Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 10:06 UK

Is e-democracy a good thing?

memory stick
Pause for thought before we plug in to Digital Britain

We need to think seriously about what digital democracy has to offer, says Bill Thompson

Whoever wins the forthcoming General Election, we are about to be ushered into a Digital Britain, and we had better prepare for it.

Broadband speeds may remain painfully slow, but the desire to provide access for all will be driven by the pressing need to save money by reforming public services, cutting costs and improving efficiency, no matter who is in power.

So we'll see universal access simply because the financial benefits of online public services will only be realised if nearly everyone has access to them.

There will always be a need for offline provision too, for those who cannot be served effectively through a screen and keyboard. I, like many others, will fight for this.

However, over the next five years we can expect to see increasing use of web-based tools as the primary way of accessing state-provided services.

I already renew my road tax, register to vote, pay my VAT and income tax, hand over the money for my TV Licence and pay the occasional parking penalty charge online.

I expect that soon I will have no need to write or phone a single agency to conduct my business with government at local or national level.

'Demands for transparency'

The drive to digital will also be fuelled by increasing demands for transparency, as the crisis of faith in our MPs created by the revelations about expenses claims works its way through the political system.

Furthermore, a desire to emulate US president Obama will give extra impetus to the Googleisation of government IT and initiatives like data.gov.uk.

Any resemblance to its transatlantic cousin, data.gov, which speaks proudly of its exciting mission to "increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government", is of course entirely deliberate.

But introducing digital technologies into society is not a simple matter of providing computers, websites and internet connections and then getting on with it.

Bill Thompson
As we have seen with attempts to use computers in classrooms, new technologies do not automatically lead to a positive outcome.
Bill Thompson

As we have seen with attempts to use computers in classrooms, new technologies do not automatically lead to a positive outcome.

Within the education sector the debate over the real usefulness of laptops in school and the gradual replacement of printed texts with ebooks is becoming increasingly rancorous as evidence piles up on both sides, and we should expect similar arguments elsewhere.

The stakes in this particular game of transforming government are especially high, and we cannot afford to take a naive view of moves towards digital democracy.

Facebook and Foucault

Fortunately the new generation of social theorists, people who have grown up with computers in their lives and are as familiar with Facebook as they are with Foucault, can offer some guidance in this new area.

One of the most important thinkers is Will Davies, who cut his teeth working with economist Will Hutton at the think tank The Work Foundation, where he was a lead on its groundbreaking iSociety project.

He is now a research fellow at the Said Business School at Oxford University.

Mr Davies brings Weber, Hayek, Weinberger, Arendt and even Habermas to bear on the question of whether decentralising information through online services like data.gov.uk can offer us good government.

He concludes that while it may provide transparency and even accountability it can never sustain the legitimacy that a democratic state provides.

He offers a dense, complex argument, written for an audience familiar with the thinkers he refers to.

Davies' writing is not for everyone, but it should be essential reading for anyone who wants to develop a sound understanding of the implications for society and political structures of the technological change that we seem to have accepted as inevitable.

It is the sort of thinking that we desperately need if we're to understand the technological future being offered to us by politicians of all major parties - and in all developed countries - as they are seduced by Google, Microsoft and Facebook into thinking that search, social networks and software can help us to solve the world's many problems.

We have to hope that the politicians who are dragging us into the digital tomorrow take time to read and consider the wider issues raised by people like Will Davies instead of just signing up to the programme. Otherwise we will all be the poorer.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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