4. October 2010 – 17:59 by Dan Jellinek
Future Democracy ’10 is to be held this year on 02 December at the new venue of Grand Connaught Rooms, central London.
As the UK’s leading e-democracy event, hosted by PEP-NET founder member Headstar, we welcome politicians, local administrations, solutions providers, academics, analysts, journalists, think-tanks and consultation experts to swap ideas and advice on engaging citizens using new technologies.
This year’s fantastic speaker and workshop programme covers mobile apps for democracy; digital inclusion; ‘crowdsourcing’ public policy; and much more.
We are also pleased to once more offer all PEP-NET members a £15 discount on usual attendance fees. Normal fees are £195 + VAT for public sector, educational and voluntary; and £295 + VAT for private sector. For more information and to secure your discount, please register without delay and use code ‘PEPNET10’ in the ‘Promotional codes’ box on registration page at:
9. May 2010 – 20:33 by Dan Jellinek
Best Methods For Undemocratic E-Participation
The recent warnings from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) that the internet poses a major threat to endangered species by providing an efficient communications network for traders were a reminder that the impact of the internet is not always positive.
In itself, like most technologies, the net is neutral, a tool to be used for social benefit or detriment. So when it comes to ‘e-participation’ – online tools allowing people to exchange and discuss ideas, organise into groups and affect the workings of their society – we should not be dazzled by the glitz and excitement of the latest buzzwords like ‘Web 2.0’ without stopping to consider how we can try to ensure that the effects of these technologies are as positive as possible.
We must ensure that the addition or integration of new digital channels does not make existing power structures less socially representative, and if possible, should improve democratic systems, for example by providing voices to people who previously would have struggled to be heard. Mastery of new technologies and ownership of expensive equipment must not become pre-requisites for engagement in e-participation.
Overall, technology is the servant, not the master, of a fair political system. To safeguard people’s rights a country’s democratic system must first be strengthened, with technology deployed in support. We must remember there are wrong ways of going about e-participation, ways which will tend to centralise power, reinforce existing social inequities or play into the hands of private power. The use of jargon; expensive, brand-new technologies; and technologies which are hard for poorer or less educated people to access may all, consciously or unconsciously, have such anti-democratic tendencies.
At a workshop at the EDEM10 conference in Krems, Austria in May 2010, ‘Best methods for undemocratic participation’, with the help of Hans Hagedorn of Zebralog, we asked the question the negative way around – – if we set out to make an e-participation system that was as undemocratic as possible, what would it be like?
The assembled group of e-democracy analysts and practitioners had a lot of fun answering this question. But there was a serious point to the exercise: first, the process of thinking about what had made projects unsuccessful in the past can be easier than thinking about what worked well, and more revealing: everyone remembers crazy or absurd examples of web projects that were hard to use, or unfathomable in purpose or outcome. By throwing these together, we have created a good starting point for further work to build the positive counterpart of rules to make it work, or pitfalls to avoid – an exercise for a later date.
So here we go with the latest list, as adapted from our brainstorming session: please do add further comments and suggestions here and we’ll hone the list further over the coming weeks and months, before deciding what else to do with it.
Best methods for undemocratic participation
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23. March 2010 – 18:38 by Dan Jellinek
The recent warnings from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) that the internet poses the biggest threat to endangered species of any technology – by providing an efficient communications and sales network for those who would hunt and trade them – was another reminder that in itself, the net is neutral. Like most technologies, it is merely a tool to be used for social benefit or detriment, depending on who uses it, how and why.
In May I am participating in the PEP-NET workshop at the EDEM10 conference in Krems, Austria and I would like to use the session to explore this idea in more detail. In particular, I would like to examine the question – when is e-participation undemocratic?
The online trade in endangered species reminds us that we should never be dazzled by the glitz and excitement of a new technology, or the latest buzzwords like Twitter or ‘Web 2.0’, without stopping to consider how we can at least try to ensure that the effects of these technologies end up being as positive as possible.
Partly, the role of a technology is determined by the society within which it is used – look at the row currently raging over Google’s presence in China. In a non-democratic society, it is easier for technologies to be used to violate human rights – but then again, it is not the technology that is the problem in those states (the simple technology of a machete can be used to hack down either vegetation or human beings).
There is little the e-participation sector can do directly to protect the rights of people in a state where an unelected government chooses – as they inevitably do – to repress those rights to retain power and private control over a nation’s wealth and resources.
