The Liberal Democrats have published the findings of their policy review on technology issues ahead of their party conference this September.
I covered their initial discussion paper, and it is great to see that eDemocracy issues reached the final conclusions.
As the document notes, the party has not updated its ICT policies since 2003, which explains why it had little to say in response to the Conservative and Labour general election manifesto commitments on issues such as open data.
eDemocracy strategy (three cheers)
Perhaps the most significant proposal in the paper (which is not official policy until agreed by the conference) is the creation of an eDemocracy centre.
This would "initiate and encourage the use of tools by individuals, communities and government at all levels, funded by central government on a permanent basis".
It would perhaps go some way to addressing the continuing complaint of this blog, which is the lack of a UK eDemocracy strategy.
Parliament online (three cheers)
Also of note is the commitment to publishing more understandable information about the legislative process.
"A simple way of ensuring that this happens would be for Parliament to move from a 'document-based' approach to a 'work-flow' approach. This would mean that information presented about Parliamentary business would be aimed at 'the man on the Clapham omnibus', rather than those with a thorough grasp of procedure, as at present."
The implications of a change like that for Parliament's existing legislative data programme would potentially be quite profound.
The policy document also says citizens "should have the right to be consulted on policy decisions that affect them".
"Online public consultations should begin during the writing stage, not merely as rubber stamps after the fact."
That sounds rather like the public reading stage which the government has already begun trialing.
Also of note is a call to liberalise the rules governing online use of parliamentary footage.
ePetitions (two cheers)
While the government's new petitions website has been inundated since its launch, the Lib Dems also call for further improvements to the level of engagement offered by the system.
"[W]e believe that the system should also encourage the formation of communities around both supporters and opponents of the proposition. Petitioning should be more than just a signature; it has the potential to foster more genuine involvement in the political process, making it easier for people to express their views effectively."
This is could be a really important step forward, but ran into cost-cutting reality during the building of the ePetitions site.
The specification for the site indicated that there were no funds available for moderating comments on the site.
Much would depend, though, on whether alternative implementations could be found such as ranking comments or only reactively moderating those which are reported as abusive by other users.
It is an issue that needs addressing, and on heated issues like the death penalty even reactive moderating could lead to a significant workload.
Unless I've missed something, I've not yet seen a government department brave enough to outsource its moderation policy to the public. If cost remains an issue, though, someone might need to take the plunge and try it (The policy document does suggest that there should be more legal protection for websites which publish user comments, so perhaps the government could then make use of its own laws).
The other interesting point to note about the Lib Dem position on ePetitions is how close it is to the Conservative technology manifesto.
"The Conservative Party believes that government websites should not be treated like secure government offices or laboratories, where public access is to be controlled as tightly as possible. We see government websites as being more like a mixture of private building and public spaces, such as squares and parks: places where people can come together to discuss issues and solve problems."
A point of agreement for the coalition partners, it would seem.
eVoting (half a cheer)
On eVoting, the paper says that while "some work has been done" to answer the party's concerns, "the case for widespread implementation of remote electronic voting remains insufficiently strong to warrant abandoning the current voting system".
"However, we recommend that selective pilots are carried out to determine whether remote electronic voting might be a more suitable, secure and convenient option for the electorate than postal voting."
Having written about the case in favour of eVoting, and noted how recent announcements have made it impossible to implement, the call for more pilots at least keeps some momentum behind the issue.
But this proposal doesn't seem to make a huge amount of sense.
The costs of rolling out the system would be incured anyway, but the benefits restricted to a small number of people. And if, as the paper says, it is more "secure and convenient" than postal voting which is currently used then surely it also meets the standards required to be properly implemented.
And if I really wanted to cast my vote electronically and knew how to manipulate the system, I would presumably register for a 'postal vote' and then vote online. So it allows anyone access to the system but just puts a needless obstacle in their path.
Changing the law (three cheers)
Beyond eDemocracy issues, the paper also considers topics ranging from cloud computing to intellectual property.
On the Digital Economy Act, it puts forward two options for the party conference to decide on.
The first would repeal of sections three to 18 of Act, which relate to copyright infringement and the 'three strikes' controversy.
The second would repeal of sections 17 and 18 (site blocking) and offers the weaker formulation that sections 9-16 (technical measures to limit the internet access of repeat illegal filesharers) "should not be commenced until the government can demonstrate that the measures would be necessary and effective".
The #twitterjoketrial issue is also covered, with a call to rethink the clause that led to the conviction of Paul Chambers.
"[We] recommend amendment of primary legislation such as section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 so that messages are read in their correct context and so that people are not prosecuted for what are clearly attempts at humour, and where there is no intention to harm."
There are also concerns about cloud computing if it results in "large corporations taking control of enormous quantities of public or private data outside the reach of national law".
eGovernment (two cheers)
In the world of eGovernment there is support for open standards and an "assumption that public non-personal data belongs to the nation, so should be freely available".
"The government should ensure that it owns the code that it has paid for, and then share it for free within the public sector in order to avoid different parties paying external firms to develop the same software. We would like to see the public sector embrace collaborative development along the lines of websites such as Github."
There is also an interesting and potentially significant statement on supporting the use of open source software.
"One way of promoting open source would be for the government officially to support the use of those open source community websites which perform public services to a similar or better standard than official publicly-funded websites.
"The government could also consider providing resources to the creators responsible. Formerly it has been known for the government to attempt to replicate the work of such websites."
In part this seems to back the work of AlphaGov (which the paper also calls a "positive step") and the Martha Lane Fox review which called for content and services to be made available as APIs.
But it also seems to go further than that in suggesting that the government should avoid building some services altogether and simply help others to do so (perhaps a task for HMG Skunkworks).
It also adds that the evidence shows that "government ministers and senior civil servants – with a few honourable exceptions – do not 'get' information technology, and do not understand the social and political impact of their technology-based decisions".
To address this it calls for a new government office to "advise all other departments of ways in which IT can improve efficiency and quality of service to the public, and engender a culture of online engagement with the public".
"It would have responsibility for procurement policy and oversight of all major IT contracts across government, thereby promoting interconnectivity. It would also provide support with appropriate project management techniques."
How this would fit in with the the Government Digital Service and the Major Projects Authority is not discussed.
Update 19/08/2011: See also Simon Dickson's review of the policy paper on the Puffbox blog