Archive for July 5th, 2010
Amid much fanfare and mockery, the UK government this week launched a new website, “Your Freedom”, which invites the public to nominate laws that intrude on our civil liberties, hamper business or are simply unnecessary. The suggestion is that the best ideas could then be included in a forthcoming “Great Repeal Bill”, with the aim of lightening up the statute book, promoting free enterprise, and reversing the last government’s creeping restrictions on freedom.
Most of the reactions to this idea that I’ve seen have been broadly hostile. I’m still trying to figure out why this is, and the extent to which I agree with the criticisms that have been made. Here are the main arguments I’ve come across:
1. Most government “consultations” are completely bogus
The last government engaged in a whole series of consultation “initiatives” – perhaps the most memorable of which being New Labour’s “Big Conversation“. The perception many have is that these were essentially bogus exercises – seeking to create the impression that the government was “listening” when policy-makers ultimately just went along and did what they were going to do anyway. There is a widespread expectation that “Yourfreedom” will end up going the same way.
2. “Direct democracy” is too easily hijacked by extremists, special interest groups, and ‘single issue fanatics’.
Some have also expressed the opposite worry – that the government may end up being influenced too much, and in a retrograde direction. Early suggestions on the website included a number of calls to un-abolish the death penalty, repeal our membership of the European Union, and scrap the Human Rights Act. Hardly inspiring…
3. Many of the proposals put forward by the public have been absurd, and this undermines the credibility of the whole exercise.
One widely-reported “Yourfreedom” proposal was that marriage to horses be legalised. Although I can’t find it on the website now (I’m guessing it either got deleted or the Daily Mail made it up for effect), there are plenty of other jokey suggestions in evidence – including that we repeal the law of gravity and the second law of thermodynamics.
4. The site has been badly designed and plagued by technical problems, which again undermines the project’s credibility.
The “Yourfreedom” website crashed within hours of launching, and was very slow-moving for much of the rest of the day. At the time of writing, these problems have still not been resolved – the site was again inaccessible for several minutes when I checked it in the last hour. Some more detailed technical criticisms have been made by Chris Applegate here.
Looking these points in turn…
1. Government consultation.
I’m not surprised that people are cynical about government “consultations” in general, and online “listening” initiatives in particular. The “Big Conversation” was just one high-profile example of a much wider tendency within government. A friend of mine was recently involved in a campaign to save her local maternity ward from closure. The (unelected) local health authority had set up a “public consultation” about the whole thing, but none of the available options involved not-closing-the-maternity-ward. Government consultation has too often been used to give a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a fundamentally undemocratic decision-making process, with the discourse tightly controlled, and the outcome pre-determined by those in power.
The last government’s e-petitions site was arguably a step forward from the “local consultation” model, but it shared some of the same characteristics. All proposed petitions would be reviewed by the government, and only those deemed appropriate would be published. I tried submitting one myself, after a friend of mine in a country to which the UK gives a lot of aid money got locked up for criticising that country’s President. The petition got rejected, for reasons that still don’t seem clear to me, and I know that many other people had a similar experience.
For me, one crucial difference with “Your Freedom” is that there appears to be no pre-moderation, and no vetting of comments. This is the first government consultation I know of where the discourse is not tightly controlled by those in power, and this seems like quite a significant step forward. (By contrast, it’s pretty common for newspapers like the Daily Telegraph to pre-screen all comments on their online articles, weeding out those that criticise their coverage or touch on sensitive issues.)
The flipside of this, obviously, is that people will then use the website to say things that we find offensive or strongly disagree with, or which mock the entire exercise. I actually think this is one of the site’s best features. Every General Election I’ve voted in has had a pile of candidates wanting to bring back hanging, set up a Christian fundamentalist state, deport all immigrants etc. They all lost. Standing alongside them were a long line of “Monster Raving Loony” candidates from the “Forward to Mars” party – but no-one took this to negate the value of the entire electoral process, and neither did their presence cripple our democracy. In fact, I’d suggest that any large-scale democratic exercise that doesn’t feature significant numbers of cranks, wingnuts and piss-takers is probably not very genuine or open. While I don’t think the cranks and wingnuts are particularly good for our democracy, as soon as you start setting up criteria for excluding people you make it easier for those in power to shut out genuinely valid criticism, which to me seems far more dangerous.
I think it’s too early to say whether the government will really take on board any of the suggestions that come out of the “Your Freedom” exercise. I know there’s a high risk, based on past form, that they won’t. Political priorities may change. The civil service may see the idea as a threat to their pre-eminence and do their best to frustrate it. Or maybe this really is nothing more than a cynical public relations exercise.
But there is one element to this process which I think could lead to some real changes, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been given more attention. Within an organisational system as large, old and complex as the UK state, it would be very surprising if there weren’t some areas of the law that are dysfunctional, and that could productively be tweaked or trimmed down. Given the number of people who work within, or engage with, the UK government on a day-to-day basis, it is likely that there will be some people who have detailed information about the nature of these dysfunctions, and ideas about what could be done to address them. Given the sheer size of the state, and the nature of large organisations more generally, it seems possible that at least some of this information has not yet been brought to the attention of the people who make decisions at the top of the heirarchy – ie. ministers and senior civil servants.