Indirectly, however, there may be ways of shaping our work in ways that help the cause of global freedom and democracy.
One key battlefield is that of internet governance. As control of the institutions and rules governing internet domain routing and other technical issues shifts gradually away from the US government towards the international community, a battle is taking place behind the scenes. Ironically, countries like China are claiming to be wresting power away from an ‘Imperialist’ US, in seeking greater local control: this would be all well and good if anyone thought that increased localised control over the internet would be used by the Chinese government for the benefit of the country’s own citizens. E-participation activists in all countries must lobby hard for international control that enshrines as many freedoms as possible in its basic tenets and protocols.
More directly, in developing e-participation and e-democracy projects in our own countries, we must ensure that the addition or integration of new digital channels does at the very least not adversely affect the democratic power structures that exist, and if possible, improve them. Mastery of new technologies and ownership of expensive equipment, for example, must not become pre-requisites for democratic engagement.
Technology is the servant, not the master, of a fair political system. The system itself must first be understood and strengthened, and then it must be supported by new technologies: digital activists should prioritise the improvement of the workings of our democratic system as a whole, and then look to see how technology can aid this process.
As for developers of e-participation software, tools and websites, we should see our work as part of a growing global picture that must remain as free, open, scalable and multi-platform as possible, to allow the benefits of the work we do to spread from citizen to citizen across the world despite the efforts of totalitarian states to prevent this happening.
We must also remember there are wrong ways of going about e-participation, ways which will tend to centralise power and play into the hands of the forces of private power. The use of jargon; expensive, brand-new technologies; and technologies which are hard for poorer or less educated people to access may all, consciously or unconsciously, have such anti-democratic tendencies.
In today’s digital world, the internet community is going to find itself increasingly on the global front-line for freedom and human rights. Let’s all try and lend our support.
4. January 2010 – 18:55 by Dan Jellinek
While I’m waffling on, sorry engaging in serious discussion, about significant e-democracy developments in 2009, there is something that happened in the UK just shortly before Christmas that holds some significant messages for e-participation.
I don’t know whether anyone outside the UK will have heard anything about the story, and I’m not sure what it would mean if you had, but it relates to the race for the Christmas ‘number one’ slot in our pop music charts. For many years the media has taken a keen interest in what song becomes top of the charts at Christmas, partly no doubt because there is little else to write about in the holidays.
In recent years the trend for caring much about what song is number one at Christmas has colled off a little, with the death of the single due to music downloads, and in any case the race has been run for a few years by whoever won the national TV singing talent contest ‘The X-Factor’. This is a show created by a hugely wealthy and influential music impressario called Simon Cowell, and other adjectives are commonly applied to him.
This year a small group of ‘alternative’ music fans, led by part-time DJ Jon Morter, set out to buck the trend and ensure that it was not a bland ballad sung by the winner of this contest (‘The Climb’, by Joe McElderry) that made it to number one. Picking a raw, explosive anti-capitalist song as their battle-cry (‘Killing in the name’, by the perpetually incensed Rage against the Machine) they launched a Facebook campaign that ended up triggered 500,000 downloads of the song in one week alone, securing the Christmas Number 1 spot by 50,000 downloads. The campaign began on Facebook – I myself received the call through my Facebook network before I had heard anything about the campaign through the mainstream media.
Whatever one thinks about the merits of this campaign (haven’t number ones always been bland?), I think there is something interesting happening here. Even given that, as with most unregulated online campaigns, the size of the vote is likely to be produced by a small core of voters voting (or downloading) many times each; it is surely impressive that a small group of people, led by a single person, with a well-designed online campaign, have had a major impact on a national cultural event.
I think it means that, where a situation can actually be changed directly by online intervention (such as, in this case, buying a song), then a good online campaign can win out over traditional channels.
The unexpected nature of the campaign is interesting, as well – until a person or a small group had this idea, no-one would have even realised that an online campaign could change what song became number one at the most important time of year.
What else could online campaigning change? this could be the year it all gets more imaginative.
4. January 2010 – 18:25 by Dan Jellinek
A Happy New Year to all PEP-Netters.
I’ve been thinking back to some of the highlights of last year, and I think one of the most memorable for me was actually a policy talk, a prediction of what the year ahead 2010 might hold, and beyond, in our field.
