Stephen Coleman's questions during Q&A sessions at the Young People, New Technology and Political Engagement conference have probably sparked more posts here than any other inputs.
This time, after a presentation on a web forum in Slovenia that achieved 100 contributions, "Why should a Member of Parliament care if 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person running the consultation – have posted on a message board?".
The simple answer seems to me to be: exactly the same reason they should care that 100 self-selecting people, quite possibly many of them friends of the person convening the meeting, turned up to the local town hall meeting and had their say.
But – this raises a more interesting question. Should (excepting the empirical aside that there are not many public meetings where 100 people get to speak – even if 100 may attend) the 100 online voices count for as much as the 100 in-person voices? After all – those who have turned out in person, we may argue, have put in more effort to participate – and so must have a stronger preference for the issue.
Members of Parliament responding to large letter-writting campaigns often comment that the hand written letter means more, and has a stronger impact on their decision making, than does the form-letter simply signed by a campaign supporter. The higher the 'cost of entry', in terms of time and committment, to a political act – the greater weight, it seems, it will have with decision makers.
Oh no! Surely this then means that our efforts to make democracy more accessible just make the views shared through low-cost-of-entry political acts easier to ignore.
a) We think e-democracy is about more than having a say – and should really be about deliberation and making better policy. In that case, if there are voices not represented in policy making, our e-democracy efforts are about making sure these voices can input into deliberation – and that may mean lowering the costs of participation for a particular group. However, we must ensure these voices can carry weight in deliberations – and that the dillution that seems to occur from lower costs of entry in lobbying is not matched in deliberation.
b) We focus on using e-democracy to equalise costs of entry – and make sure that those being lobbied understand the effort that has gone into a political act. Young people are excluded from many forms of local democracy. They are not voters. They have often not had the opportunities to develop the skills to input into a structured political process (especially when youth is combined with disadvantaged backgrounds). So where it might be very easy for me to participate in an online forum – and slightly more challenging to input into the local strategy through a town meeting. For a group of disadvantaged young people, inputting into an online forum is very challenging – and that they successfully do so should make their input worth as much as my input at the town hall.
This said, we still need to make sure the 'quality' of input, in terms of its functional applicability in addressing a topic within the political remit of the authority it is directed to, is equal in both cases if we want to talk of them being given equal weight – but this, of course, is a big further question…