A simple way to communicate with the government or another step towards an Orwellian future?

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in” — 1984

By Ollie Taylor and Bram Wanrooij

Jersey was recently chosen as a test bed for a new application called Apptivism, which has been described as a new way for islanders to share their views on life in Jersey. The trial, which took place over five days from Wednesday the 14th of June, was supported by Digital Jersey and the Chief Minister’s Department.

Apptivism uses Facebook Messenger, allowing the public to share their opinions, compare answers with others who have responded and give specific feedback to the government on various Jersey-related issues, all without having to attend a meeting or leaving the comfort of your armchair.

The project received almost unanimous support and praise with Digital Jersey’s CEO, Tony Moretta saying: “We are really happy to be supporting Apptivism in Jersey. The Island provides a dynamic environment to test new technology and to help residents’ express their views.” Richard Corrigan, Chief Financial Officer of Financial Services, Digital & Enterprise said it’s a: “good opportunity to learn and engage”.

Jersey London Office, Jersey Naturalist and Gary Burgess of Channel ITV news were all keen to: “give it a go” and Senator Philip Ozouf was also full of praise: “Some of Jersey’s best and committed inspirational future Civil Service leaders have set this up. It has my full support”. Finally, Jason Laity, Chairman of KPMG in the Channel Islands, said: “So good to see this being encouraged & shared; huge opportunities to use Digital Jersey as testbed for wide benefit”.

This all made Apptivism’s co-founder, Alex Tupper very enthusiastic. He gave us an insight of where this pilot might lead: “We hope to reach over 5,000 people in the first live test of our new chat software. The results of the anonymous pilot will be presented to the States and if user feedback is positive, the software might become a regular feature of government public consultation.”

The Behavioural Insights Team

Bethnal Green Ventures, which has provided support to Apptivism, and other startups, was originally funded by the UK government Cabinet Office and part founded by Nesta. The director of Apptivism is Simon Day, a former British Diplomat, who worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, occupying a diverse range of positions across the globe.

Crucially, Day served as a senior adviser at The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) which is partnered with the Cabinet Office and Nesta. Alex Tupper, the other co-founder of Apptivism, also worked as an assistant adviser to BIT which describes itself as a “social purpose company” that is jointly owned by the UK government.

BIT is better known as the ‘Nudge Unit’ (nicknamed after the best-selling book by economist Richard H Thaler). Its objectives are:

  • making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use;
  • improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible,
  • enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’.

On the face of it, not much seems wrong with the government wanting to collect data to better streamline its services to the public. But apart from sounding extremely patronizing, the last objective is vague at best and if left unchecked, ripe for abuse. A few objections could be raised:

  • Who defines in which areas to the general public needs to be ‘nudged’?
  • In what direction do people need to be ‘nudged’?
  • Is there anything morally objectionable to taking part in an exchange, through which you are hoping to exercise some influence, while in reality, you are being nudged without realizing this is happening?

Isn’t all of this pretty much down to politics? Are members of the general public involved in shaping the direction of the BIT? In other words, is there any form of democratic control over this potentially highly influential new method?

Nudging required

BIT were engaged by the British Army to help increase the effectiveness of its recruitment processes. Over a five-month period, BIT applied an additional programme of emails to candidates who had declared an interest in joining the Reserves. Emails were sent from the account of a real and named officer in the Army Reserve, detailing some of his actual experiences and in addition to standard marketing material designed by the advertising agency appointed by the Army. The intervention had a large impact; recruitment numbers effectively doubled from 4.50% to 8.30% after “treatment”.

Currently, the vast majority of recruits for the British army are from poor, working class backgrounds. A study revealed that ‘the armed forces draw non-officer recruits mainly from among young people with low educational attainment and living in poor communities. A large proportion join for negative reasons, including the lack of civilian career options; a survey in the Cardiff area in 2004 found that 40% of army recruits were joining as a last resort.

If ‘nudging’ is a subtle way of influencing people’s choices, we can assume that vulnerable people from poor backgrounds will probably be most receptive, reinforcing the trend described above.

In 2014, the BIT unit was partly privatised. This is not unusual as privatisations of public services has, in fact, lay at the heart of economic policy since the early 1980s. But this is the first time privatisation has hit an actual government policy team. By partly privatising a government policy unit, we are inviting corporate interests deeper influence over the relationship between the British public and its government, while at the same time diminishing public oversight. Will we ever find out what drives the policy decisions of the BIT? And we have a right to know, after all, the BIT has the specific task of advising on policy which is based on tapping into the hearts and minds of the public. Besides being a more or less secret tool to achieve unspecified policy objectives, we can almost certainly assume marketeers would take a keen interest in this type of ‘nudging’ as well.

In their 2013–2015 update report, BIT detailed its work with the Home Office, describing how it “helped” illegal migrants to voluntarily return home. As BIT describes in its own report: (…) “we developed several options for Home Office consideration to employ behaviourally informed trials in reporting centres that could encourage higher numbers of voluntary departures from the UK.” Their goal ultimately being to: “combine a number of behavioural elements to create a distinct experience” that “encourages members of the reporting population to consider voluntary departure”.

Is this an example of how BIT intends to carry out its objectives of “enabling people to make better choices for themselves?”

The UK; A Growing Police State?

