As the BBC was reporting a big response to the No 10 e-petitions system - 500 in the first couple of days according to the team in Downing Street - the Prime Minister's strategy adviser was urging those assembled at yesterday's e-democracy '06 conference to help people be more deliberative and collaborative.
Matthew Taylor was keynote speaker, giving us a wholly engaging (no Powerpoint, no notes) appraisal of the unhealthy elements of the relationship between citizens, media and politicians - and the often shrill discourse that results. The media sells outrage, citizens fail to recognise the tough choices they have to make in their lifestyles, and politicians work hard and mainly honestly to balance priorities in a highly complex world. I summarise outrageously. The BBC has a full report, including:
At a time at which we need a richer relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had, to confront the shared challenges we face, arguably we have a more impoverished relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had. It seems to me this is something which is worth calling a crisis.
Matthew was appointed to the Labour Party in 1994 to establish Labour's rebuttal operation ... so one might expect some weariness with both Press and petitioners.
However, Matthew's main focus was on the need for us to work through the complexities of political choice for ourselves, and not expect easy fixes from politicians. He cited citizens juries, familiar from his time as director of the think tank IPPR. There people who are not experts in a subject hear evidence, discuss the issues, and try and reach a conclusion. Often people with opposing views find common ground.
We need these deliberative processes not just with others, but with ourselves, because we need to balance our private wants with common goods.
The Internet, said Matthew, had helped people to mobilise. It offers new methods of search and exposure. But does it yet really help people engage with dilemmas and challenges, and work their way through to conclusions? He presented that challenge to developers and advocates of e-democracy tools.
I was official conference video blogger, which felt very important and was great fun, but rather reduced my incentive to take proper notes - so I was pleased Matthew offered a well-crafted recap before he left.
Matthew shortly moves from No 10 to become chief executive of the 250-year-old Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. As I reported recently that organisation is renowned for serious deliberation, and is now thinking about how better to engage its 26,000 Fellows more effectively. Sounds a great testbed for some of the new tools Matthew wants.
More conference video here shortly, and then on a dedicated blog.