Great coverage of the E-Democracy 06 conference by David Wilcox over on his Designing for Civil Society blog. Of most interest to me was the following "Not just e-democracy, new democracy says MySociety founder" post. This includes:
"Once you have managed to achieve the funding for tools, fix the bugs,
get people interested it’s time, says Tom [Steinberg, founder of MySociety], to reflect on what changes
we might want to see in the system, as well as in policies. What should
we be pushing for, and what are the dangers in doing that? After the
rush to practical solutions, it’s time for some theory.
Put around the other way "what could be the wrong philosophy of
representative democracy that would lead to us all building and
spending time on tools that were actually unhelpful".
Tom wants people who are building sites in the e-democracy field
to start talking about what sort of democracy they are building those
Interesting this, and it obviously follows on from something that Matthew Taylor said earlier in the conference, namely:
"The Internet, said Matthew, had helped people to mobilise. It offers
new methods of search and exposure. But does it yet really help people
engage with dilemmas and challenges, and work their way through to
conclusions? He presented that challenge to developers and advocates of
It is very similar to what I said to Francis Irving (one of the MySociety crowd, who did PublicWhip.org.uk and then has had significant involvement in their other projects) when we were speaking together at an event in Wales. I basically said that the use of technology had to be driven by social need, that it was a ‘failure’ if it was driven by the desires/interests of the designers, rather than the needs of the users, that the use of new tech must be grounded in the organisation’s values, and that people shouldn’t overestimate (or underestimate) what technology can achieve.
Nothing very groundbreaking or controversial there….though I did then go on to say that I felt the challenge was not developing new tools but translating internet activity to real-world action; I then added that it was perhaps instructive to note that one of the primary successes of Pledgebank was the establishment of a digital rights organisation….so was that really reaching new people, extending democracy etc, or are these sites mostly being used by internet-savvy, Guardian-reading middle-class types? [NB – I should say that I would put myself squarely in that bracket, and think all of the sites are exceptionally well-built and useful….for me].
Now this may be unfair, and I have been a champion of all their sites in the past (particularly via the Global Ideas Bank and Blog + our Social Innovation Awards) and recommend and use them regularly, but certainly what Tom and Matthew say above would tend to support that view: they are great tools, but are they really changing anything? To our students at the SSE, they are just another useful resource to take advantage of, but it is their action, commitment and focus to change things in the real world that will make a long-lasting difference.
Now I don’t think Tom has ever overclaimed what these sites they can do, but their "sexiness" to the media and to the political establishment (which is Tom’s background as a policy wonk) has perhaps led to this situation. There seems to be a stepping back in that statement above (i.e. we don’t need more tools without really thinking about whether they are needed, and what changes they will make; and what, ultimately, this is all aiming towards). Indeed, surely the subtext of what Tom says above is that they rushed to develop stuff without thinking about why they were doing it. Even the most action-prone social entrepreneurs usually know their objectives and goals before they rush headlong into delivery….
These are amazing and incredibly useful tools for information, for campaigning, for communication, for accountability and so on. But it’s important we have them in context, which is why the statements above are welcome.