The minds behind Apptivism and BIT have worked with, and for, the UK government, which has been leading a crackdown on basic public freedoms. This seems miles off from the officially declared Apptivism objectives of wanting to ‘improve communication with the public.’ In the name of “national security,” the UK recently passed The Investigatory Powers Act, also known as the “snoopers charter” which was described by Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, as the:

“most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy”

The law forces internet providers to record every internet customer’s web history in real-time for up to a year, something which can then be accessed by 28 different government departments. It forces companies to decrypt data on demand and to disclose any new security features in products before they launch. It also gives intelligence agencies the power to hack into computers and devices of citizens.

Teachers across the UK have also been forced to spy on pupils as part of government guidelines to combat terrorism with the National Union of Teachers warning that it: “will damage and prohibit debate in schools”. Failure to report suspicions of radicalisation of pupils would also warrant emergency inspections from education standards watchdog Ofsted to check whether schools were promoting “British values”. This type of atmosphere led to a 10-year-old Muslim boy being questioned over a spelling mistake.

On top of this, police have conducted spying operations against trade unionists and campaigners against nuclear weapons, war, and racism. The Met Police have been accused of hacking the emails of activists and environmental campaigners, which all has the dramatic and corrosive affect on our freedom and ability to organise, express, share and discuss ideas. Knowing you are being spied upon only increases distrust and fear of government while at the same time increasing our conformity.

The fact that the UK government has pushed through draconian legislation, issued alienating and stifling guidelines, while having the civil force of the state spy and hack its own citizens, should make one question why they are also funding kick-starters to supposedly allow better communication with the government, and what the ultimate purposes of these applications really are.

Why is Alistair Campbell so eager to laud the technology and its potential to “increase people’s voices”? Campbell was partly responsible for dragging us into Iraq against the will of the British public. While in Downing Street, Campbell chaired the Coalition Information Centre, as well as another cross-Whitehall committee, the Iraq Communication Group. Historian and journalist Mark Curtis has written: “it was these organs that essentially controlled the campaign to mislead the public about Iraq’s WMD and oversaw the production of the dossiers”. Alistair Campbell, well known spin doctor, has a long history of manipulation.

Over a million British people hit the streets to march against and protest the invasion of Iraq. Their voices fell on deaf ears. Perhaps they were missing the magic ingredient: Apptivism.

A growing divide?

Can it honestly be claimed with all the Jersey consultations, Scrutiny reports, petitions, protests and various surveys, that there is an issue with communication? Is it not more a failure by the Jersey government to meaningfully engage with the public? Communication, after all, is a two-way process. A new app will certainly provide lots of data, but, based on previous experiences, it is highly doubtful that this will translate into a more receptive government, dedicated to listening to the public.

The government previously tried this approach by providing a number of Twitter Q&A sessions involving various Ministers. Despite the low engagement — most people are not on Twitter — flaws soon became apparent when, during an “ask the Chief Minister anything” session, he began to evade and dodge the questions. Responses quickly turned to generic answers and robotic platitudes. The technology wasn’t the problem and neither did it provide the solution. This fundamental communication problem was recently raised by a Proposition put forward in the States Chambers, forcing members to actually answer the question asked, rather than evade.

Studies have also shown that online engagement seldom leads to an actual follow-up in the real world. The presence of an online platform can actually affect engagement in a negative way. In some cases, online engagement can be disempowering, as programs like Apptivism puts all the power, not in the people’s hands but the government’s. The government gets to choose what questions are asked, when and on what matters and in what way. They will have increasing amounts of data fed to them by the public which they can use in whatever way they see fit, whereas the public is still potentially left in the dark, none-the-wiser to their thinking.

Rather than turning up to meetings and engage, people may be more inclined to stay at home, further detached from their representatives, as they instead direct their two minutes hate at the screen, comforted in the false belief that they have engaged with the government and made some kind of difference.

The Jersey government appears trapped in the illusion that technology represents a panacea to low civic engagement, allowing them to ignore their own failures in engaging the public meaningfully.

Is it not far more important to lay down the foundations required for real change? Should we not organise, unite, form connections and friendships and build movements? Will we instead stay divided, atomised and locked into our technological silos, while we provide our governments with data, the future purposes of which remain ultimately unknown to us?

Like any tool, Apptivism and the technology behind it can be used for a whole range of positive causes, benefiting society, but it can certainly also be used for the wrong purposes. Apptivism and other apps like it, provide a wealth of data that can be applied in ways we can’t even imagine yet, as technologies like data mining and AI advance and develop further. Apptivism provides an intermediary that disconnects the public from their representatives by failing to provide any meaningful engagement.

And finally, can we really trust a government which willingly outsources its services to the private sector? The increasingly grey areas between private, corporate interests and those of governments remains a cause for concern. Are we witnessing a growing democratic deficit?

People have a right to know what data is being taken, how it is to be used, by who and for what purpose. Apptivism have finished their tests in Jersey, their data is collected. What will be done with it?

Will Apptivism ever return to the Island? Maybe it will and and we just won’t know about it. Perhaps we’ll get a little nudge to help us make “better choices for ourselves”.

This article was amended on 25 June 2017. Apptivism have confirmed that they have not been funded by the UK government, that it is a self-funded app and that the founders are also not employed by BIT. They have stated that their aim is to “improve civic engagement”.