Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Politics 2.0 – the great divide

Posted by Graham Hayday on October 29, 2007

Apologies for the radio silence last week. I took a few days off to paint the bathroom and suchlike (as you do). But it’s back to business as usual today.

Next Thursday, I’m taking part in a workshop session at the e-Democracy ’07 event, which is organised by our friends at Headstar. The session is on ‘E-Democracy 2.0: Social networking and virtual worlds’.

I spent a few hours over the weekend (while painting) mulling over what I might say. One thing struck me (I’ll need a few more flashes of ‘insight’ if I’m to get through the session in one piece, but it’s a start). I reckon there’s a conflict between the way in which this country is governed and the fundamental principles of web 2.0.

We live in a representative democracy, in which we elect people to make decisions on our behalf.

Web 2.0 is all about conversation and collaboration: this is a mundane example, but if you comment on this blog and tell me I’m an idiot, I may change my mind about whatever it is you disagree with. If I do change my mind, I’ll tell you. Your input has had an effect – and a visible one at that. Wikis are a perhaps more significant example of how we, the previously silent majority, can collaborate in a meaningful manner.

Politicians and civil servants aren’t used to working like this. We give them a mandate at an election, and they run with it until we go to the polls again. That’s where they’re used to being judged.

But more and more of them are embracing web 2.0, which means we can tell them what we think of them on a regular basis. But are they listening? Does our input make any difference in the short-term? Can we see any changes as a result of our participation?

The answer on almost every occasion is ‘no’. Have any laws been changed as a result of the petitions people have submitted to the Number 10 website? Nope. We now have a voice, but the power still rests where it always did – in Parliament, in Whitehall, in the town hall.

Rather than becoming a way of engaging the electorate and wiping away some of the cynicism and apathy that plagues British politics, politicians’ use (or rather, misuse) of web 2.0 could actually make things worse. They’ve given us a platform to air our views, but we’re just as impotent as ever. In fact, they’re highlighting the fact. Submit a petition, and you get a nice message from the Prime Minister explaining why he won’t be doing anything about it.

They’re rubbing our noses in our own insignificance. They don’t mean to, but unless they undertake the kind of cultural change that web 2.0 requires, and truly embrace those principles of conversation and collaboration, the divide between ‘them and us’ will remain as wide as ever, and the general population will remain as cynical as ever.

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