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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 14:21 GMT
Grassroots action gets BBC boost
Local protest
iCan hopes to reinvigorate local democracy
Local communities taking politics into their own hands can now get help from a civic action website from the BBC.

Launched this week, iCan provides online guides, message boards and tools for local campaign action.

"It gives people a starting point in civic life and puts them in touch with others who share their concerns", said iCan project leader Martin Vogel.

The project is part of a politics initiative by the BBC to help people with issues make a difference.

Where to turn

Mr Vogel said the launch of iCan was a significant change for public service broadcasting because it was about encouraging people to get involved rather than sitting back and watching politics happen.

"After the last general election there was a look at the way the BBC covers politics because the turn out was so low," Mr Vogel explained to BBC News Online.

"We wanted to know if the BBC was partly to blame."

iCan website
The site will help connect people with local action groups

After some research, the team found the problem was not political apathy, but that people felt far removed from the machinations of Westminster's political processes.

Although many did not vote in the election, they had an interest in politics and issues affecting their local area, but did not know how they could get involved to make changes.

"Ican is an attempt to connect those people a bit more to the political process," said Mr Vogel.

"It is aimed at people who have issues that concern them, but are not sure what to do about it."

James Crabtree from the Work Foundation's iSociety project welcomed iCan as innovative, but warned it will not be a quick fix for deep-rooted civic disengagement.

"From little acorns big trees grow, so it is a fantastic idea and the approach is bang-on," he told BBC News Online.

"But the danger is people might get overexcited about it too soon. We have to wait and see and let it bed in before building it up or knocking it down."

The site will point people to information about what is happening in their local area and offer guidance about how to start their own campaigns, whether that be about speed humps or litter.

Registered users can post messages on local boards and get in touch with other groups who want to take action at a grass roots level.

If a group forms on the message boards around an issue which they want to take further, they can set up a campaign homepage on the site.

Online ecology

A lot of work has gone in to making sure that as an impartial public service, the BBC is not directly associated with any of the political activity on the site.

Any content coming from the BBC will be clearly marked to separate it from members' contributions.

Mr Vogel said it was hoped iCan would complement the growing ecology of community activity on the net and help point people to web-wide initiatives that may interest them.

The web has become the medium of choice for many direct action campaigns and local community groups.

"The BBC is as well placed as anyone else to give it good start," he said.

"And it is not just about the web, but about using TV and radio too to get people engaged in civic life."

Dedicated "local democracy reporters" will highlight local stories in five areas initially - Sheffield, Bristol, Cambridge and South-East Wales - during the four-month trial period.

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