It seems to me that “Yourfreedom” is quite well set up for capturing – and prompting debate around – just this kind of specialist information, and highlighting it directly both to policy-makers and (equally importantly) the wider public. Here’s an (imperfect) example of the kind of thing I mean, from an idea submitted to Yourfreedom on July 2nd: “Reinstate the right to work for people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim”.
I work in a specialist NHS service for refugees and people seeking aslyum and the academic and anecdotal evidence shows worklessness as a detrimental force in almost every client I see. They lose essential skills and confidence and struggle to find something meaningful and productive to do. It places barriers in the way of developing language skills, adjusting across cultures and establishing the kind of social capital that supports everyday life.
In addition to lightening the burden on taxpayers, service providers and the host community, permission to work would enable the individual to maintain their skills, many of which would be of great value to us here in the UK, maintain their well-being ( particuarly their mental health) and fit them for the challenges that lie ahead – whether they gain or are denied refugee status.
For a simple overview of the issues: link
2. Direct Democracy
It does seem possible that input from the “wingnuts” may sway the government to some extent on an issue like immigration or the Human Rights Act, where the coalition doesn’t yet seem to have fully made up its mind – though I’m doubtful that the more extreme proposals will have much of an impact. But as it happens, the picture is a bit more complicated than some of the media coverage (not least the recent BBC Newsnight piece in which I featured as a token “Joe Public”) would suggest.
While a proposal to “Bring back the death sentence” has received more comments than most others on the site – 286 at the time of writing – the average “rating” from users is just 1.7 out of 5, suggesting that many contributors strongly disagree. The call to scrap the Human Rights Act is also widely commented on, but gets a score of only 2.8 out of 5. A proposal to “Repeal the Digital Economy Bill”, meanwhile, has had nearly as many comments (278), and an average rating of 4.9 out of 5.
There have also been a number of suggestions to scrap Control Orders (which allow the government to impose de facto house arrest on anyone they say they suspect of being a terrorist), reform the libel laws to protect freedom of speech, clarify the law that led to the notorious “Twitter joke” trial, and repeal the law restricting demonstrations outside Parliament.
3. Joke suggestions
My personal favourite called for a ban on “necro-bestiality” (“I don’t want to have to worry about what some pervert might do to my cat when it dies”), prompting a heated debate: “If I want to maybe sell my dead cat to some sicko, I don’t need any bureaucrats in Brussels interfering”. There’s also a rousing call to repeal “Sod’s law” (“This law has dogged my life and the lives of millions of others”). I find it odd, though, that anyone would think this negates the value of the whole exercise, any more than the existence of the Monster Raving Loony party undermines the point of an election.
4. Technical problems
If you wanted any more proof of the UK government’s collective, ongoing problem in understanding the internet, you saw it in the technical problems that have plagued “Yourfreedom”. That the website crashed after just a few thousand visits could be taken as a sign that the government wasn’t expecting very many people to use it, and therefore didn’t allocate enough bandwidth. Also disappointing was the fact that these problems dragged on for so long.
A further annoyance is that an idea can rank as “highly rated” simply by having a high average score – even if the total number of votes it has received is very low, thereby overshadowing a rival idea that has a slightly lower average but a far larger support base.
Whether these problems end up crippling the project will, I think, depend on how quickly they get sorted out. For all the difficulties, the government claim to have had 2,205 ideas, 7,419 comments and 18,000 votes on the project’s first day, and it’s clear that the site is still being actively used several days in : I’ve counted 14 new contribution in the last hour in the “civil liberties” category alone.
Old media meets new media
One thing that hasn’t surprised me is the near-universal derision that “Your Freedom” has prompted from the mainstream media. The Mirror, the Daily Mail, the BBC and others have chosen largely to ignore the serious contributions made by the public – even the very popular ones such as the call to repeal the Digital Economy Bill – and focussed instead on the most extreme and frivolous proposals.
Partly this seems to be a class issue. For years, mainstream journalists and editors were the gatekeepers for any critique of government policy, and this gave them a great deal of power. Whether you were a thinktank, a lobby group or a campaigner, if you wanted to be heard, you had to get on the news. The voices of ordinary members of the public could only be heard in tightly-controlled circumstances – a 30-second slot in a pre-screened radio-phone in show, a 100-word “letter to the editor” which in most cases would not even have been published. Columnists and TV pundits were “opinion leaders” and “opinion formers”, with a near-monopoly on the analysis of government policy. Now ordinary people are getting to form – and express – our own opinions on these things. The internet is giving us more and more opportunities to cut out the middleman, and many members of the “pundit class” feel very threatened.
When people feel threatened, they tend to retreat into stereotypes. To many within the UK media, the British public now seems to fall into two basic categories. We are either stupid, fixated on the X-factor and shamefully apathetic about politics, or we are extremist “single issue fanatics”, contemptibly obsessive about politics. Anyone who writes a blog, or contributes an idea to something like “YourFreedom” must, by definition, fall into the latter category, and the idea of asking people like us for our opinions is almost as contemptible as we are. Welcome to the world of the Daily Mail, and John O’ Farrell…