The Guardian today reports Ministers wake up to potential of people power on the net, and that the UK Government is considering funding bottom-up online initiative as part of a policy to encourage more civic engagement. Political editor Patrick Wintour reports:
The government is planning to link up with the power of consumer and civic movements on the net by offering funding, permitting civil servants to post information on sites, and releasing information currently locked up in Whitehall.
Ministers believe web movements are rapidly transforming the power relationship between government and society.
In article on the same page, Patrick also reports on a series of internal seminars in which New Labour is working on a wider range of new policies. After reviewing a range of issues, he notes:
But one of the more striking themes was the feeling that after 10 years in power the government can no longer simply pull levers in Whitehall, and expect change in society.
Society is less deferential and change is secured as much by persuasion, or the development of new social norms, as by new taxes and legislation, the two things government traditionally do. The role of the state is changing, with technology providing one route to empowerment.
In the article about people power and the net, Patrick says Ministers were shocked when over 750,000 people petioned against road user charging on the Downing Street e-petition website set up late last year. A look at the site shows that the number is now over a million. The Times finds that significant enough to lead the front page today.
The e-petitions site was developed by mySociety, whose director Tom Steinberg was involved in the Cabinet Office study leading to the "people power" report. Patrick Wintour has more to back up his story:
Explaining the government's interest, Pat MacFadden, Cabinet Office minister, said: "This is not about technology, but about asking how empowered citizens can drive these services in a way that has not happened before.
"Polling evidence suggests we have a 20-year phenomeon of people becoming ever more demanding of government, yet ever more disengaged.
"So we in government have to ask how we can help this movement, work with it, and yet not smother it.
"We have been decent at putting services out there online, but the challenge now is take it to a new plane so there is a mutual conversation that helps drive choice and standards.
"We need a more sensible debate on how all this information government holds can be used to empower people, rather than have this stupid caricature of CCTV cameras in every home. We have to ask whether information or data sharing is an aid to empowerment, as I believe, or the next step to the big brother state."
But sources say there is a debate inside Whitehall on the extent to which government should fund bottom-up initiatives, or instead launch its own more tightly controlled websites. One concern is that if bodies like Revenue & Customs set up sites, they would be seen to endorse all that appeared on a forum, including advice that was illegal or wrong.
One ministerial source said: "There is a new mass movement out there, better educated, more demanding, and we have to see if, in a light-touch way, we can help."
That's where it starts to get interesting, I think. If government offers funding to local online communities, or those like netmums quoted in the article, what will be the strings? Will there - for example - be support for Oncom in London, that reported last year it is going to close after 10 years? (Update: they have a few month respite through a local donation, and have been doing the rounds of official bodies and other funders ... without finding the enthusiasms reported in The Guardian).
What's needed now - as the Minister suggests - is some informed deliberation about these issues, online and off. There's been a lot of thoughtful discussion recently on the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange, but while anyone can register for the email list, the archive are behind a login, so it doesn't get any public attention. Could the Hansard Society eDemocracy provide a forum? They recently produced a couple of excellent reports, on either side of the government divide: one on consultation and campaigning in the age of participatory media, and one on Digital Dialogues - testing the capacity of ICT to support central government consultation. Both available here as downloads. There's now a web site, with commenting, on the Digital Dialogues report.
It seems crazy that just as Government and others wake up to the potential for enhancing civic engagement online, those in the business have nowhere public online to talk about it. Umm, do comment below, of course.