Richard Allan MP offered in effect a new version of the ladder of participation at yesterday's IPPR event on Grassroots and Networks - this time from the point of view of the elected representative faced with the more bottom-up elements of e-democracy.
Passive resistance - ignore it and hope you won't be noticed.
Active resistence - try and continue as a gatekeeper, blocking direct access to Ministers and meetings.
Co-option - infiltrate online networks to promote your ideas and Party
Co-existence - recognise the mutual benefits of collaboration between what e-democracy guru Professor Stephen Coleman called two different Internets - that of corporates and institutions mainly in broadcast mode, and that of online communities.
Stephen presented a paper "The Network-empowered Citizen - how people share civic knowledge online" (download pdf) which explored the experience of six communities: Netmums, BBC iCAN, Kikass, UK Villages, Gypsy Expressions and Pain Talk. The paper has the great value of offering stories rather than statistics. Throughout his presentation Stephen was a powerful advocate for civic networks and qualitative research, and enabling those involved to explain for themselves what they are doing.
The third speaker, Sally Russell of Netmums (download slides), clearly wanted Government to move to a further rung on the ladder, and offer support for networks. She had tried a wide range of departments and agencies trying to get funding, without success. Others told the same story. There could be a danger that the embrace of Goverment could stifle some of the vibrancy of civic networks, already a concern among people in the community and voluntary sector. On the other hand, Netmums and the other networks showed how people will use technology to share ideas, solve problems and support each other in ways that politicians advocating active citizenship dream about. Why can't Government offer contracts to networks to undertake this work? There are several precedents I know. The Department for Education and Skills contracts to DirectSupport to help community-based UK online centres. That contract is part of the funding mix that keep Ruralnet|UK going as an innovative social enterprise.
The Home Office has supported the Community Development Foundation in this sort of work in the past, and Communities Online had funding from the Department for Trade and Industry back in 1997. Unfortunately I suspect these are all too rare examples. It may be that Ministers and Civil Servants are comfortable with projects that support access, centres and infrastructure, but over-cautious when it comes to facilitating online exchange between citizens. Instead we get more and more gateways and good practice sites created and maintained at great expense with far less buzz that Netmums achieves with its volunteers and sponsorship.