Lecture to The Hansard Society

22 May 2000

It may seem slightly unusual for a civil servant to give a lecture on e-democracy. But David Butler didn’t have to twist my arm too far before I agreed. I welcome the chance to step back from day-to-day preoccupations with e-commerce, and to take a wider look at some of issues raised by the internet, for political systems, for participation in politics, and for Government itself. Even if I have more questions than answers, and am entering into territory where many of you have worked in this area for longer than me.

But I want to start though by looking back, to the way the internet and the world-wide web have grown into what we see today.

One key feature is the way that this growth has come from meeting needs and demands that were not foreseen when the first steps were being taken. Indeed, many of those involved in the development of key components didn’t always approve of the way their child was growing up.

John Naughton’s excellent summary in "A Brief History Of The Future" describes many such episodes. How email was original envisaged as a way of enabling researchers to exchange data, and the surprise and disquiet when people started using it to pass personal messages. The way that newsgroups were similarly seen as a means of collaborating on research, and the horror when they took on a life of their own, and alt.sex and alt.drugs were followed by alt.rock’n’roll.

The way that Tim Berners Lee developed the world wide web as a means of accessing scientific information, and wasn’t initially keen on enabling images to be included on web pages, fearing it would trivialise the medium and eat up precious bandwidth.

More recently, we have seen examples of consumer-driven developments in the explosive growth in trading music files over the internet, predominantly using the MP3 format. Although developments like this were foreseen for the longer term, the speed with which this has taken off has caught the music industry by surprise.

As the internet has become more and more part of the mainstream, rather than a tool for early adaptors, so we are beginning to see a clash of cultures. Between those who want to preserve the freedom of access, the freedom of expression and the creativity that have been so important in the development of the internet. And those who see a need or a commercial argument for introducing greater structure and control in how people access the internet.

Governments are inevitably getting sucked into this debate. As the internet and e-commerce become more and more a part of everyday life, so issues like consumer protection, legal redress, tax, broadcasting licencing and so on all have to be addressed.

But what we mustn’t overlook is that the key influence of Governments so far has largely been through their role in liberalising markets and promoting competition, particularly in the telecoms industry.

I was struck by the story told by Lawrence Lessig, the Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard, about arguing with young Congressional staffers about the need to ensure open access to broadband cable systems. He was met by the response that he was calling for government regulation: and where would that end? He had to go back and explain that it has been open access to telephone systems, in many cases against the wishes of the incumbent telephone companies, that has enabled the internet to take off in the way it has.

It is the free-market culture of the internet that is in such marked contrast to Orwell’s vision of a world in 1984 where dictatorship was sustained by complete Government control of information and communication. But what Orwell underestimated was the power of market-driven IT, perhaps not surprising given that he was writing at a time when communications systems were so heavily regulated and in many countries were under government ownership.

Governments have of course tried in some countries to take control of communications systems so as to hobble political opposition. I remember how effective it was when the military leadership in Poland cut all telephone access to prevent internal or external opposition knowing what was going on.

That has become much harder now, thanks to advances in technology. We now have a position where journalists can file stories direct using a solar-powered personal computer and satellite phone. And the internet has enabled many people access to information that their Governments would wish to suppress—though we still of course see attempts in some countries like China to impose controls on access.

But I want to focus tonight more on the implications of the internet for the industrialised countries.

In the US, we have already seen the internet play a significant role in political campaigns.

In Minnesota, when Jesse Ventura the former professional wrestler was standing for Governor in 1998, and caught the imagination of young people, many of whom wouldn’t normally have voted at all. They became enthusiastic supporters, discussing and campaigning for him over the internet. Ventura won despite a hostile conventional media, who often sought to portray him as a buffoon.

And in the recent Republican Presidential primary, the internet helped to generate momentum for John McCain’s campaign, even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. McCain started off with relatively little funding, but attracted large amounts of small donations over the internet.

Politicians in the UK have been rather slower to adopt the internet. The majority of MPs in the UK do not use email to communicate with their constituents. In part this may be because internet penetration in the UK has lagged that of the US, so the demand has not been there—though that is changing fast as take-up increases here. In part it seems to be because of a concern about how to cope with a medium that can generate such huge traffic.

