Monday, January 18, 2010

New style of government or new style of gimmick

As the ever-interesting (and I do mean that) Dizzy informs readers last week, the Conservatives are clear winners in engagement online. Whether this is old versus new, so there is more interest in the Conservatives because Labour have been around, and in government, for a long time, is a question? It could be that the engagement tools are the right ones, or that people want to engage more with the Conservatives, perhaps as they are seen as the next government, this is not an analysis of the audience unfortunately beyond simple indicators of engagement.

But the party seems to have a new strategy, one that will allow greater public participation in government. They want someone to design a platform, and will offer £1 million, that will create an online public sphere. If you are wondering about the idea of the public sphere, this should be autonomous (possibly in this case), inclusive (definitely), political (as before - and clearly) and rational. A space where people are able to find solutions to common social problems. Such ideas are surrounded by much hype and are attached to many ideals of democracy. There are two ways of looking at the notion of creating public spheres, it can be hailed as a means for getting people empowered and in touch with government, as in the case of this article by Tim Bonnemann, but there are dangers.

It is easy to source a crowd online, after all this was achieved to create the UK's Christmas number one single, or at least to block Simon Cowell. But what sort of crowd will be sourced? You can find a crowd that will decide that hanging is the best deterrent for serious crime, would that be good policy though? Would this allow minority opinions to be voiced? Or just those of extremists? Would it break the spiral of silence or create a new silence, of the majority perhaps? Most worrying would it abrogate the responsibility of a government over decision making, or indeed would a government be tied to the crowd by the terms and conditions of participation. Of course these negative outcomes can be avoided, to an extent, but they need to be considered. Initiatives that bring the governed and government closer together are all worthy of support and encouragement, the danger is though that these initiatives can be ill-considered gimmicks rather than real proposals for public participation in the democratic process. It may take more than £1 million to not only build the interface but also to ensure all the checks and balances are in place; that or we may find a place for consultation and participation that becomes unusable as anything but to embarrass the government that thought it up and paid for it.


Einar said...

BBC Democracy Live only cost the Corporation £1 million to launch... a lesson in efficient use of resources even the Tories would be proud of, surely? I'd be impressed if their solution is anything near as useful as that!

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