David Cameron started his times as Prime Minister by saying that ‘the days of big government are over’. But he is still missing a major trick with the internet. The Times has highlighted(£) some of the ludicrous policy consultations undertaken by the coalition, many of which have received no responses at all:
‘Another consultation into Cornish wine received no responses at all. The owners of the Camel Valley Vineyard at Nanstallon, near Bodmin asked for protected status for their award-winning ‘Darnibole wine’. After consultation on the issue failed to stir the public or even rival growers, the wine is now being considered for submission to the EU Commission for protected status.
Although the government has started to build an online consultation database, only six departments have signed up for the system so far. Plus this new database requires interested parties to download a form or post a hand-written response to Whitehall. Instead of this compromise, we need something interactive and collaborative. For example, the ability to comment and rate policy suggestions, engage with other stakeholders and speak directly with the policymakers in Westminster.
Plus, the ability to open up the filtering and sorting of responses could significantly reduce administration costs, as the current online system is barely a step up from written responses. Tory MP Douglas Carswell offers a wider vision in his book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. Take his idea for increasing participation in policy making:
‘The Internet allows people to group together online and apply pressure directly. Voters are able to press their judgment upon individual Congressmen and women. But they are able to demand the right to make more choices directly.
‘We will see more direct democracy, where voters are able to imitate debates and vote on what matters to them. Just as they decide what is on their MP3 player, so too will they have a role in programming the legislative agenda.’
This is no simple task, as Westminster tends to react negatively when faced with outside interference. One quote in Carswell’s book highlights the hostility:
‘You might waste a lot of time on that Twitter-book thing, Carswell, but they are hardly going to change the world’
Those MPs opposed to the concept of ‘iDemocracy’ need to wake up and smell the huge opportunity. Opening up policy making online could increase the flow of opinions — the Mail was particularly annoyed about the lack of responses to some consultations — by widening the communications channel with voters as well as addressing the bill Fleet Street have taken umbrage at.
Although tentative steps with ePetitions have been met with mixed results, it is hard to see how the political bubble can remain immune from increased interference. Hopefully, Parliament will not plant itself in the past and instead will instigate the birth of a more involved political system.