So I welcome what the Hansard Society is doing to help MPs deal with emails, for example by setting up standardised filtering systems so that MPs can separate out and give priority to dealing with their constituents.

I also welcome the work that the Hansard Society is doing in other areas, such as the promotion of online consultations and forums. That is where the internet offers truly novel means of communication. A means of communication where messages and themes can emerge in ways that may not be expected, as the participants bounce ideas off each other.

One example I recall came from a visit to Adelaide during my previous job, when I met Michael Armitage, the Minister for Information Economy in the South Australian Government. He told me he had posed a question in one of his online forums asking for views on a proposal to privatise the ports in South Australia. What had surprised him was that the biggest single issue that emerged was people’s concern about whether they would still be able to fish off the piers and jetties. So that reassurance was built into the communications strategy. That is just the sort of issue that is easy to overlook when a new policy is being planned. No doubt expensive public opinion research could have revealed it, but an online forum produced the answer much more cheaply and immediately.

In the UK, the Hansard Society’s online consultation on domestic violence, set up in conjunction with the All Party Parliamentary Group chaired by Margaret Moran, is another good example of innovative use of this new medium. Some 200 women participated in the consultation, many very actively. The great majority had never taken part in an internet consultation before. While just over half had internet access at home or at their refuge, the rest had not previously had online access, and many used public access points.

The Hansard Society is now preparing evidence for the Committee based on that consultation. But what encouraging even apart from the evidence gathered is that some of the women who participated found the experience so valuable that they decided to set up their own online group so that they can continue to share experiences.

There are many other examples of online consultations right across the UK. The International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University, for example, has set up an online consultation for young people in Scotland that will feed into the Youth Summit in June attended by Ministers from the Scottish Executive.

The internet provides a means by which information can be made far more accessible than was ever possible before. Almost all Government departments and agencies now have websites that provide a wide range of information. And most local authorities make extensive use of websites, as do the political parties. Much of this information simply wasn’t available to the public until very recently, and these channels will form an increasingly important means of communication directly with citizens and voters.

It means, for example, that people won’t have to rely just on press reports of a new policy or new speech. If they are interested, they will be able to read the source material directly.

And the US evidence suggests that internet users are a demanding community. They don’t just want canned messages. They want to be able to explore issues in depth and compare different candidates’ positions.

But it would be very wrong to focus too much on the role of official sites and official information, whether from Governments or political campaigns. One of the features—I would say strengths—of the internet is the way it can create virtual communities who share a common interest, without regard to physical location. And they can readily develop into pressure groups, consumer groups, political activists or self-help alliances.

This means that organisations, whether in the public or private sector, have much less control over information. There are endless opportunities for debate and lobbying in during which the message can be transformed in ways the originators didn’t expect or intend.

It requires a different approach to communication—though I’m not convinced it yet means the "death of spin" as a recent IPR report put it.

The internet also enables smaller organisations and interest groups to band together much more easily and to mobilise public opinion. That was what we saw in Seattle, where Governments and policy makers were taken by surprise by the opposition to the WTO, orchestrated largely by campaigns using the internet.

This is one of many areas where the internet is providing new challenges for public policy.

Take health for example. The internet now provides a way in which individuals with particular diseases or illnesses can get together online and share experiences and draw strength from each other. Of course we saw this before the internet, with support groups using other means to communicate. But the internet makes it much easier for people who may live great distances apart to learn from the experience of others.

Of course this also creates dilemmas for public policy. How can people know that the information they are getting is reliable? One way is to use respected brands, such as the NHS, to provide information that people will trust—as the Government is doing with NHS Direct Online. But we may also underestimate the ability of people to assimilate information from a variety of sources and make judgements on what is relevant for them. Indeed, I think there is a positive aspect from patients being better informed and willing to probe the medical profession on the impact and implications of different forms of treatment.

The internet provides a means whereby information, whether true or false, can spread incredibly quickly. That can be positive, for example where information about natural disasters can be relayed rapidly and self-help groups set up. It can be negative, as with scams aimed at ramping up share prices.

It can be hard for Governments to know how to cope, when opinions can get polarised so rapidly.

