Last week, Orange launched their report The Future of Politics. In the words of the accompanying news release, the reports shows “how British politicians can learn from Barack Obama and embrace technology to bring public involvement back into UK democracy.”
The launch press release picked out five main themes from the report:
- A challenge to UK politicians to keep up with a new generation of ‘digital natives’ who expect MPs to get up to date with 21st century technology so they can have two-way meaningful conversations with the public and not just a one way online presence through a static website.
- Citizen politicians could be at the heart of the political process, both on the internet and in Parliament. In the future Prime Minister’s Questions may allow a regular slot where the public can ask questions about the issues of the day.
- Wikilaws will allow the public and experts to have their say on legislation. MPs and the public will be able to keep in touch with debate and scrutiny in real-time.
- MPs can matter more, leading online campaigns and bringing government direct to the public. Digital technologies will place MPs at the heart of their constituencies and allow instant multichannel communication between constituents and public services to solve surgery problems.
- The political long tail must be grabbed. Obama raised $280 million in small donations under $200, demonstrating the dramatic impact new technology has on the political process. British political parties will have to follow this lead and rely once again on mass participation not a few large donors.
But what the report doesn’t do is really examine the question of why these opportunities are not being taken. Somewhat cheekily, Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb pointed out how the launch itself was a meeting with four talking heads at the front, followed by questions. As Steve put it, if all these technology opportunities the report talks about are so good, available and effective, why was the launch meeting itself so old-fashioned?
None of this is about technology that isn’t already widely available at reasonable cost. So is it just the case that the political process is just stuffed full of Luddites who don’t get it? Or is it the case that the technology zealots are failing to understand the structural issues restricting better use of technology? Practical limitations in terms of cost and effort which perhaps also explain why the launch meeting itself was so decidedly old-fashioned?
There is certainly some truth in the Luddite point, but to my mind as important (and more interesting, given how rarely it is talked about) are the structural issues.
One of the hurdles is simply time and the impact that has on what’s practical. Typically an MP will have an electorate of 80,000 or so (and that is ignoring those under 18, those not on the register, and anyone outside their constituency who they might sensibly want to interact with such as fellow MPs and so on).
Let’s assume the MP works every day of the year, only getting a one-day holiday in leap years. That means that even if they want to engage with all their electors just once a year, they need to deal with 220 of them each day. Give them 8 hours off for sleep, eating and washing and you have to get through 14 an hour – or just over four minutes each. And that doesn’t leave any time to do anything else that being an MP might involve, or any time to go shopping to buy food or update their website.
And that’s the problem. For all the talk about the possibilities of direct communication, one-to-one dialogue, listening and not just broadcasting and so on in a sea of enthusiast clichés, the underlying situation is one where MPs simply don’t have the time to directly engage with a large proportion of their electorate. They have two realistic choices: either to specially privilege a very small minority and leave out the rest, or stick with largely using methods of mass communication.
This reality is one reason why Facebook has proved so popular with MPs. It lets MPs communicate in a bulk fashion (I update my status but hundreds of friends see it) whilst giving the recipients a sense of relatively personal and relatively direct communication.
There is, I am sure, plenty of scope for clever use of technology to allow this to be used more widely. There are some restrictions of course. You can imagine the horror stories if an MP got in an artificial intelligence email reply system to automate responding to most of them emails (‘LAZY MP GETS ROBOT TO ANSWER EMAILS WHILE THEY GO ON HOLIDAY’ might be a headline). But it’s surprising that a report from Orange – a technology company after all – explores so little the role for technology in dealing with this underlying issue.
Although there is much to admire and learn from the use of the internet in US politics, it does also point to a rather less happy possible future in some respects too. For the big dirty secret of American political campaigns and the internet is the huge volume of emails that go completely unanswered by campaigns across parties and across different levels of election. That is a very crude and undesirable way of dealing with the problem of more people wanting direct communication than you can cope with, and it’s a stark warning of how far from improving politics the internet may make matters worse if it raises expectations and inbound communications, via whatever channel or technology is in vogue, that cannot be met.
Aside from technological answers, this raises questions about funding (is the answer to give MPs and others more resources to deal with this greater volume of communications?) and also questions about the extent to which it is practical or appropriate to outhouse responses to others. If I contact my MP via a comment on his website, should I expect s/he to respond or is it ok for them to have a team of keen supporters who pick up on comments and respond?
There is much more that can be written on any of these points, but unless technological visions for our political future tie together some mix of these and other ideas, they risk trying to chart a course for the future that is bound to fail.