Notes from the course Network Society: Social Changes, Organizations and Citizens, Barcelona, 15-17 October, 2008.
Citizenry in the Network Society
Tom Steinberg, MySociety.org
MySociety is an NGO (mainly run by volunteers) whose aim is to empower the society at large so they can engage, participate and contact the policy-makers.
- WriteToThem.com: send your thoughts and queries to elected charges
- TheyWorkForYou.com: know who an elected charge is and how do they act and think (e.g. what did they vote concerning a specific subject)
- The Public Whip: based on the elected charges’ actions on e.g. the Parliament, engage in a debate and evaluation about these actions.
- FixMyStreet, to let public managers know about problems in your hometown: holes on the road, graffiti on your walls, etc.
- PledgeBank, to help people diffuse their pledges and gather other people around them so that pledges can be accomplished.
- OpenAustralia, similar to TheyWorkForYou
- WhatDoTheyKnow, about getting public data and information from governments
- Groups Near You, to find communities (“real” or virtual) in the neighbourhood, to connect with them, participate, engage
The common ground of all these initiatives is follow-up: all actions and reactions (or lack of them) can be tracked and surveyed by e-mail and RSS. This follow-up feature acts as an implicit — and most times explicit — enforcement tool that helps to get things done, or to have evidence to backup criticism for inaction.
Marc López: Why Spain have no initiatives like those? How would a Spanish elected charge feel when facing such “controlling” devices?
Q: What do the institutions and politicians think about all these initiatives? A: Most probably they feel right when ranked positively on these sites according to their answers to queries sent by the users.
Q: Is it the low Internet usage level in Spain the reason not to have such initiatives? Lack of interest? A: Because of the low cost to set up and run any of those initiatives, there’s no need to have a huge “market” to turn them on. So, it’s not worth waiting and, instead, just wait for a couple of good uses of the tools. If they show benefits, then “people will come”.
Q: How to get the data that feed these sites? Are governments eager to publish them? A: Normally, harvesting them is tough. But it is also true that most data should be public by law, so you’re in your right to enforce the governments to make them available [see also WhatDoTheyKnow above].
Andrian Mangin: Do you notice (and how) changes in the politicians? A: There are indicators within the sites that measure performance of the politicians featured there, so at least, indirectly, through the evaluations the users make of them, you can guess whether there was a change or not.
Ricard Ruiz de Querol: How to replicate some of the initiatives? A: So you want to start an organisation like mySociety? Some tips for aspirants. Of course, funding, even if small, is always an issue. Starting purely with volunteers always an option, at least for the kick off.
Felipe González Gil: Do you think these initiatives will help reducing bipartidism, which is fostered by mainstream media by letting minority parties out? A: Can’t tell, but, potentially, the Internet (and, most specifically, these sites) it is a horizontal platform so that anyone can have the same coverage. But, with the exception of America (because of many reasons), these sites have not had any impact on e.g. presidential elections. So, they’re good for monitoring, but not for campaigning.
Ismael Peña-López: what about the trade-off between common good and wanting the elected charge to scratch my own and only itch? A: All sites collect statistics at the aggregate level, even if you’re asking for a personal problem (e.g. like Amazon’s suggestions). Everything’s public and easy to see what happens at the “community” level. Nevertheless, the caveat is: if you build something what will help other, it’s great, and it’s got its place; but the more focused the site is in your own needs, the more likely you are to use it, to be engaged, as the impact affects you. On the other way, by putting yourself on the map (because of a personal demand), you’re likely to contacting other people with the similar needs and end up by doing things together at the community level [see also Groups Near You, above].
Q: What about the digital divide? A: Let’s look it the other way: what about people that would never ever had contacted an elected charge because it was way too difficult? On the other hand, the sites are really user friendly, easy to use, so a simple action can be quickly done and the return of the effort is immediate. So, it is easy to shift up towards more complex virtual actions in these or other sites.
Q: Is there any impact? A: Even if the output is “just” having an answer, an e-mail, from the Prime Ministers, the issue is that technology has made it possible and almost costless. Contacting back 2M people that signed a petition was almost impossible and, by all means, its cost made it non-viable. Now, feedback can be sent, personally, at almost zero cost. That’s an improvement.
Q: In what kind of cities/town is the impact and use more likely to be found? A: Most probably, in bigger areas, where there is no personal acquaintance with the politicians. Also where the civil society is less articulated.
Q: Is there any law that obliges the Members of the Parliament in the UK to answer public petitions? A: Yes, according to some rules, they have to give explanations, but, in general, they are not obliged at all.