I believe a part of the answer is to use the internet to provide more information, so that people can read or see the evidence for themselves. Greater openness can help to disarm the suspicions. And the willingness to make information available can itself help to make government statements more credible.

But there is a wider problem, of the suspicion we see in many countries about the motives of governments and the lack of trust in the political process. It is a suspicion often coupled with distrust in the information from traditional channels such as newspapers and television.

It is manifest in low turnouts, complaints about the system, and in a willingness to support candidates from outside the political mainstream—we have seen instances of this in the US, in the UK, in Australia and in many other countries.

It’s a real challenge for governments and political parties right around the world.

I don’t claim that the internet is the magic solution. But I believe it can play a role in building up confidence in the political process, and in increasing participation. Part will come through the sorts of measures I talked about earlier, such as using the opportunities provided by the internet to develop a genuine two-way dialogue.

Part may come through using these technologies directly so as to help increase turnout in elections. The UK Government has already taken an important step through the Representation of the People Act passed this year, which provides for a rolling electoral register and enables local authorities to conduct experiments in where and when people can vote. This power was used by some authorities in the elections on 4 May. Those authorities are now preparing their evaluations, but it seems as if there were significant increases in turnout where authorities tried all-postal ballots.

That does of course raise the issue whether we might in time go further, and enable people to vote from home via the internet. I was struck by two recent surveys, one in the US and one in the UK. In the US, almost a third of households said that at least one of their members would be "much more likely" to vote in a state or federal election if it could be done over the internet. And in the UK, a recent KPMG survey asked people which public services they would like to be able to carry out electronically. The two most popular options were looking up school information, with 15% of the respondents, closely followed by voting, with 14%.

There are some key technical issues before that could be contemplated. There are justifiable concerns about security and authentication that would need to be overcome before voting over the internet could command widespread confidence. People need to be satisfied that there are cast-iron ways of identifying people and of determining their eligibility to vote, as well as providing an audit trail so that any disputes can be resolved.

Online voting might help increase participation. But it also raises some more fundamental issues. Some people are worried about the risk of trivialising what is a key element in our system of representative democracy. As it was put to me, would it really help to make people respect and value our political systems if voting was simply a matter of pressing buttons on a TV remote control during an ad break in East Enders?

I suspect attitudes and society will change, and all this may seem much more natural in a few years time. It may be that early experiments will be more informal, seeking to determine views on local issues, perhaps as a development of online consultations.

But going further and taking decisions in this way does start to raise implications for representative democracy itself. If local issues could be decided by online voting, and if people could vote online in general elections, is there a logical stopping point from all sort of national issues being decided by online referendums? We would need to think hard before we let that genie out of the bottle.

I want finally to return to the direct impact of the internet on government itself. I don’t want this evening to go into detail about our plans for e-government—much of that information is available elsewhere, for example in the e-government strategy published last month. Instead, I want to bring out one or two of the wider issues that emerge.

We are determined to provide access to all government services online by 2005. But the implications go beyond simply providing individual departmental services online. There is a real opportunity to enable citizens to deal with government in a way that suits them, rather than in a way that is determined by administrative structures and administrative convenience.

Many of the reasons that drove people to approach government—losing a job, or having a baby—mean they need access to a bundle of services from different Government departments. We want to provide structures that enable people to do that via a single entry point.

But there is no reason why it is just the government who can identify bundles of services that people want. And in many cases, what people may want is in fact a mixture of public and private sector services together.

We are planning to do that through projects to create a customised Government portal and a gateway that can be used to access services from different departments using common data formats.

Enabling that begins to raise issues about the role of departments and indeed about ministerial accountability. We have got used to each department dealing with "its" clients directly. What if the role of departments is to provide information and services which are then bundled together by others? That may require new systems of parliamentary scrutiny.

The push to provide Government services online does raise a number of immediate issues. One is of course social exclusion. It is certainly not part of the Government’s agenda to provide better services online at the expense of those unable or unwilling to access them in this way. We will continue to provide services through a range of channels, so that people who want to access services by post, over the telephone or in person can do so. We will, though, at the same time be making a big push to widen access to the internet, both in the home and through schools or learning centres. And digital television will undoubtedly play an important role: there are many who would never contemplate buying a personal computer but who will feel much more comfortable using devices connected to their television.

