Author Archive

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Webvotr – early days for a new democracy Facebook app

1. August 2012 – 16:04 by Anthony Zacharzewski

At the PEP-NET summit in Hamburg a little while ago, I met Gabor Mihucz, a Hungarian democracy activist, who pointed me at his organisation theAssociation for Societal Participation and their new project “webvotr“.

Webvotr is still in concept form at the moment, but is intended as a Facebook app for democracy. The organisers say:

We have decided to create an application specially built for the social networks which would take the importance of spontaneous organizations to a higher level by honoring the demand of voters for a greater say in the policy-shaping process and which would maximize the force of public pressure exerted on politicians while also prompting people to participate in public matters who have lost all faith in common representation built upon a consensus. It is our hope that this application will again allow a meaningful dialog between voters and representatives.

It’s obviously very early days for the project at the moment, but you can get a rough idea of how it works from the “Application” page on the site.

I think the motivation behind the app is good – I think the challenge for Gabor and his team is to build something which promotes democratic discussion and can’t be gamed. It will need rapidly to create a network of users, with a positive culture. These are areas where political discussion on the Internet has generally failed.

As I say, I like the intent of the application. I think it makes sense on one level to build it on top of Facebook (but there are compromises inherent in that approach as well).

I like that the intention is to create an evidence base around proposals being discussed – it might not always be used, but it’s important to have it there.

I think they are on the right lines in describing an open networked system: “Depending on their political affiliations users can join groups or factions, they can create their own Facebook profile and forums, they can organize sessions, events and protests, which can be posted on Webvotr.”

I like their idea of having an iFrame that allows the app content to be viewed on other websites (though I’m not techy enough to understand how that works alongside Facebook).

There are also a few areas where I think the project might be taking a risk.

First, Webvotr plans to create a separate group for each administrative unit, which seems to go against the natural networks model that I mentioned above. Local groups might work, particularly if they are linked to offline activity, but there’s a risk of Empty Restaurant syndrome – where a low-traffic group doesn’t attract traffic because people don’t see anyone interacting there. This was one of the problems with the BBC’s iCan project about ten years ago. They had a sub site for pretty much every parish in the UK, but even the marketing reach and trust of the BBC couldn’t draw people in.

Second, and more fundamentally, I wonder whether Europe is ready as a society for online-first political engagement. As I said above, I don’t think that there are many success stories in online political discussion (as opposed to online political campaigning). There seems to be a scaling problem, or a trade-off between size and culture, where small focused groups or groups that are “on the same side” can create positive cultures, but larger participation reduces the quality of the interactions.

Perhaps we’re getting closer to that time, we’re certainly closer than a few years ago, but I wonder how Webvotr answers the inevitable challenge to its representativeness – how can it represent those offline, and how can it avoid just giving a stronger voice to those who (through education, wealth or position) already have a strong voice?

None of this should take away from the idea, however. It’s good to have people like Gabor working on initiatives such as this – particularly in Hungary, where there are some clear and present threats to democratic process. I think Webvotr has the right fundamental philosophy – support people to talk and involve themselves in their areas – and I wish it a great deal of success.

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Democratic engagement can save money for local government

26. May 2010 – 12:24 by Anthony Zacharzewski

Two UK-based PEP-NET associates have collaborated on a white paper considering whether local government can save money through democratic engagement.

The paper, Democracy Pays, has been produced by the Democratic Society in association with Public-I Ltd., and looks at examples of cost-saving democratic innovations from the UK and the rest of the world.

Its conclusion is that democratic engagement, whether online or off, can produce significant savings through better targeting of services, and stronger oversight of public expenditure.

The paper can be download in PDF format (16 pages) here.

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Member project: TalkIssues by the Democratic Society

15. April 2010 – 00:41 by Anthony Zacharzewski

As the election campaign in the UK gets up to speed, PEP-NET member the Democratic Society is working with well-known blogger Kevin Anderson and social media consultancy FutureGov to focus discussion on political issues rather than personalities.

Through a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag, the TalkIssues campaign provides information on the different parties’ policy announcements, and a space for discussion and debate.

Discussions on blog and Facebook are linked through a simple Facebook app, and Twitter updates also appear on the blog site.

The first televised debate between the party leaders is tonight (Thursday), and TalkIssues will be covering it live on Twitter and on the blog. Closer to election night (6 May), we will also be trying to arrange election meetups in various locations around the UK.

Any PEP-NET members who are interested in keeping in touch would be welcome to sign up for the Facebook page or follow the hashtag. Anthony at the Democratic Society is the person to speak to if you would like to discuss what’s happening.