It was a talk by Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation and former advisor to Tony Blair, who looked beyond the double whammy of the dot.com bubble bursting and the economic crisis to what might be a period where the true potential of social media in the public sphere can be realised. Mulgan suggested that we are on the brink of a period of “extraordinary growth” in the use of new technologies to boost citizen engagement in society, driven in part by the very economic hardships that are making increases in centralised services simply too expensive.
A full report (by me) of the talk to the UK’s local government Society of IT Management (Socitm) annual conference, ‘Retrenchment and revolution’, can be read online at:
It is an exciting analysis, and let’s see what happens!
27. October 2009 – 14:37 by Dan Jellinek
Great to see some of you at the World E-Democracy Forum in Paris last week – now back in London planning the final details for the next conference in the PEP-NET series, Future Democracy ’09.
We have a fantastic speaker line-up this year: plenary sessions include one on engaging young people with e-democracy, where speakers include Lucy Willis, Executive Producer of a national TV series in the UK called Battlefront which helped young people to campaign powerfully on issues that matter to them, such as combatting street violence – some moving and eloquent stories and useful practical lessons on engaging the crucuial young audience.
PEP-NET itself is supporting a plenary session with cases from across Europe including Openparlamenta.it and a PEP-NET workshop focusing on other conferences in the European series.
Other sessions will cover local e-democracy; electronic petitions; a ‘Question Time’ session with three UK Members of Parliament; and many more. I look forward very much to welcoming many PEP-NET member delegates to London, and would appreciate any feedback on our planned programme as well. Do please help spread the word for me too, so we can ensure a good number of delegates all round!
Oh, and our Twitter hashtag is #fdem09 and I will also be setting up a Flickr group for the event.
Dan Jellinek, Headstar
30. September 2009 – 18:03 by Dan Jellinek
On Monday night I helped to organise a ‘fringe meeting’ at the Labour Party conference –the annual members’ conference organised by the political party currently in power in the UK (though not, most people predict, for much longer).
The official business of the conference consists of stage-managed debates involving party activists, interspersed with excitable set-piece speeches from high–profile politicians including the Prime Minister.
But the real fun happens outside the main venue, at a network of hotels, bars and pubs hosting the fringe meetings – semi-formal events of all sizes focusing on key political topics.
Our meeting was hosted by the Sussex Community Internet Project (SCIP), a local non-profit body I chair which provides IT support to community groups and charities in Sussex and the surrounding area. The subject was ‘Digital inclusion’ –how to ensure everyone is included in the digital revolution, which of course is a key first step to e-participation.
Our speakers included Graham Walker, director of strategy at the UK’s new Digital Inclusion Taskforce (led by the recently-appointed ‘Digital Champion’, dot.com entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox).
It seems it will certainly be worth following closely the work of the taskforce (which, ironically, does not yet appear to have its own website). From what Graham Walker told our meeting, a large part of the agency’s work will be to draw together and champion existing digital inclusion policy strands such as an imminent project to fully fund home computers for all families with school-age children. He also said the starting point for both spreading projects like computer funding to different areas of government like job-seeking, or for starting up any other brand-new digital inclusion project, will be to analyse their business case – for example, if you spend x on getting hard-to-connect people online, then you will gain 2x through economic benefits, or save 2x by steering people away from benefits or crime.
All well and good, but do all such projects have a raw or easily measurable business case? Take broadband for example. Part of the digital inclusion agenda is to ensure as many people as possible, including those living in remote rural areas, have high speed internet access. But clearly this is not commercially viable, and surely it might sometimes be hard to draw up a solid ‘socio-economic benefit’ business case as well, other than to simply say it is the fair thing (usually) to do? Others (including one attendee I spoke to) might take a harsher view and even just say that if people want to live in remote areas, they shouldn’t automatically expect high-speed internet access.
It’s a tricky area, and time will tell how much the taskforce can achieve, particularly with an apparent three-year time limit (and perhaps even less if a different incoming government decides to put the brakes on).
31. July 2009 – 08:34 by Dan Jellinek
One UK local authority did something very interesting with its website recently: it went Google.
Westminster City Councilin central London serves one of the UK’s busiest and richest areas, packed with tourists, businesses, government departments and residents (from MPs to the Queen), and has long been an innovator with technology. It has been a pioneer of mobile technology in public services, for example, with aspirations to become a ‘wireless city’.
Now it has implemented a radical redesign of its website which has seen its home page focus on a single feature: a whacking great search box.
