Future Democracy ’09

Back to RIBA again this year for a rebranded Future Dem 09, in a nice retro modernist/deco environment. Someone had helpfully blanked over the power-sockets so laptop users were in a general mild state of panic about battery life, even your blogger who is a proud owner of an EEE PC 901.

The day started with a talk by Will Straw on progressive blogging. Starting with the usual overview of the USA – which he sees as being 5 years ahead of the UK – he did turn to the UK in the end. One of the main difference he sees is the effectiveness of the political newsgathering operations of the BBC, Sky and the Guardian, so bloggers can’t control the agenda. In his whole talk though, I’m not sure that he mentioned MPs once. Are they so unimportant? Another unmentioned word: Europe… ignore it as much as you want, that’s where the UK is. Surely there must be some useful experiences to get from France, Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands?

Questioners pointed out that the agenda seems to be about influencing the MSM (the direct audience is small). The lack of a business model was also a concern.

The PEP_NET session started with Chuck Hirt describing the Eastern European experience: it seems there is still (after 20 years) a legacy of dependency on government combined with a distrust of institutions that is proving fatal to engagement in politics – whether online or not. It also turns out that apart from cultural centres in Hungary, there just aren’t communal places for people to meet. Perhaps we need a Village Hall movement? Why is Hungary different?

Gugliermo Celata descibed two projects he has been involved with in Italy – OpenPolis – which has been creating a database of all 150,000 politicians in Italy (!) to track their links, activities and opinions. The other is OpenParlamento which in effect reproduces the functionality of TheyWorkForYou and the revamped UK Parliament site. He’s still looking for a business model.

Youth engagement was the next theme, with Tom Lodziak  (UK Youth Parliament), Beccy Allen (HeadsUp) and two folk from Channel 4’s Battlefront talking. It’s not really my area, but it did seem to me that the there was a spectrum running from closed membership with free debate, to debates that are open to the (young) public but within a quite carefully controlled agenda. Apparently Battlefront even found it difficult to include debate on Fox Hunting… amazingly, because you’re not allowed to promote illegal things… More on thus session at Mel Poluck’s blog.

A great review of community organisations and hyperlocal news was given by Hugh Flouch of Harringay Online, then lunch!


Cllr Mary Reid started off a workstream with a review of how petition has evolved in Kingston from a purely paperpbased form to their  current (could I call it third generation?) system. The three success factors she identified were:

  • Processes need to be in place to handle petitions seriously
  • Simplicity is essential – so no identity checking is needed, just like with paper. Councillors can make sensible judgements on whether a petition reflects a genuine issue or is generated by a vocal minority.
  • Petitions bring in in peoplle who are never in the community or not where paper petitions are – so makes accessible to wider audience than paper would

Tom Steinberg spoke about Number 10’s petitioning system, and acknowledged that there have been no underlying procedural changes to reflect the needs that petitions raise (they’re basically dealt with in the same way as a letter from a concerned citizen would be). He chose to highlight the benefits that can be gained from standardising data – some good quotes over at the BBC (something from me there too!). You can read my take on the subject of data standards for petitions here.

The final speaker was David Lowe, from the European Parliament’s petitions committee (PETI). He emphasised that they see their role as supporting petitioners – trying to take an informal, supportive approach wherever possible. Many of the issues raised in petitions are more properly dealt with by national, regional and local governments: the challenge is in fact to pass petitions back down the system – which is an interesting contrast to the model EuroPetition has been working with, and something for us to think about as a project.

  • Catherine Howe of Public-i has put her own presentation online together with her notes with admirable speed, saving me some effort!
  • … Apologies to the people I’ve not written up detailed notes on, particularly the people in the Engaging Citizens session – Simon Burrel of Involve, Stef Gray of BIS and Eddie Gibb of Redbridge (I’d been seriously impressed by their work at last year’s event)

End of the day: Politicians’ session

How things have changed. Last year, MPs were criticised for burying their heads in the sand over blogging. This year, the chat in the panel was all about Twitter, and there was a consensus that it is risky for prospective candidates to blog[1] and even that it only makes sense for an MP to blog if they have something to say, and the ability to say something well (and probably a willingness to risk their career[2])

I am an avid reader of (and general disagreer with) Tom Harris’s blog – I am seriously impressed by his clarity of writing, never mind his expertise on Dr Who. I was not disappointed seeing him in action in the panel: Tom’s background in the media as a former local journalist showed in his thoughtful answers on the impact of the internet on local media – and the risks of dominance by the BBC, no matter how benign its agenda.  During the debate, he made a passionate argument for the value of party and partisan politics – and threw in an intriguing reference to the possibility we are moving towards a post-democratic politics. I’d love to find out more about what he meant.

But, as with Malmö, the real benefit of an event like this is the chance to catch up with old contacts. So in the end I was very happy to have left home at 5.30am only to get back at 11pm. Time well spent!

  • Other blogs on this topic: Noella Edelman has been very quick with a much more complete account of the day here and the Headstar site will no doubt pick up on other accounts as they’re written.

viz, [1] Iain Dale, Kezia Dugdale and [2] Tom Harris


About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
This entry was posted in Conferences, e-government, e-participation, Europe, UK and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Future Democracy ’09

  1. Hugh Flouch says:

    Good write-up Peter (and thanks for the mention).

    At the Networked Neighbourhoods organisation we’re just starting a research project into the impact of citizen-run local websites and the implications for local councils. We’re working with the Capital Ambition team at London Councils and probably a central government department (just awaiting written confirmation on that one). If people would like to get updates as the research progresses, we’ll be posting to our website at http://www.networkedneighbourhoods.com.

    If folks want to see our Harringay Online project, go to http://www.harringayonline.com

  2. Wow Hugh, that was a quick response! Thanks for the links too – I know I didn’t give your session the write up it deserved. Definitely an example of how far it’s possible to go with simple tools, self-motivation and dedication.

    On that theme – can I recommend from my neck of the wood Greener Leith – they’ve also been playing with the power of Ning over at the Greener Leith Social.

  3. Hugh Flouch says:

    We’re watching you Peter!

  4. Thanks, I think! It does sound kind of menacing though. 🙂

  5. Pingback: PEP-NET » Blog Archive » eParticipation News digest November 27th - December 11th

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