I hadn’t had time to plan properly (and still haven’t got around to blogging about Simon’s Ordnance Survey OpenData presentation from last week) but we still managed to have a long and interesting discussion.
The report, published in February, looked at two sample groups:
2,003 individuals who are already online
(This data was from the end of 2008: a lot has changed since then)
58 ‘digital leaders’ (individuals with a strong interest in social media and politics)
(This data was from 2009, and sourced via Twitter; I suspect the people surveyed are already operating within the same networks as each other)
Key points from the report’s Conclusion include:
For those already online, the internet makes it easier to take part in democracy;
What [the digital leaders] group is doing today, we can expect to see migrate across to the wider online public tomorrow;
Citizens do not want the passive, broadcast-only relationship with their MPs that has existed until now, they wish to communicate and engage, to track and contribute to the democratic debate;
Higher levels of engagement and wider participation in the democratic process will happen when citizens feel that they are a central part of it.
The discussion raised concern about the basis for some of the conclusions, which seemed to be presumptions rather than borne from the research.
For example, where was the evidence that what the enthusiasts are doing today will be taken up by the wider online public? (I have since put this to Andy Williamson, the report’s author, who says in a Twitter message that it was ‘based on models of tech adoption theory’.)
The report makes a number of recommendations:
Wherever systems are being updated:
implement open data standards;
ensure that public-facing APIs are made available for publicly accessible data; and
ensure data is freely available and not restricted by copyright or other restrictive forms of licensing.
Continue to develop multiple social media and other delivery platforms in recognition that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ platform or tool and that the public increasingly expects data to be pushed to the services they use, not pulled from a central website or repository.
Ensure that opportunities are taken for digital media to be used as tools for transparency, outreach and public engagement and not simply for broadcast.
Review the resourcing requirements for effective social media use amongst Members.
Ensure that there is timely and appropriate training available and clear guidelines on social media usage.
MPs must listen and respond as well as publish. Citizens want to engage in dialogue about the issues that concern them so communication with them has to be two-way.
Social media allows MPs to keep a closer eye on the issues that are important for their constituents, these are vital tools in the rich democratic milieu and all MPs should be using them.
Demand two-way digital interaction with your MP and insist that they communicate digitally and proactively.
Use email, websites and social media to draw MPs’ attention to important issues and use the power of social media to insist that MPs come to the debate on citizen’s terms.
Many of these sentiments are not new, and will certainly be familiar to anyone in the ‘digital leaders’ demographic as they probably helped arrive at them.
Therefore what interests me is whether the recommendations of this report are having any impact on policy makers. Andy Williamson tells me the reaction has been very positive, and that the report helps strengthen the case for more engagement that is being made by those in parliament who are very keen on it.
It’s not the easiest report to make sense of: I would have liked fewer paragraphs full of percentages and more helpful and meaningful presentations of their findings. But it’s interesting, and I will try to unpack some of it by Monday.
The discussion is being held in Moseley Exchange at 6.30pm on Monday (19 April). It’s free to Moseley Exchange members and £3 on the door to non-members.
In yesterday’s interview with BBC Breakfast, Digital Inclusion Champion Martha Lane Fox rather worried me. She seemed to be advocating something because someone else had told her it’s a good idea, and not because she understands the issues herself.
Martha Lane Fox:
“… Government is going to move most of its services onto the web … so that it can start talking to people in a more interactive way, I guess…”
BBC Breakfast presenter (Bill Turnbull?):
“… What does that mean?”
Martha Lane Fox:
“I’m not a politician, I’m only independent champion, and I’ve raised this challenge to get the ten million people who’ve never used the internet online by the Olympics…”
The rest of the interview is about how she needs to encourage people online for economic reasons, but it didn’t give me the impression that she’s thought very hard about the social and civic implications of being online.
I’m sure she’s doing a great job, but it feels a bit like the blind leading the blind. In my view the person who’s championing digital civic engagement really should be more critically aware of the arguments around it.
A lot has been going on recently with regard to digital inclusion and civic engagement. People keep publishing reports that I really ought to read for work, but just don’t have the time to; and even if I did, many of them are pretty impenetrable. So I’m going to spread the load.
In April I’ll be running three low-key pilot events here in Birmingham, where each time one person will share their knowledge of a report that they’ve read. They’re aimed particularly at people whose line of work expects them to be knowledgeable in this area, but anyone is welcome.
I’m calling them ‘pilots’ because if they don’t work I won’t have committed to anything long-term. I’m also a bit worried about them not being free to attend: the room I’m using needs to be paid for so I’m having to charge a £3 entry fee. I don’t have any real problem with that, but I think people have grown to expect this sort of thing to be free. (I’m not making any money out of this, I’m simply spreading the financial burden.)
The events are taking place in Moseley Exchange on three Mondays in April, from 6.30pm.