Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is to act as an unpaid adviser to the UK government to support its “agenda to open up policy-making to the public.” His ideas on how technology could be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking might be very valuable, and government should certainly try to create better platforms for public participation. But let’s recognise that the main barrier isn’t technological. It’s political.
One of the ideas behind this project is that policymaking would be better (i.e. higher quality) if it engaged and involved more of the people with practical experience of the issues at hand (in the case of social policy, this especially means frontline public service practitioners and service users). But such is the widespread scepticism about government consultations that it seems unlikely that government (or the Government) will be successful in attracting many more members of the public to respond to such exercises, whatever technology it employs. Perhaps it will be possible over time to shift this scepticism, but trust (and so willingness to participate) can also be destroyed virtually overnight when any government is seen to ignore majority or professional opinion (as in the case of the NHS reforms).
It’s good that the Government is considering what ‘all this’ (wikis, social media etc) means for policymaking. But I’m not sure that what we want are savvier forms of government-sponsored engagement. I think what we want most of all is for government to listen when we do express a view, through whatever means. A wiki could be a great way to develop policy collaboratively and transparently. But if government wanted to more accurately and faithfully reflect and respond to public or practitioner opinion, then it wouldn’t need a wiki to do it.
We can recognise that government is difficult, that there are lots of conflicting and competing interests that act on policymaking, that there are times when policymakers actually think that much of the public is ‘wrong’ on an issue, and that politics – which is to say party political interests – is often the defining factor in decision-making. This means that the challenge isn’t ultimately about finding the right methods for participation, however important this is, so much as developing the right mindset about policy and politics.
Part of this challenge is that government is somewhat inevitably attached to a ‘consultation mindset’, where it sets out certain times and ways in which ‘we’ (by which it typically means respectable and ‘responsible’ organisations) are asked for their views on a specific proposal. But social media is not about asking for, or being granted, permission to voice your opinion. It’s about taking that ‘permission’ for granted (which is to say, not asking at all). Spartacus didn’t ask for permission. Neither did Occupy the SEC. If the Government really wants to explore how technology can be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking, why not just give a bit of money to 38 Degrees and a few other organisations and see what happens?
This makes me think that we don’t so much need better ways in which government can invite us to register our views (which it may or may not subsequently listen to anyway). Rather what need are powerful platforms that we own, that are ours. No-one needs official authorisation, or that much money really, to experiment with various kinds of platform to support collaboration around how policy could be improved. We could and should do it right now if we want to. In fact, we are.