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The elephant in the room: web activism & the state

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, 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 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 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, 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.