Categories
e-democ / e-gov

The Local e-democracy National Project Launch

To the Science Museum's Wellcome Wing (quite an intriguing place) for the Local e-democracy National Project's launch event. Sounds grander than it was, though I must compliment their infinite supply of succulent canapes for keeping hunger at bay.

The minister responsible, Phil Hope, was admirably held up in Parliament so we nodded appreciatively before ODPM programme manager Julian Bowrey stepped in to kick start proceedings. We then enjoyed Councillor Mary Reid pragmatic views before Prof Stephen Coleman was wheeled in for a particularly rumbustious performance of generally positive thoughts on e-democracy.

Many of the usual suspects were present from Charbel Aoun and his Accenture e-democracy crew (who helped to build the excellent new edemocracy.gov.uk, a great new resource) to Chris Quigley's Delib team and Tom Steinberg, beaming like a proud new dad over MySociety's rosy babies.

All in all more a social catch-up then a major thought-provoker but pleasant all the same.

UPDATE: More on Coleman's energetic speech

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e-democ / e-gov

Consultations as seen by the Brighton & Hove Issues Forum

Just posted over on the VoxPolitics blog

As previously reported one of the most exciting local e-democracy pilots are local issues forums seeded by Steven Clift based on his experiences in Minnesota.

The Brighton & Hove Issues Forum has only just launched but already there's been a huge array of participants who, by discussing council actions, have homed in on the issue of consultations.

For residents of the city consultations are often the only way they feel they can take part in how things are run. Many feel the council doesn't do a good job of telling people about consultations, a few do. Most agree that the council generally ignores or misconstrues the submissions to consultation exercises, continuing regardless with its plans rendering consultations pointless wastes of taxpayer funds. There's disillusionment in the air.

At all levels of government I think we have huge problems with expectations management and misplaced assumptions. Government assumes that citizens understand that consultations occur several times during the creation and implementation of a policy. For example consultations could occur once during policy formulation, a couple of times during the legislative drafting process and one or more times during the implementation process. By assuming that citizens understand where a specific consultation fits in the policy to legislation life-cycle government fails to see the need to seriously manage expectations.

For citizens, most of whom rarely hear of consultations, any consultation on an issue close to their hearts is seen as the 'last chance saloon' engendering final ditch efforts. Rallying cries are sent out and the legions of supporters are assembled. An overwhelmingly clear response is sent to the government in the citizen activists' minds. Then they are 'betrayed' by government going ahead with the policy as planned or with only 'token' changes. The activists are disgusted and either give up or move onto another issue.

What happens?

Well if a consultation is about implementation stage issues then it's inevitable that the policy will go into force – citizens need to be clearly told this to avoid disappointment. When legislation is being drafted or a local plan is being developed ministers, officers and councillors need to take numerous factors into account: treaty commitments, legal restrictions, resource limitations, diplomatic sensitivities, national security, party political pressures, corporate interests and citizen views. This is a difficult, nay virtually impossible, balancing act which can never satisfy all stakeholders fully. Can outcomes swing too much in one side's favour too often? Of course, and bias should be challenged but there's a reason why most academics model these kinds of decisions as black boxes: They are unknowable human processes where a single citizen's submission to a consultation is unlikely to be the deciding factor. Communicating the scale of the balancing act a politician has to undertake would undoubtedly help create understanding amongst citizens.

If citizen's are told that a consultation is only about a certain stage in a process which must be weighed up against competing factors then their expectations are managed. Consultation participants wouldn't assume that consultations are effectively a referendum on an issue and so disillusionment would hopefully be avoided. This isn't a call for ignoring consultation responses, it's a call for honest and clear communication. Something I think this Internet doo-hickey could possibly help with.

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Equal Access to Information = Democracy?

Just posted over on the VoxPolitics blog where I have been so kindly asked to contribute.

One of the simplest ways in which the Internet toolbox can empower 'average people' is by making it easy for them to get their hands on information which was only once available to elites. Freedom of Information legislation also works on the same principle: The more information citizens have, whether it be minutes, draft bills or bids from suppliers, the more they are able to hold their government to account.

So far so good. But anyone trying to find anything other than the most current information can struggle. This week I was looking for a call for e-voting proposals written by the UK government in 1999. I'd seen it online several times but hadn't thought to keep a copy. Every tool I used Google, Yahoo, the Internet Archive or Ministry search engines failed to find the document. It was lost in a non-functional COI press release archive as far as I can tell. In e-democracy circles it's pretty much a given that our government's track record on search is apalling – hence TheyWorkForYou, TheGovernmentSays and so on… These are all well and good but they are only providing us with more searchable archives from around 2001 onwards. What can we do to make the past more searchable before link rot sets in?

