Can Nick Clegg network democracy - a lesson from the epoch of Gordon Brown

As the British Coalition turns to the web to thy and crowd-source public engagement, a lesson from an earlier, failed experiment
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 July 2010

Nick Clegg's launch of the Your Freedom website yesterday was a signal as much as substance. This is dangerous. If it becomes just a symbol of Clegg's intent, then, however genuine and sincere he really is, it will end up feeding cynicism and looking like an excerise in spin. See Guy Aitchison's post yesterday which catches the balance well, and the comments which open out the issues.

To turn it into substance will mean being able to show that such a welcome exercise in crowd-sourcing public opinion actually leads to influential input into government policy. This will demand a lot of work, clout, authority and follow-through.

There is some history here. When Brown became Prime Minister he announced that there would be a new deliberative process undertaken on whether there should be a British statement of values that would feed into possible legislation on our "rights and responsibilities". Please don't just snort with derision - there is a big issue of national identity in the UK even if this is not the way to approach it.

What mattered was that Michael Wills, the then Minister in charge of the process, was convinced that parliament was in disrepute and that new ways had to be found to engage the public with politics (this was before the expenses scandals broke but the ethos of corruption in spirit and mind was evident, and privately he was angry about it). He was determined to create an independent deliberative body authorised by parliament to take some real decisions. This is a more radical idea than any so far proposed by the Coalition.

Slowly and predictably it was ground into the dust by Labour Ministers and the Civil Service, with Brown's consent. But I tried to help Wills. At the start I told him that if he was serious he should use the web. He was concerned that a web process would just be full of noise and bad-temper and that he wanted something constructive as well as democratic. I replied that if you had a problem with the web you should turn to the web to solve the problem. 

This led to the Networking Democracy project we hosted on OurKingdom, which opened with emails between Wills and me and then widened out into an exchange between real experts listed below. The issues are well set out and there is also a 160 page pdf that brings all the exchanges together in one document.

For me, if there was a simple, single lesson, it is that if you want a web consultation to work you must be clear beforehand what the outcome of the process will be. People do not mind contributing their grain of sand and having it rejected, provided they know how it will be counted and what process decides its weight and influence, if any.

The civil servants didn't believe in any of this. Tony Curzon Price who witnessed one of the meetings was very funny about them. They let it happen, sure that it would end up as an irrelevance. There is an air of this about Clegg's venture already. (Who fed him the story about it being illegal not to report grey squirrels and made him clown-up the whole idea?)

What is at stake here is the relationship between citizens and the state. If you play around with this, are not clear and do not deliver, then pretty quickly you add to the disrepute of politics and parliament.

I am not saying this will happen to Clegg's initiative, though I don't think it should have been pushed out in isolation from the other promised reforms. I'm saying hard work and follow-through are essential to prevent this. I liked the way that Clegg embraces what he calls the "unruly" nature of democracy. What will be needed in response is an open-minded, experimental approach, that does not feel injured by failure and goes on trying. Behind this, as he is aware, is a challenge to the whole historic edifice of sovereignty in the United Kingdom and whether it should be modernised and updated (David Cameron) or replaced.

The experts who took part in Networking Democracy were (with their affiliations at the time):

  • Bill Thompson, BBC freelancer
  • David Newman, Queens University Belfast
  • Michele Smyth, Queens University Belfast 
  • David Wilcox,
  • Ella Taylor-Smith, ITC, Napier
  • Georgina Henry, CIF, the Guardian
  • Helen Margetts, Oxford Internet Institute
  • Alice Casey, involve,
  • Ross Ferguson, Dog Digital
  • Solana Larsen, Global  Voices
  • Steve Clift,
  • Tom Steinberg, mysociety
  • Andrew Williamson, Hansard Society
  • Paul Hilder, Avaaz 
  • Tony Curzon Price, openDemocracy
  • Jonathan Zittrain , Oxford Internet Institute (observer)
  • Suw Charman, ORG
  • Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy
  • Jon Bright, openDemocracy (moderator)
  • Elspeth Rainbow, Justice
  • Michael Wills, Justice
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