I’ve just been reading the commentable version of the Coalition: our programme for government document, and, given some of the content, I couldn’t help but head for the comment box to drop in some reflections on different aspects of the proposed policies.
However, as I started to type in a comment or two, I quickly found I wasn’t certain what sort of interaction was being invited. The front page of the site states “This website gives you the opportunity to enter public discussion on the programme. We’ll take all your comments and suggestions on board and publish the Government’s response to those policy areas receiving the most feedback”, but it goes no further to explain who will be reading the comments, what sort of feedback to expect, and whether the goal is discussion between members of the public, or dialogue between the public and government.
Which makes writing a comment difficult.
Should I be constructively unpicking policy and pointing to useful resources that, in the hands of a Minister or policy official would be useful? Should I be replying to other posters, engaging in debate with them on the strengths or weakness of their argument? If so, are they getting e-mail updates about my replies, or can threaded discussions emerge? Should I be gaming the system and getting as many people to post on the topics I feel post passionate about, given the statement that only the “policy areas receiving the most feedback” are to get a response from the Government? Will track-backs to posts (so I can write a more considered comment on policy areas on this blog) be picked up and fed into the dialogue?
All these things affect the sort of dialogue that can take place – and the nature of relationship between citizen and government that can be established. Whilst it’s positive that the new government have opted for opening up comments on the coalition plan, and Simon Dickson’s work to turnaround a basic site for such comments in a short space of time is impressive, comment boxes alone do not a dialogue make. There are bit techno-social challenges to be solved to effective online participation, and we all need to get a lot smarter in solving them.
As the Government team behind this online document, and, hopefully future online documents, iterate the development of such spaces, it would be good to see a lot more attention paid to the forms of interaction between citizen and state that are to be facilitated. Personally, I’d like to see a clear statement about exactly who will be reading and summarising the comments; how that will take place; and who the summary will be shared with. And it would be good to have something more nuanced than simply a numbers game for knowing what will get considered.
What would you like to see to encourage effective dialogue on government hosted spaces around documents like the coalition agreement?
P.S. There’s one more big problem with the current commentable coalition agreement: the moderation policy suggests wants 16s to have parental consent before posting. There is no legal basis for this and its outrageous age discrimination. By all means encourage young people to discuss issues with parents before posting – but to exclude young people who are from posting without parental consent cannot be justified.