In another example of attempting to make government more accessibly by providing more information, the EU has launched its new portal Your Europe. Good idea… very poor implementation. The site seems to ignore all the good practice people working on the web have built up over the past 10 years… in looking for a simple factsheet I had my language reset to Czech. It's just horrible to use. At least it's valid HTML though!

Big question: Why is it so hard for governments to make good, simple, easy-to-use websites like TheyWorkForYou or Google? If we don't figure this one out we're going to keep seeing time and money wasted on what could be valuable e-democracy tools.

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

The Government Says

Now this is useful… a searchable site with RSS feeds and email alerts of all central government press releases – TheGovernmentSays.com There have been rather too many times I could have done with this. Thanks Sam Smith and crew.

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Busy times in the e-gov and e-dem world

So much happening all of a sudden…

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Alan Mather on the Government Gateway

In celebration of the Government Gateway’s 4th anniversary Alan Mather has posted a look back on how the Gateway came to life.

The Gateway’s birth was controversial to say the least. I made my own contributions to the fuss through my work with LinuxUser magazine, especially the Gateway to failure article [PDF]. By making a Freedom of Information request (scroll down to see request and response) I managed to squeeze some information out of the Government but also got shouted at the next time I went to visit the Office of the e-Envoy. Ah well… I did get my first mention in NTK and The Register!

Let’s be clear… the Gateway works and four other countries are using it. I can’t judge if it does or doesn’t lose messages – Alan claims not a single message has been lost by the system. Of course there could be more features, better usability and so on – there always can be. For a Governmental IT project, once the initial Compaq mess was cleaned up, the project was fairly successful and there are millions of registered users.

The issue in my mind still is that for a project so fundamental to the future of all e-government interactions things should and could have been done differently. An Open Source, collaborative approach with community buy-in would have been a more citizen-centric way to proceed. And this isn’t a pipe dream – Estonia have taken just such an approach for the development of their digital identity scheme. Governments build hospitals, schools and technology for the people who empower authorities with votes and money. An understanding and respect for this should be evident throughout the life of our government’s IT projects.

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Building a security hole into our immigration process

It was with some concern that I read this week's Computing. The front page report is that Heathrow airport will be the first to allow frequent travellers to use Project IRIS (Iris Recognition Immigration System). Currently voluntary, this program is part of the eBorders programme being effectively imposed on us by the USA.

How does Project IRIS work? Foreign-passport holders who regularly pop into the UK will be able to register their details, including iris pattern, before leaving our pastures green. On their return the traveller will have their iris re-scanned and if it matches a gate will automatically open letting them proceed on their merry way.

I imagine that there will be the odd official watching these gates in case someone isn't let through. Nevertheless it seems inevitable that visitors using this system will be under considerably less scrutiny than those entering through the traditional stare-and-stamp approach. Authorities, complacently confident that iris scans are a wonderful techno-solution will happily let the robots wave people through.

Personally I don't go for all the immigration or terrorism scare-mongery. But I do hate poorly designed security… Any terrorist with a clean record (ie any sleeper agent, as all the 9/11 perpetrators allegedly were) will love the opportunity to dodge scrutiny that RoboGate offers. By all accounts this automated biometric system is creating a security risk, not preventing one.

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e-democ / e-gov

Democratic Games

The Local e-democracy National Project has paid for the good people at Delib to build some Democratic Games… games that give people a bit of an idea as to how politics and democracy works. I've played around with 'Captain Campaign' and you know what – they're pretty good – not too preachy.

Give them a go…

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e-democ / e-gov

Sex, or more precisely porn, still sells

By far the best selling magazine in Poland is the Polish edition of Playboy. Not a huge surprise, married men openly buy the magazine in the most Catholic country I've ever come across. Sex isn't out in the open as it can seem to be in Germany and parts of Scandinavia, but it's not really something to get fussy about in Poland. They take the view that everyone does it, so what's to get embarrassed about?

Nevertheless Poles aren't targeted, as the French and Italians are, with news magazines and advertising full of topless women. This may be to protect the huge number of priests in Poland, but I can't be sure.

In spite of all this I was still rather surprised to read in the new magazine European Business that over 70% of all Polish mobile picture traffic is erotic or adult related. Can that be? I seriously doubt the figures are so high in the UK, but who knows… I wouldn't have thought a mobile phone's screen was up to the job. I thought wrong and to the mobile networks' delight Poles at least are paying for their erotica.

Once again it seems that sex sells and as with VHS and the Internet, horniness leads the way in technology adoption.

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Links 16-12-2004