Another key set of issues we will face are the related ones of security, privacy and authentication. As the internet becomes more and more important as a means of doing business, so we will need to have robust systems by which people can identify themselves online, and can be confident that their transactions are secure and their privacy protected.

That will be true for both the private and the public sector. There are a number of Government services where authentication of identity is a key element – issuing passports or driving licences, for example, as well as ensuring entitlement to benefits. How will we get an acceptable system of determining identity without falling foul of concerns over identity cards?

Equally, issues of privacy are becoming increasingly important. Individual government departments hold extensive information about many people, and there are a series of statutory restrictions on sharing data or passing it on to others. We need to make sure people have confidence that their personal data will not be misused, while at the same time enabling Government to take advantage of the opportunities that the internet will bring to provide joined-up services.

Different people have different attitudes. Put in the abstract, personalisation of a government portal sounds a good idea. If you log on, it can provide information about medical facilities near you, or a host of other local information. But when you say "yes and it could remind you that you haven’t filled in your tax return" or "it’s time to make an appointment for a check-up with your dentist" some people begin to pause. The image of Big Brother suddenly starts to loom larger.

One of the people who I have made contact with through a shared interest both in music and in the development of the internet is John Perry Barlow, formerly a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now active with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. When I outlined some of these issues to him, his response was that efficient government is dangerous government—a rather different point of view!

I believe that part of the solution will be more openness about the way Government will and will not use the information it holds. Another part may be to make personalisation a service which people can adopt as they become more familiar with the benefits it can bring.

To some extent this takes us back to the lack of trust in Government that I mentioned earlier. It is a paradox that people are ready to trust private sector firms with extensive personal details about for example their purchasing habits, but are much more suspicious of the government holding information about them.

I have so far discussed the issues for governments in domestic terms only. But just as the internet transcends national boundaries in bringing individuals together, so it automatically brings with it issues that cannot be dealt with by individual Governments on their own. There are a range of issues where governments are already finding they have to work more and more closely together, ranging from tax to combating child pornography, from security on the internet to consumer protection.

It is another aspect of globalisation, and I’m sure that trend will continue.

I’m conscious that this all sounds very orderly, as if the future were well mapped out and all we need to do is to fill in some of the gaps. I don’t believe it will be like that. And I want to return to where I began, with the lessons from the way the internet developed in ways that surprised and in some cases alarmed its founders.

For another lesson is that we can easily get carried away with forecasting changes in technology and ignore the social changes that may in the end be much more significant.

In 1964 the New Scientist assembled contributions from more than a hundred distinguished people on the likely developments of the next twenty years – what the world would look like in 1984.

They correctly foresaw that the key scientific developments would be in the fields of information and communications technologies and of biology and medicine. They overestimated the pace of change in some areas—they thought videophones would be in widespread use by 1984—and underestimated it in others—one quote was "nor are computers going to get much faster."

They even foresaw networks something like the internet, used both to retrieve information and to pass messages. Though, to pick up a theme that has run through this lecture, they saw the main consequences being for academic and scientific use.

But the thing that most struck me from looking back at this study was the way they underestimated the pace of social change, or the impact on social values. They missed the shift in family structure, and many similar trends. One quote sums this up for me. One of the distinguished contributors in 1964 said:

"It is still very unusual indeed to find a working-class wife who is allowed to drive her husband’s car. By 1984 it will be more usual."

I think we need to remember that when we look ahead and speculate about the impact of the internet on the world we live in. It is relatively easy to project the technical trends, of higher bandwidth, of greater use of wireless technologies, of a world where domestic appliances and pocket devices are all connected to the internet.

It is much harder to foresee the impact on our societies, or the way that other social change may interact with new technologies.

I believe the internet can and will have a positive impact on many aspects of our democratic system, in particular through the greatly increased two-way communication it allows between government and citizens. I hope that that will help to increase interest and participation in the political process.

But I suspect the greatest impact may come through the way it interacts with wider changes in society, in ways that we may not foresee at all.

The internet has unleashed huge new opportunities for people to take more control over their lives. And I suspect that will be the biggest driver of political change. E-democracy may come about in quite unexpected ways.

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