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.