Such a move has been spoken of in the local government web community for some time: public service websites in a democracy have to be as usable as possible, usable by all and accessible by all, and Google has long been held up as the pinnacle of usability.
The Google website, by and large, does one thing, and one thing only: and does it very well. This is what makes it so powerful, and easy to use. Local government websites, on the other hand, have tended, particularly on their home pages, to try to do 1,000 things, and so it is usually almost impossible to find what you want quickly and easily. The search box has often been the best way in – so why not make the whole site focus on the search facility? This should mean that whatever citizens want to do, they can do it quickly without having to think about how to locate it. Just type it in the box.
This has been Westminster’s thought process. Its redesigned site uses actual Google technology – Google supplies the search technology, and mapping technology – combining it with an open source content management system called Symphony CMS to create a site which is intended to be as simple as possible to use.
There is a bit more to it than the search, in fact – a system of tabs allows users to choose whether they want to search on the maps, or search for something to apply for, or various other sub-sections. There is also a graphical map interface sitting below the search box on the home page, and various other more traditional navigational features too, though one has to know these are there and scroll down.
There are a few other quibbles too, as our recent story in E-Government Bulletin has reported.
Overall though, is this the future of public service websites? Is this the first of a new wave of usable sites that will cut bureaucracy, and strike a blow for usability, participation and democracy? What do people think?
16. June 2009 – 13:52 by Dan Jellinek
The finding of a new academic report that e-participation has a “surprisingly weak” effect on democratic decision-making, and on helping people to engage with democracy, should not come as too much of a surprise.
The report, ‘Empowering communities to influence local decision making – A systematic review of the evidence’ (https://fastlink.headstar.com/clg1), was produced for the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government by Professor Lawrence Pratchett, Dr Catherine Durose and Professor Vivien Lowndes of the Local Governance Research Unit, De Montfort University; and Professor Graham Smith, Professor Gerry Stoker and Dr Corinne Wales, at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (see also https://www.headstar.com/egblive/?p=229).
The truth is that leading academics, from these and other bodies including the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Leeds, have been complaining for some time that there is little in-depth research into the actual effects of e-participation projects on political engagement.
For too long, it has been argued, the value and power of tools such as discussion forums and e-petitions are taken as gospel – their mere existence appears to ‘open up the system’, and allow greater engagement.
The truth, or course, is far trickier: if the underlying political systems are not set up to proper deliberate on the results of online exercises, for example, then they are all but futile. There is also the spectre – raised once more in this new report – of the digital divide, lingering over this debate and reminding us that those that do get involved and engaged online are more often than not those who were already getting engaged using existing media and means.
On the other hand, the new tools can be successful in individual cases, the new report finds.
So where do we go from here?
I tend to think these kinds of findings are inevitable in what are still early days of internet-based e-participation tools. Most political systems, and particularly the established, barnacle-encrusted Western democracies of Westminster and elsewhere, are slow to change, so the various stages of recognizing the possible value of such tools; putting them in place; encouraging their use; measuring their use; and finally, embedding them into the political system itself; will inevitably take some time.
We should not draw Luddite conclusions from such reports, or give up, but they add some sobering perspective: many arguments about the value of e-participation remain to be won, and the more we can measure, assess and prove their value, the quicker they will become part of the political establishment.
29. May 2009 – 15:01 by Dan Jellinek
In the process of editing a US academic paper for publication in next week’s E-Government Bulletin, I’ve just come across an interesting project developed in the US in the run-up to last year’s Presidential elections, which is a fun variation on some of the e-Participatory budgeting projects I’ve seen.
It’s called Budget Hero –
It was produced by American Public Media, the largest producer of US public radio stations, and jointly funded by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Like other online participatory budgeting tools I’ve seen, it lets you find out information about a public budget – in this case, the vast US federal budget – and make your own adjustments to it, letting you see how your own political priorities might translate to budget decisions, and the effects that different spending allocations can have on current and future services.
The different thing about this project is that it seems much more developed than others I’ve seen, due to the level of funding it had. The interfaces are fun and cartoon-style, too, while preserving the complexity of decision-making. The underlying structure is well-researched, and the system looks ahead 10 years to the potential follow-through of spending decisions far in the future.
There is also a discussion area which allows users to share and discuss their budgets with others who have taken part.
I’d love to see someone have a go at this for the EU budget! I would like to have a go at reallocating some of the agricultural subsidies, myself