All opinions are equal, but some are more equal than others

This week Labour announced that it was looking at ways in which the party’s membership could determine policy through online participation, perhaps even offering an online vote over the issue of renewing Trident.

Now I firmly believe the internet is a remarkable tool which can and often does help to hold people in power to account, and have their say on the issues that affect them. This, in turn, could democratise the process of policy making so that it’s more representative and makes those deciding it more accountable.

This has been reflected in successive governments’ policies, with referenda becoming a semi-regular feature in British civic life since the late 90s.

But while the principle of online participation is sound, in practice online voting for policymaking is fraught with problems. Below are some of the issues I’ve seen in my time working in digital engagement which make me uncomfortable with the idea of policymaking by online vote.

1) It reduces complex issues to an unhelpful level of simplicity

As with any online transaction, engaging a mass audience demands that things are kept simple. The more steps you add, the less likely people are to participate. At the bottom of many Telegraph stories, for example, there’s a poll asking people what their views are on the issues covered. Here’s one:

That’s fine for a news story, but policies aren’t — and shouldn’t be — that simple. Government bills are long, and for good reason: because while there is a major thrust to any law it will need to include all manner of clauses, exceptions and clarifications. Reducing everything to yes/no or a handful of multiple choice options doesn’t enable that nuance to be taken into account, but merely offers oversimplified answers to difficult questions.

2) It privileges the options of activists over ordinary people

Don’t get me wrong, activists — committed, caring people — are great. But they aren’t representative of the population as a whole. They tend to be wealthier, older, whiter, better educated and more likely to live in big cities. People who have the time and motivation to find and participate in an online engagement exercise — people who are lucky enough to have lifestyles which allow them to dick about on the Internet all day — aren’t at all representative of the population, and as such are less likely to create policy which appeals to the electorate, or necessarily meets the needs of the country as a whole.

3) It discriminates against the digitally excluded

In many ways the flip side of point 2. Not everyone is able give their opinion on the issues of the day. And many of those people are those at the sharp end of social policy — the poor, the elderly, the disabled, those who don’t speak English — are those who are least likely to be heard from in online consultation. And these aren’t a tiny minority; 20% of the UK population lacks digital skills, while 20% of those who are online face accessibility barriers.

When I talk about online engagement I often use the analogy of a murder investigation (hat tip to Meg Pickard for this one). When old TV detectives wanted to suss out whodunnit, they looked for three things — means, motive and opportunity. The same is true online; for someone to participate in an online consultation they need all three — means (internet access and skills), motivation (a reason to care), and opportunity (sufficient spare time to get involved).

Vast numbers of people will lack at least one of the three. A single mum with children to care for doesn’t have the time to log on and fill in a survey. My dad, while he might care about issues, struggles with reading (a legacy of growing up in a time when dyslexia was little understood), so he lacks the digital skills to be able to participate online. A disabled person may have plenty to say but may be unable to use many websites due to accessibility issues. An homeless person is unlikely to have a smartphone on a contract with a hefty data allowance that might allow them to join the conversation. A serving soldier with strong views on Trident hasn’t got a means by which he can vote online, because he’s on the front line. And we can’t forget that 9.5 million adults in the UK aren’t online at all.

All of these people are likely to be excluded from the very debates which claim to support them if they only take place online.

4) it suggests all opinions are equal, when really they aren’t

To meet the challenges that come with government parties need to answer tough questions, and that’s why policymaking benefits from being informed and shaped by experts and those with relevant experience. In the world of policymaking, not all opinions are equal. Some people are better informed, and it would be unwise not to use that expertise but instead rely on those who know little to make decisions.

Take the issue of child sex abuse. An online vote on policy in this area is bound to attract high levels of participation, but the vast majority would have no experience of the issue. At the same time, many of those who know most about the topic can’t or won’t want to fill in an online survey on it, so need others to represent them. You’re far more likely to arrive at meaningful and thoughtful policy if you were to take in the views of abuse survivors, social workers, psychologists, academics and even those who have abused than if you were to ask me, who has no direct experience of the subject.

5) It’s an abdication of politicians’ responsibilities

Most people, me included, simply can’t be bothered to assess the evidence on key policy issues and take view on them. That’s why we pay other people — MPs — to do it on our behalf while we go and do our day jobs. Like any job, this conveys on politicians specific responsibilities — to take the time to understand the issues and the supporting evidence, and vote accordingly — for which they are held accountable (at the ballot box rather than via an annual appraisal).

Palming off the task of understanding issues on to the public is passing the buck, while at the same time removing the accountability, as it allows politicians to say “I didn’t decide this, the public did”. And that anonymous public can never be held to account for its choices.

Given all of these problems, I’d advise Labour — and anyone looking to engage the public in policy development — to think carefully about the processes and mechanisms a policy consultation should take rather than rushing into so that this becomes a meaningful and useful medium for debate rather than a tool for short-term political expediency, as so many earlier attempts at mass public engagement in policymaking have been.

The emergence of digital technology does make it theoretically possible to replicate the ideals of Athenian democracy, allowing mass participation in decision-making through voting and debate. And with public faith in politics and politicians of all stripes low, finding ways in which people can input into the process of policy and law-making is something that should be applauded.

But unless we can address its many problems it won’t produce an effective vehicle for meaningful policy development — and could end up as flawed and unrepresentative as Athens. To truly revolutionise policymaking, the online consultation needs to find a way of balancing mechanisms of simple, mass participation and ways in which policy can be deliberated in detail and collects evidence from stakeholders and experts in the field, so that the process takes into account both the weight of numbers and the strength of evidence.

How can the policymaking process be democratised so that it enables more people to participate but still provides a means of detailed deliberation? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll return to this in a future post.