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Disruptive eDemocracy: A step towards participatory politics

Disruptive eDemocracy: A step towards participatory politics This piece from Richard Parsons was originally posted on his eDemocracyBlog.com. Richard is a former editor of ePolitix.com and you can find him on twitter at @problybored

Last year I wrote about how I would define eDemocracy, and concluded by suggesting that:

“Looking back 50 years from now, eDemocracy will be the name we give to the disruption needed to deliver more participation.”

What makes participation important and why is disruption needed to increase it?

As I described in my last post on my blog, a situation where people have more interest and knowledge about politics and democracy but where satisfaction with the process is lower and participation rates are stagnant is not sustainable in the longer term.

And some of the big issues in today’s politics revolve around participation in one form or another; low turnout, corrosive levels of cynicism, the need to encourage a Big Society and to help people do more with less state intervention.

But why might higher levels of participation require disruption? Well, there are already plenty of examples which show why.

Services like YouTube have made it possible for anyone to be a film-maker. The traditional position of the media is challenged by blogging software which lets anyone become a publisher.

The distinction between professional and amateur has blurred as disruptive participation in these areas has increased.

So with that in mind I’m massively excited at having been alerted by the tweet below to the recently launched services of oneclickorgs.com.

Disruptive eDemocracy: A step towards participatory politics

The website makes it incredibly easy for community groups to “organise themselves with a legal structure and voting system”.

This is the first practical service I’ve seen that moves us one step closer to forcing serious change in the political system.

While this service is focused on helping community groups, it is suddenly a much smaller jump to envisage a world where anyone can start up their own political parties.

And much like YouTube makes it easier for anyone to broadcast themselves, we need to make it similarly easy for people to become ‘politicians’.

At present, someone wishing to participate in an election has a choice of standing as a solitary independent or joining one of the main parties. Yet when they feel disillusioned with these parties then this acts as a barrier to participation.

This is why we need to help people form their own parties, and why oneclickorgs.com is a step towards making this a reality.

Creating a party is, for the time being, going to remain governed by a set of demanding regulations.

So one necessary change might be the creation of a ‘light touch’ set of regulations for the new breed of microparties.

However, even within existing requirements, it is possible to imagine the creation of a website which provides standard templates, forms and tools for creating, registering and running a simple political party.

This would be a service which takes care of the hard work, making the required submissions to the Electoral Commission and returning officers in the same way that FixMyStreet does for potholes and local councils.

We need to improve our democratic infrastructure if this is to be feasible. In order to comply with rules on funding, for example, such a website would need to be able to query a single database to determine whether a donation is permissible.

Part of the infrastructure which might enable this is already provided for with the Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors which was contained in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (I have a long overdue freedom of information request lodged with the Cabinet Office to find out the current status of this programme).

But once created, this new wave of microparties would need no headquarters, no paid staff, no advertising, no spokesmen, no campaigning. It would simply need one or more people committed to a viewpoint which they want to make available to the voters during an election.

Instead of politicians being the ‘producers’ of politics with the public as consumers, knowledge and tools will spread to enable the public to become producers – just as they are now producers of music, video and journalism.

Yet having the tools to create more political parties is only half the equation – we also need to help the voters then find out about them.

This means a new set of tools to help voters find the parties they want from a much-expanded set of choices.

It will involve applying the range of searching, filtering, tagging and sharing tools which are already widespread on eCommerce sites.

One innovation, which might be formalised in the tools to create microparties, could be a standard data structure for manifestos. This would allow parties to input their policies, and then generate a feed of them for any website which would like to take them for comparison, tagging, analysis, criticism or any other reason.

This might include policy details, cost, how it is being paid for, how it will be implemented or it’s territorial extent. Such moves (similar to what the government is itself proposing for the credit card industry) would bring a new level of transparency and choice to elections.

These microparties could be generated from a sense of professional identity, a geographic area, a single cause or some hyperlocal issue. They need not occupy any place on the traditional left-right political spectrum, and in that sense they would be post-ideological parties.

But because they can strongly appeal to specific niche interests, these parties stand a reasonable chance of drawing support away from established parties with which people tend to feel a shallower, if broader, sense of identification.

Of course, if more support goes to smaller parties then the established parties will lose voter share in elections, and the legitimacy of institutions like the House of Commons will be questioned.

This, you might suggest, means that participation is incompatible with democracy. I would tend to agree, but point out that we are talking only about representative democracy here.

Other forms of direct democracy, which fit more naturally into a genuinely participative society, are alternatives. That, however, would be a story for another day.

I would add though, that eDemocracy and politics on the internet should be about so much more than viral videos, the number of followers a politician has on Twitter or which party buys the most Google AdWords.

And if there is one lesson that I would highlight, it is that if one per cent of the effort that goes into government infrastructure went into supporting our democratic infrastructure, some of the seemingly intractable political issues we face might not prove so difficult after all.