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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 14:43 GMT
Why democracy starts with an 'e'
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News

House of Commons, BBC
The changes the net has brought in have bypassed Westminster
The net is starting to have a positive effect on politics, if the politicians let it.

Time after time, advances on the internet have come when someone has created tools which make things easy-to-do, and then put them in the hands of ordinary web users.

Many people are now trying to do this for politics - both local and national. One of the first is the FaxYourMP site, which has now been renamed WriteToThem, which lets people send e-mail or faxes to MPs, local councillors, MEPs, MSPs and Welsh and London Assembly members.

By typing in their postcode, users can find out who represents them at almost every level of government and easily contact them.

Letter trail

It seems a simple thing, said Tom Steinberg, one of the project's architects, but has a profound effect.

"You would not expect that making the same stuff easier to do would make a difference," he said, "but actually it is quite transformative."

Mr Steinberg said that 60% of those using the service had never contacted their MP before they used WriteToThem.

Since FaxYourMP was established in 2000 it has routed more than 100,000 faxes to MPs. This can only be a good thing, he believes, as it widens the pool of those who contact elected representatives. Debate will be less likely to be dominated by professional lobbyists or single issue zealots, he believes.

The informality of the process breaks down barriers in other ways too, said Mr Steinberg. "I think that people are very often surprised at how normal MPs are then they contact them," he said.

So far the success of FaxYourMP is on a relatively small scale because so far the numbers using it are small.

Write to Them
Write to Them aims to widen accountability
Simon Burns, Conservative MP for Chelmsford West, currently tops the rankings of response times to faxes sent via FaxYourMP. But, for him, messages sent by this route do not stand out, nor does he think they are changing the relationship with his constituents.

Since FaxYourMP began totting up response times in April 2002 only 118 faxes have been sent to him via the service - about 3.5 per month. By contrast Mr Burns signs about 20-25 letters or responses every week day.

"I just look at it as another way for them to correspond with me," he said.

He currently does not accept e-mail messages because of all the extra work involved in dealing with them. But some MPs have embraced electronic alternatives more readily.

"I get about 180 e-mails a day so that's much more than letters which have faded away to maybe 10 a day," Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, said.

He said that the back and forth of e-mail means he can swap more opinions more readily with his constituents.

Direct democracy

But many think that what is holding back sweeping moves to e-democracy is the patchy nature of official use of technology.

"There has been a huge revolution in the world outside Westminster in the ways that people communicate with each other," said Victoria Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Hansard Society, which campaigns for a more inclusive democracy.

"Although Westminster has changed a lot," she said, "when compared to the change in the wider world, it really has not changed much."

Close-up of mobile phone keypad, BBC
Westminster is only just catching up with communication changes
Equally, she said central and local government had before now put almost all their of efforts into getting services online.

Now, she said, they need to think more realistically about the web can help broaden debate and bring in fresh voices, insight and expertise.

"The technology shouldn't be used for direct democracy," warned Ms Gibbons, "that's not the way a parliamentary democracy works."

But local initiatives are showing how web tools can help get people involved with their local area without heralding a move to push-button politics.

E-democracy expert Steven Clift has been helping communities in Brighton and Newham set up local web-based groups that canvass opinions and try to get people involved in looking after their local area.

He said the model for these came out of work done in Minnesota in a local democracy group. He said this largely web-based group now has 900 people that regularly participate in online town meetings and has enjoyed such a turn out for years.

Local politicians always take notice of what this group thinks, he said.

Screengrab of Blogger homepage, Google/Blogger
Tools like Blogger have driven more people to write blogs
"What MP wouldn't turn up to a meeting that has 900 people in it?" he asked.

Post-graduate Andy McKay-Hubbard from the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University, is working on ways to help Scottish councils make community councils more inclusive and responsive.

The web can help let people know what's going on and provides a easy-to-use route for locals to let their council know how they feel.

The change it brings is not all one way either.

The process of being involved with local government has to be transparent, said Mr McKay-Hubbard. People have to know that their opinions have been noted and that they are being considered.

"The net is breaking down the power structures a little bit and giving individuals more in very specific contexts," he said, "but every little helps."

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