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