Pushing the button

Local authorities are keen to widen participation in democracy through the use of technology, but many campaigners are sceptical, says SA Mathieson

This article was based on a Bristol city council e-democracy conference, held to discuss the potential for more online participation in the democratic process.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Pushing the button” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Thursday 23rd March 2006 01.11 UTC

There was dissent from the conference floor when Barbara Janke, leader of Bristol city council, said she wanted people to use online tools to make their voices heard.

How could she be taken seriously, was the cry, when the city had ignored concerns over the name of its main shopping area, which is being rebuilt as Merchants Quarter, an apparent reference to Bristol’s slave-trading past?

“I totally agree with you,” replied Ms Janke, saying the area had been named by the developers. “I’m doing everything to get that changed. Get e-campaigning and give power to my elbow.”

Ms Janke was speaking at a conference earlier this month run by the city to consider whether activists and local authorities could use technology to work together.

But while the local authorities appear keen to embrace the idea, many campaigners were sceptical.

Bristol has done more than most on “e-democracy”, including involvement in a national project funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on the subject.

More directly, it allows citizens to start online petitions and, through a system called Campaign Creator, establish free online campaigns with websites, emailed newsletters and online surveys.

It is also piloting free mass text messaging for campaigners, using the near-ubiquitous mobile phone as a way to overcome the digital divide created by computer ownership.

Campaign Creator, which drew on funding from the deputy prime minister’s office, was formally launched at the Bristol conference earlier this month, to which the city invited local activists as well as local authority staff – producing a lively atmosphere.

During a session explaining the system, one campaigner asked if Campaign Creator wouldn’t simply allow councillors to track what people were doing.

“I don’t think [councils] are necessarily the best people to manage it, to own it,” agreed Stephen Hilton, charged with heading e-democracy for the city council.

Mr Hilton said that Bristol was hoping to establish shared control of Campaign Creator, and had already involved members of the Scarman Trust, which promotes citizen empowerment, Friends of the Earth and the BBC as advisers.

Other e-democracy projects elsewhere have been created at arm’s length from local authorities.

Since 1999, when it was first piloted, the Scottish parliament’s e-petitions system has been managed by the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University in Edinburgh, with hosting provided by BT.

“We try to remain outside any politics,” said Dr Nick Adams, research fellow at the centre and writer of the e-petition software, which automatically deletes duplicate entries and flags those that could be bogus.

“I think it’s helpful that a non-political organisation hosts these things.”

Bristol city council and – with suitable translation – the German Bundestag are among other users of the software.

In December, West Sussex county council, also with funding from John Prescott’s office, completed acting as project manager for a set of projects run by charitable e-democracy group MySociety. Although 80% of the funding went to MySociety, the council provided accountability by making payments when defined targets were met.

The projects, now live, included TheyWorkForYou, which provides information on MPs; WriteToThem, which uses postcodes to find councillors, Welsh or London assembly members, MSPs, MPs and MEPs, then allows citizens to send them messages; and PledgeBank, where users pledge to do something if a set number of others pledge to do likewise.

Roland Mezulis, chief e-government strategist for West Sussex county council, said that it made sense for an independent organisation, rather than a state-sector body, to do this work.

“It can deal with political issues. We are not allowed to deal with party politics, and I can certainly see an issue around what is party politics and what is not,” he said.

Indeed, last year a pledge launched by campaign group No2ID found 11,365 people willing to refuse to register for an identity card and pay £10 towards legal costs – meaning that money from Mr Prescott’s office, channelled through West Sussex county council to MySociety, was actually providing the infrastructure to challenge a flagship Labour party policy.

Mr Mezulis said West Sussex county council helped MySociety build the WriteToThem system (based on an earlier project, FaxYourMP) to help elected representatives as well as citizens.

The website helps users work out whether the district or county is responsible for a service in two-tier areas such as West Sussex; allows wrongly-directed messages to be forwarded; and groups similar messages that may be part of a mass campaign.

He says county councillors were keen on the MySociety work, a sentiment echoed by Ms Janke in Bristol.

“We want more people to participate,” she said, as it helps councillors do their job, encourages people to vote and may engage them further. She said that she first got involved in politics through campaigning as a mother for better children’s hospital care.

She said that e-democracy can also help explain decisions when campaigners’ demands are not met, such as pointing out that a swimming pool condemned to closure costs the council £11 a swim and would require major investment to stay open.

But trust looks set to remain a problem. A series of electronic votes at the end of the Bristol conference found that a majority of the participants agreed that authorities should support activists, and that the two groups should find new ways to work together – but also that activists should remain independent, and that authorities will not want to share power.

· A web-cast of the Bristol conference is available at http://www.campaigncreator.public-i.tv

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