The web holds the key to engaging the public in policy debates

By: The Leader @theleaderspeaks
Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 11:05 GMT Jump to Comments

'Think tanks' are a noisy irrelevance, while a signal opportunity to use the internet to engage people of all ages in the democratic process remains largely unexploited.

Suddenly think tanks and think tankers are everywhere. Sometimes it seems that every news item is driven by some new revelation from Tankland. This is not a coincidence.

Shrinking (or frozen) budgets in UK public service news and current affairs broadcasting have created a content vacuum which the tankers, gearing up for next year's general election, have been happy to fill.

Easy access to BBC airwaves plus the web delivered tide of open data (soon to be a tsunami and then a biblical flood) means that every man or woman can set up as a think tank. Many of them are doing just that, including Caroline Macfarland.

Macfarland was the Managing Director of ResPublica, the think tank credited with developing the Coalition government’s ‘big society’ agenda. In April this year she set up another think tank, CoVi, a contraction of Common Vision.

Now she says that she is worried about the lack of public engagement in important public policy debates. She is right to worry. Lack of public engagement in the democratic process, especially among the young, is already a problem and seems set to get worse.

But Macfarland is most exercised by the way that think tanks, “funded by private individuals or corporations with vested interests”, dominate the public policy debating landscape.

“Ordinary citizens”, says Macfarland, feel powerless and disillusioned with politics because they feel that the policy-making process is dominated by an elite few. If only this were true. She is right that the debate is often hi-jacked by the think tanks but they are hardly the few.

Common Vision is clear about its aims. They want to “produce innovative, shareable ideas about politics, economics and society that move beyond conventional partisan debate towards solutions for the common good”. Hurrah! If we (the totally politically unengaged majority) were going to vote for anyone we would vote for Macfarland.

What is not clear from CoVi's press releases is how setting up another think tank will rid us of the plague of tanks we already suffer.

Nor is it clear how swapping the usual rag bag of vested interests – political parties, single issue pressure groups and big, therefore rotten, business – for another lot of vested interests is going to make a real difference.

For CoVi do have a Guardianship of vested interests peering at the 2015 hustings from the (slight) moral elevation afforded by the CoVi stump. Lords Ashdown (Lib Dem) and Glasman (Lab), Jesse Norman MP (Cons) Zac Goldsmith MP (Cons) Chi Onwurah MP (Lab) and Helen Goodman MP (Lab) are all on board to name but a glittering few.

CoVi’s first initiative has been to launch a crowd-funding initiative that will, CoVi hopes, give them some operating capital. This is much needed for, having eschewed vested interests, they need to get some money from somewhere.

The new CoVi initiative will also crowd-source ideas to help them identify the public policy issues that "ordinary people" care about in their everyday lives. Donors and backers (sourced from the crowd) will be asked to contribute their “policy ideas, socio-economic priorities and recommendations”.

The conclusions of this consultation will, says CoVi, feed into a research framework that will shape and steer the think tank's future publications, events and discussions.

If this all sounds familiar that’s because it is. CoVi’s crowd funding (member’s subs) and crowd sourcing of policy (“we’re going to listen to the voters”) is just the ordinary, humdrum party political process that has historically failed so signally to engage the source crowd and from which CoVi is supposed to deliver us.

“The Soul of the New Democratic Machine”
Two years ago I wrote  “The Soul of the New Democratic Machine”, published in this column.

In a report intended to focus on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Google Scholar “the leading edge of crowd sourcing research data” I – understandably - got hooked on The Johnny Cash Project.

The Johnny Cash Project is wonderful in itself but it was the glimpse of a new sort of democratic participation afforded by the project that really got my attention. I looked at and into the project and saw a vision: "a new democracy driven by a connected electorate where everyone votes and where every vote counts". 

"We want to take civic participation beyond a politically active minority” says Macfarland, failing (a massive fail that is difficult to forgive) to understand that we do not need any more think tanks not because they are boorishly dominating the conversation but because they are irrelevant.

“Ordinary people” no longer need to contribute their policy ideas, socio-economic priorities and recommendations to a think tank in order to have them validated or communicated. New applications of (what is now no longer “new”) technology allow ordinary people to destroy and rebuild democratic structures from the ground (beneath the grass roots) up and whip up a workable majority for a real programme-for-change overnight.

There is, of course, a long way to go with all of this but it will happen and today’s think tanks and the political party structures they support won’t have a role to play.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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