Robert Colvile: How the internet will change the way politics works
If we believe our leaders, it is only a matter of time before the internet transforms the way politics works. David Miliband and George Osborne, for example, are both evangelical about its power: the latter has spoken of “recasting the political settlement for the digital age” and called for “open source” government – aka “Public Services 2.0”.
Both sides seem to envisage citizens coming together online to improve the functioning of public services, although they differ on whether such groups would be clients of the state or take on its functions themselves. Yet the current government vision is less about empowering citizens than amassing information on them. In the aftermath of the scandal over the missing child benefit discs, Rachel Sylvester of The Daily Telegraph revealed that Sir David Varney, Gordon Brown’s adviser on “public service transformation”, supports vast databases to tailor public services to individual need – “a joined-up identity management system” that acts as “a single source of truth” about every individual.
This approach is not only opposed to the decentralising spirit that makes the internet so powerful, but also misses much of the point of what this new technology offers. For example, the idea of “Public Services 2.0” – or indeed “open-source politics” – would, if taken literally, mean that policy was not being created in Whitehall, but by a collaborative effort.
This, of course, is as far from the current system as it is possible to get. Despite the mantra of “consultation”, policy is usually formulated deep within the recesses of Whitehall, shown to world in the form of a Green Paper, tinkered with to create a White Paper, then put forward as a law.
An open-source alternative would be different. Measures would be proposed by government, yes – but also by members of the public. These could be scrutinised, line by line, with alternative versions promulgated and debated. Those that withstood the most rigorous scrutiny would then move forward – not on the say-so of ministers or of civil servants, but on that of all those involved in the process.
The tools for such a system would be easy to build – but it would take immense political courage to proceed with them. Such courage was shown to an extent with the creation of the Downing Street petition site: those behind it knew that many of the suggestions would be negative, hostile or embarrassing. A site where policy could be debated would offer the risk of further embarrassment should the Government not get its way – and would need careful management to prevent a descent into abuse and name-calling.
Admittedly, the parties have made some attempts to open up their policy-making processes – to enter “receive” mode as well as “send”. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto under Sir Menzies Campbell drew upon online debates among the membership – but these took place behind closed doors. The Conservatives launched Stand Up Speak Up to promote the findings of their six Policy Groups – but this was largely an exercise in evaluating documents put together by a council of greybeards behind closed doors, and then voting on which particular proposals were the favourites. More to the point, heady promises made in opposition about openness and freedom of information tend to be quietly shelved once a party enters government.
There is a seed here, however, that can be expanded into something more powerful – particularly if the government’s monopoly over policy-making can be ended. For example, the increased empowerment of citizens has been proposed by everyone from David Cameron to Gordon Brown, primarily through mechanisms such as petitions, local and national referenda and citizens’ initiatives. If these do become engrained in the processes of government, the internet will be a – perhaps the – key forum for galvanising and organising support.
Also, there is the idea of liberating our official data. The Conservatives have proposed letting people “Google” the details of every item of public spending above £25,000, and manipulate the data produced. But there is an even more radical solution: to make every piece of data public automatically, unless there are pressing objections in terms of security or privacy. This data could then be used by interested parties to power sites of their own design, in the same way that Google Maps can be cross-referenced to other sites to map house prices, emergency services calls and so forth.
Because ultimately, the exciting thing about the web is not the technology, but what it allows people to do: without their users’ input, after all, sites such as MySpace and Facebook would simply be empty vessels. Half a century ago, the great American journalist Edward R Murrow described the power of television to change the world – but his comments are even more apt when applied to the web:
"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."