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It seems the gap between politicians and the public has never been wider. A lack of trust in our representatives – in their motives, spending habits, and fundamental ability to lead has damaged the reputation of MPs and British politics as a whole. The public feel disenfranchised, ignored and, worst of all, completely disconnected from the democratic process. The recent parliamentary expenses scandal has only reinforced this.
And yet, we live in a world in which, in other ways, we feel very connected. The Internet, and specifically, Web 2.0 technology, smoothly connects us to our friends, family, and those with similar interests, tastes and beliefs. The Internet has moved from a centralized source of information into a collaborative space in which we can create online communities, debate and discuss ideas, and build partnerships with people on the other side of the world. And though these interactions may be virtual, they are fortified by all kinds of innovative and powerful tools – from webcasts to wikis to online games.
In comparison, new modes of political participation lag behind. As much as the Internet promises a free, open, democratic space for people from all backgrounds to express their political viewpoints – politicians, the government and lawmakers are failing to connect. Traditional modes of political participation seem old-fashioned and stiff and, there is little conversation between the represented and the representatives. While the web is full of political expression and debate, there are very few sites that represent or collect these viewpoints into a coherent whole. People may be talking, but the people with real power aren’t listening.
Across the Atlantic, the potential of web 2.0 within politics was aptly demonstrated by President Obama’s election campaign and current presidency. Not only does Obama use social networking to connect with supporters, he has also created a website – my.barackobama.com – which allows users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They can join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events all from an interface that is both easy-to-use and familiar to any Facebook or MySpace user. This harnessing of web 2.0 is more than just a way of harnessing support – it actually allows people to a have a political voice, in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to them. The key to its success is that it puts power in the hands of people to shape their own lives and communities to, as Obama puts it himself: “bring about real change in Washington”.
In the UK, there seems to be a real lack of faith in that potential for change – a fact the government is starting to clock on to. They have started several initiatives based around the number10.gov.uk hub – the central government website specifically targeted toward the general public. Matt wrote about it last year following its launch in August 2008. Apart from the weekly (and slightly embarrassing) Gordon Brown webcasts, a plethora of well-presented information about the functions and purpose of the government, there are a number of web 2.0 initiatives. For example, sites like No.10 petitions in partnership with mysociety.org, allow users to start and gain support for their own petitions. But as Stephen Coleman puts it “inviting people to sign e-petitions to No 10 and then await an email from the government telling them why they were wrong is hardly digital democracy”. And within the number10.gov.uk website as a whole, there is precious little opportunity for real ‘e-democracy’, what Jay Blumler describes as “online civic commons: a trusted public space where the dispersed energies, self-articulations and aspirations of citizens can be rehearsed, in public, within a process of ongoing feedback to the various levels and centres of governance”.
As the Obama administration establishes the Office of Public Engagement, designed to bring more citizen engagement through the Web, it is time we use the potential of web 2.0 technologies to create a much closer and accountable relationship between the needs of citizens and the actions of politicians, in which the public’s ideas and beliefs are taken seriously and acted upon. Any future government must embrace this new form of democracy, if it is to have any chance of regaining the trust and support of its electorate.
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