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Digital Democracy for All?

7. October 2009 – 19:12 by Julia Glidden

Tom Steinberg has recently made headlines here in the UK with the announcement that he will be acting as an unpaid advisor to the Conservative Party to help them use technology to engage with people and make government more open and efficient. https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8290181.stm

It is looking increasingly likely that the Conservative Party will win the next General Election in the UK.  And in anticipation of that victory they are publicly commiting to engage with the public more and make data more accessible to everyone.  Surely – these are laudable goals whatever ones political loyalties.  And surely it is good news that a government in-waiting is openly recognising the power that new technologies can bring in enhancing democracy.

Yet soon as the announcement was made, -Tom was roundly criticised for associating with a political party.  Fair enough to one extent.  Except that as far as I know no one in democratic engagement circles in the UK has ever been criticised for helping the Labour Party use new technology to engage with citizens.  My point here is not so much one of double standards but rather of the danger of ‘politicising’ what strikes me as an obvious good – namely encouraging governments of all stripes to improve the democratic process.  What do you think?

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  1. 8 Responses to “Digital Democracy for All?”

  2. By Csaba on Oct 7, 2009

    I would be very happy to any of our parties in Hungary would hire Tom to help democratize in a digital way ;) Go for it!

  3. By Roberto Zarro on Oct 7, 2009

    speaking about open data and egov 2.0, but changing political side, here the news of the new initiative named “Federal Register 2.0″ promoted by the White House


  4. By Rolf Luehrs on Oct 8, 2009

    Thanks Julia for making us aware of that really interesting discussion. First of all I totally agree that the use of the Internet to improve democracy is politically neither left or right nor attached to any of the political parties. However, to become an advisor for one of the parties will have consequences for Tom’s credibility towards the others. The interesting questions is whether this will impact the standing of mySociety in general. In this regard Tom said: “Apart from anything else, I don’t have the power to make mySociety be anything else other than impartial – the staff and volunteers are way too independent minded to allow a dubious change in direction”. This sounds convincing to me and I really hope to others as well.

    See also the discussion on Tom Watson’s blog (via Anthony Zacharzewski) and on our facebook page .

  5. By Hans Hagedorn on Oct 8, 2009

    “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and I believe any party which appoints someone like Tom as an ‘unpaid advisor’ will face the challenge to make their promises real.

  6. By Julia Glidden on Oct 8, 2009

    Yes – the impartiality of MySociety is an obvious point. But, as you say Rolf, MySociety is an independent organisation staffed by extremely independent minded pioneers and Tom is acting as an advisor in an independent capacity. I appreciate that there are genuine appearance issues – but I must say that I find the criticism from someone like Tom Watson who has been a major and important advocate of digital engagement for years now and has himself benefited from independent advice in the field somewhat counter productive…..

  7. By Rolf Luehrs on Oct 8, 2009

    @Hans – which would be a good thing

    @Julia: right, but: there is still a difference in consulting a labour led government or consulting a political party

  8. By Fraser Henderson - ICELE on Oct 8, 2009

    Free consultancy….sometimes you need to eat.

  9. By Daniel VAN LERBERGHE on Oct 8, 2009

    This post reminds me of the eternal conflicting concepts of “neutrality” and “impartiality” in public law and public administration. When bringing the concept of “neutrality” when talking about politics or international relations, one can argue that getting involve in politics or political field in a scientific or an advising role can we be “neutral”, can we conceive the IMF, the World Bank or the UN as “neutral” ? Are public administrations “neutral” in relation to the elected decision-makers if we take the European model of public administration? Don’t these organisations provide experts advises or judgements to the States for the former and the political level for the latter?

    In fact they are not “neutral” but “impartial” and in the field of Internet and Politics, as a new and evolving field, similar concepts or norms should be adopted so professional as much as in the political marketing and campaign consultants should be “impartial” in delivering their services. If Tom advises the Conservative Party it does not make him a Torry, as much as it did not become a Labour Member when he adviced the Prime-Minister for his ePetition system.

    Internet opened up new possibilities for our social activities, but one should not forget that these new tools are there to enhance our reality and build on its concepts, rules, ethics and processes to better reinvent them…

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