Online citizen engagement in Scotland: The independence referendum

Edinburgh University’s public participation network has been hosting The Citizen Participation Series. Last night, it turned to the digital world to explore how it is opening up new possibilities for democratic participation in Scotland and beyond. I was invited to be one of four provocateurs aiming to stimulate conversion amound the healthy-sized group of 30 or so participants. It’s all been collated by Storify too.

I thought I’d focus on online Politics (with a capital P). It’s a subject we in the eParticipation field tend to avoid. I started with two questions:

  • What evidence is there of Scottish Government ‘getting’ online citizen participation?
  • …where can we find online citizen participation in Scotland? where could it be / has it been helpful

It has potential to be a big topic in Scotland in the lead up to (and past) the independence referendum, so starting from a basis of ignorant interest I thought I’d see if I could find where citizens can get involved in the debate.

At this point, I should emphasise that the comments below are even more than usual my opinion – they are not backed up by any form of serious research, and as such should be taken as the starting point for debate, not facts to be repeated without qualification. In places I have taken a deliberately naïve viewpoint – again to provoke a response.

The rest of this item summarises my search for an online forum where an interested citizen could join a sane debate around Scottish independence.

Official channels

The Scottish Parliament’s petitioning systems is superficially a good starting point. 12 years ago it led with way by adding an online e-petitioning system: in 2012, pretty much the same system is still in operation. A replacement has been an the point of being launched ‘shortly’ for something like three years now –if nothing else, this shows the low priority given on online engagement by Holyrood.

Where else can we look for support for a political debate? Well, the (SNP) Scottish Government has held ‘National conversations‘ most noticeably on the independence referendum. I haven’t dug out participation statistics but I have a feeling it been preaching to a few of the converted, but not much further

Looking around a bit more I found – and the only consultation document there relates to the referendum. In format, it seems to be a one-way fact gathering form, submitted to the government, and summarised for Ministers by their civil servants. No space to engage citizens in debate.

Social media

A related Facebook page ‘Scotland’s Referendum 2014‘ has been set up: it has achieved less than 3000 ‘likes’ and has only been achieving 6/7 responses per question. So no sign of real engagement there.

There is a constant stream of Twitter comment tagged #indyref – but Twitter is not the medium for a thoughtful debate. Tweets can often be used to find where it is taking place, which brings me on to blogging. Two leading political blogs/forums I am aware of are Newsnetscotland which is aimed at the nationalist, mostly SNP supporting, community and Labourhame, aimed at (largely unionist) Scottish Labour supporters. Although debate is public, it involves mutually exclusive communities, though an effort is being made to engage more people. (I would love to do a study to see if there is in fact cross-posting taking place, but somehow I doubt it).

Traditional media

The two largest Scottish papers, the Scotsman and the Herald are in constant battle with attacks from Cybernats, meaning that comments on articles are frequently closed down to contain the hostility.

This leaves us with the BBC. Could act as neutral space? Well…

The two main discussion platforms, “Newswatch” and “Have your say” have no specifically Scottish forum. At the moment, the only Scottish story with comments enabled is on (broadly politically neutral) issues with the new school curriculum and exams. The only space the BBC provides for political comments is in response to Westminster bloggers: comments on its Scotland bloggers Brian Taylor and Douglas Fraser were closed down earlier this year. In other words, the BBC is implying that the only political stage worthy of comment is the UK Parliament – this is not exactly supportive of constructive debate about the role of a devolved or independent Scotland in relation to the UK.

The BBC has a “Democracy live Scotland” subsite, which reports events but again provides no discussion space. There is a link to the Holyrood Petitions committee form the Democracy live home page but it turns out to be broken. Worse than that, the BBC’s neutrality is questioned anyway by the nationalists.

Maybe the first “B” in the BBC is there for a reason.

Conclusion and postscript

So, my conclusion was that if asked where is the online Scottish space for democratic debate and policy formation, I’d have to say there doesn’t seem to be one that can be easily found. An in answer to the question: “can online citizen participation change democratic practices” in relation to the independence referendum: it seemed we can’t know because there is no space.

This is where my get-out comes into play. The above was intended as a provocation, for instance I know that this sort of debate tends to involve people who would be engaged anyway. But I was delighted to be corrected by Ian Graham, of Edinburgh University. He has been analysing networks for Facebook likes and comments and has found evidence that 30,000 people are taking part in discussions in over 50 different public pro- and anti-independence community groups. So the Scottish political debate is happening, it’s just difficult to find, and not supported by official channels. As was pointed out, it’s like the sort of chat that used to happen in pubs as people discuss ideas to work out and clarify their thoughts on the crucial Political decision that we in Scotland will be making in the two years’ time.

Even better, the spaces have been created by the citizens. Nice to be able to end on a positive note too!

Update (23 March)

I feel I should give an honourable mention to which seems to be doing its best to provide a resource for facts, background papers and links to events. Worth a visit.


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.
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6 Responses to Online citizen engagement in Scotland: The independence referendum

  1. There are two challenges for the SG on this. Firstly, you can’t access Facebook from SG computers to moderate a Facebook site!
    The other challenge is around “organisational identity” and civil servants. See puffles blog on the CLG and this:

  2. Good point. Sound like an extreme instance of general problem with eparticipation – I like Puffle2010’s point that civil servants should focus on the task in hand and leave attacking the opposition parties to the politician. But that puts civil servants in an invidious position when it comes to something like the indyref – are they bound to support (or not criticise) the SG’s position?

    I love the irony of not being able to access Facebook from a SG computer – hadn’t thought of that!

  3. Civil servants have a very ambiguous relationship with the indy ref. They have to do what Ministers ask them to, but cannot be seen to be supporting independence….

  4. …and how to you “not be seen to be supporting independence” while at the same time not be seen by your masters as a passive supporter of the Union. I don’t envy the poor people!

  5. lelil says:

    It is tricky…no doubt about it. Impartiality is one of the key corner stones of the civil service, althoughn there is a view that it has been under attack now for some time. Times they are a changin’ as a non-civil servant once said. And we are (eventually) going to have to change with them.

    • It’s much more tricky to be neutral about a fundamental issue like independence too. Will existing rules about online engagement have to be rewritten for the duration? I can’t imagine it’s possible to stop 30%+ of the working population from taking part in the debate, including online.

      And all this isn’t helping the quest for where the debate is 🙂 …though I hadn’t really taken in how active #indyref was when I blogged

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