even includes references to Plato, if not to the process of Athenian democracy itself.

You all know this already, but just in case: Athenian democracy worked because it was tiny. Something in the region of 60,000 adult male citizens had the right to vote at any one point in the mid-5th century BC - a figure that dropped during wartime. Start with a small city-state and then exclude women, children and adolscents, immigrants, slaves, criminals and anyone who hasn't completed military training. The result is a direct democracy, where those involved are small enough to sit in a single assembly, watch political speakers and satirical theatre as a single audience, and participate in the same big debate. More oligarchy than democracy by modern standards. (Is more complicated than this, but you get the idea. Feel free to comment if you think I'm misrepresenting.)

Modern democracies which aim at representing the demands of the whole population - including, even more recently, women - can't be directly representational (until we develop secure tech for remote voting) and they can't be directly informed. Our representation is a mess, and so is our information. I mean the internet is great and all, but so far it mostly seems to be resulting in more people sharing opinion than data. (Peer-reviewed science has massive class and accessibility issues - is wikipedia the closest thing we have to democratic information?)

Anyway, so I'm sure you all know my feelings on policy and the meeja. What I found kind of interesting reading the post-Nutt-sacking commentary (har) is the fact that no-one's thought to relate this issue to climate science. Which seems a bit odd. Look at this paragraph from that Nutt vs ID cards article:

That's not to say politicians should blindly and slavishly heed scientific advice without any other considerations. Of course not. The whole nature of politics is about balancing various constituencies of interest. But politicians should be able to explain the reason for their decisions when they choose to ignore independent expert advice and press ahead with proposals that potentially put the UK population at greater risk.


Governments have been ignoring expert advice on climate change for, gosh, several decades now. I'm outraged about that, but I'm not surprised. It's not even really news, apart from in the "shit continues to hit fan" sense - but that's not unusual either.

If the outrage over the Home Office not only disregarding the recommendations of its chosen experts, but actually punishing those experts for telling the truth, leads to it happening less, well, great: perhaps they'll start listening to expert advice on environmental policy. Drugs legislation is a relatively quiet issue - you don't get many people willing to protest about it, and most public figures avoid speaking out on it unless they're happy to be branded a filthy munter.

Climate change should be a considerably less risky thing to talk about: surely most people believe that saving the human race from extinction is a generally good thing, even if they're not willing to act personally to help the cause. I mean, to oversimplify dramatically, this is one of the reasons we have laws, right? To encourage people to do the right thing even if they might not always want to?

Not only does policy fly in the face of scientific evidence when it comes to climate change, those who complain loudly about this are treated far worse by the state than those outraged at scandal of David Nutt's illegitimate sacking. Climate change doesn't seem to make it into any of the commentary on governments ignoring their experts. Is the issue becoming so marginalised that no-one's willing to include it in their analysis? Perhaps they're all just trying to avoid being labelled domestic extremists. In which case, the re-branding of climate activists as a marginal, undesirable group by the police is clearly starting to take effect.