Think tanks by their nature can appear rather academic and distanced from everyday life - but that certainly wasn't the case when I talked to a couple of researchers from Demos and IPPR at the e-democracy '06 conference recently. While Matthew Taylor was calling for a more deliberative approach to politics, and Tom Steinberg was reflecting on the need for a new political philosophy, Molly Webb and Jo Twist were very much focused on people's day-to-day concerns when I interviewed them. For some people the day-to-day might be concern about domestic violence next door, for others it might be working out rules for posting videos to YouTube. The message from both: go to where people are already engaging online, as well as thinking about new tools.
Molly Webb is web manager at Demos, and recently won an award for their site. It is notable for the way in which it enables staff to share work in progress not only with each other, but anyone interested. For some years Demos has promoted itself as "the think tank for everyday democracy", so that and their webby credentials gives them useful e-democracy perspectives. Molly felt that the main e-democracy focus on politics, government and citizens didn't fully acknowledge all the activities people engage in online to express their social concerns and aspirations. Politics is on the street - outside Whitehall.
Jo Twist is a senior research fellow at IPPR, heading up their Digital Society and Media programme. She's also been a BBC technology reporter, and has studied virtual worlds, so I wasn't surprised to hear her returning to their role as learning environments.
While politicians may take the political blog as the barometer of what's happening online, young people may be learning about governance by arguing through the rules of uploading videos to YouTube.
When I checked the video with Molly after the event, she added:
E-government shouldn't just take offline processes and digitize them. We should be thinking about how the trends online are opening up new possibilities for communication and collective efficacy.
... and reminded me of the Demos pamphlet Wide Open: Open source methods and their future potential, which applies open source ideas to policy.
Over at IPPR, Jo's colleague Kay Withers is working on Emerging Local Media and Citizenship in a Converged Digital Society:
As the idea of handing down power from Whitehall to the town hall, to citizens and local communities gains currency, the question which remains unanswered is how digital media and technologies can work more effectively at local levels to represent, enhance, and support real needs, as well as amplify voices and increase participation in decision making.
This project will involve a thorough audit of both the habits and attitudes of young people with regard media technologies, content consumption and production, and social networking online. It will consider what this means for the future of media regulation, public service content, the development of identity and social norms online, political engagement, and finally translating progressive ideas to a dispersed and dis-aggregated audience.
I hope we hear more at next year's conference, if not before.
Meanwhile, there's a very lively discussion taking place on the email list UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange about the pros and cons of having some deliberative forums associated with the No 10 e-petitions site, with leading e-democracy thinkers and toolmakers weighing in on either side. You too can join in by signing up to the list, but otherwise it is out of public view, which seems a pity, since content can't easily be quoted or linked. With some trepidation, I'll raise the issue on the list. Or should I try a petition to the effect that this discussion should take place in public?