In my second post (first one here) on the 'Internet, Politics, Policy 2010' conference, I thought it worth discussing Giovanni Navarria's paper entitled 'The internet and representative democracy: A doomed marriage?'.
It makes some of the same arguments I've been making on this blog about the incompatibilities of eDemocracy and representative democracy.
Navarria sees this as a negative thing, while I've taken the view that it is a change to be embraced.
The paper takes as its evidence the now famous petition on the Number 10 website in 2007 which got almost two million supporters opposing the introduction of road tolls.
"My argument here is that when simple and historical democratic means such as petitions are coupled with the new generation of Web technologies the outcome might be unexpected."
It is certainly true that the Department of Transport thought the outcome was unexpected, effectively derailing one of its key policies.
But I don't know if any civil servants or politicians could really have been shocked to discover that taxes on motorists are unpopular.
Navarria plays "devil's advocate" to suggest that "the effects of new communication media on the quality of Britain’s democratic system have recently produced some ambiguous results that deserve further analysis".
One of the questions the author asks is:
"In this new era of communicative abundance, the question permanently seeking [an] answer is whether or not the Internet is good for democracy, or, in its more negative form, whether or not the Internet is in fact the end of it?"
Killing representative democracy would indeed be negative without something which could take its place, yet the same technologies which would cause problems for representative democracy facilitate the expansion of direct democracy.
The internet, especially when coupled with systems like petitions, is certainly disruptive to traditional notions like the election mandate.
Now members of the public can make it clear that they withdraw any part of the mandate at any time through what the paper rightly describes as "a stream of continuous public acts of assessment, that potentially are as politically significant as an election can be".
Still, the author's assumption that the impact of the road toll petition was negative seems to stem from the view that the scheme was "considered an unpopular but necessary path to safeguard the environment".
I would take issue with the assertion that people using the ePetition system as it was intended means that the scheme was an "ill-conceived initiative that soon backfired and gave the government more troubles than benefits".
It may have halted the road pricing policy, but was that really so bad for the government? How much worse would it have been if ministers had pushed ahead with such an unpopular policy? Surely the electoral outcome would have been worse if the safety valve of the petitions system had not existed to provide ministers with an early warning of hostility?
Another implication of this criticism of the Number 10 petitions system is that anything which stops the government implementing its policies is by default a bad thing. So, paradoxically, if the petitions system had made no impact on anything, it might therefore be seen as a success. This cannot be a sensible position.
Who's in charge?
The other main criticism of this kind of continuous scrutiny is that it prevents elected representatives from playing a leadership role in policy formation.
I'm not sure that is really true. I noted in this post on the Digital Economy Act that eDemocracy certainly raises important policy issues. For example, would it still have been made compulsory to wear seatbelts in cars or would smoking in public spaces have been banned without political leadership in the face of public resistance?
The tools of eDemocracy can certainly make this leadership harder but I think this means that politicians have to make and win the political argument to a sufficient extent before they proceed with a policy.
And that can only be a good thing if it means that there is more public acceptance for the resulting changes, and a greater national consensus that they are the right thing to do.
Basing an analysis of ePetitions on the outcome of one petition, however many signatures it got, also seems like attempting to generalise from the particular.
It would be just as possible to point to one ePetition success – perhaps the one which sought an apology for the treatment of Alan Turing – and say this proves that petitions allow the public to raise genuine issues of concern which would otherwise be absent from the political agenda.
Given that the Turing petition resulted in action by the government which was then welcomed by the signatories, it is therefore as possible to declare the whole ePetition system a complete success as it is to attack it as a failure on the basis of the road tolls row.
How to judge ePetitions
Navarria is right to say that those implementing ePetitions need to be clear about what they expect to happen when they receive them, and need to inform signatories what impact their actions can (and cannot) have.
As I wrote here, this principle applies to any attempt to encourage participation, whether online or off-line.
But with this in mind it is perfectly possible to run an official ePetitions system which achieves the desired result, which is greater public engagement and participation.
And it is worth keeping in mind that it is the engagement which is the desired outcome of ePetitions, and not any specific policy change.
ePetitions are policy neutral, so to measure their success or failure against any particular outcome is too subjective.
Far better, as I argued here, to measure them by the engagement they result in.