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Digital Government – for the many or the few?

10 June 2013

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On 6 June, the Centre for Science and Policy welcomed Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Cabinet Office Minster, to deliver its second distinguished lecture this year. Chaired by Dr David Cleevely (CSaP's Founding Director) Chi gave a fascinating insight into the issues surrounding digital democracy and an invitation to make use of the technologies available to engage with our MPs as often as possible.

Digital Government, or ‘digital democracy’ as Chi also referred to it, is an important and timely subject. She described how she understood digital democracy and set about addressing the problem of how to make it for the many and not just for the few.

Chi talked about her background in engineering and the reasons she switched careers at a time when the reputation of politicians was at an all time low, but when the status of engineers, due to the financial crisis, was soaring. She described how, for her, engineering and politics are the two principal engines of progress: “both are about building something better than we have now”. During her time as Head of Telecoms Technology at Ofcom, she saw that it was only through politics and government that she could empower people with the skills and the disposable income to truly benefit from broadband and the internet – “the great platform of connectivity”.

Chi went on to talk about the way in which technology has been a great source for democratisation and political advance. She described how Industrialisation had brought people together and accelerated political exchange and debate, and how technological advances had led to some of the most profound political changes more recently – the Arab Spring being hailed as the first internet Revolution.

In discussing how technology has affected her role as an MP, she described the relationship between MP and constituent as “much flatter now” than ever before. She pointed out how it was impossible to meet all of her 100,000 constituents, but explained that they do email her – and often! She illustrated how the subjects about which constituents email her differ significantly from those raised in surgery or on the street, “so if I was to go just by my email inbox I would think that the badger cull had impacted more people in Newcastle than the changes to welfare benefits, which I know is not the case”. The point illustrated how policies might be skewed if it was assumed that digital democracy was a reality today.

Having discussed the historically positive relationship between technology and democracy and the positive potential that many of us see, she asked why it is that so many of the proposals by the UK government to use technology for better government are seen as attacks on civil rights. Giving the examples of the Identity Card, the proposed Communications Data Bill and the opening up of NHS data to the private sector, she described how governments of all colours, Labour and Coalition, have tripped up over technology. She talked about her belief that we have a particularly cynical view of both technology and government in the UK that prevents us from realising the full potential of digital democracy; whilst other countries seem to celebrate technology, we seem to fear it.

She commented that technology is so often seen as the problem and not the solution to society’s difficulties, highlighting the examples of the debate over the Communications Data Bill and the ‘Snooper’s Charter’. She described how she feels strongly about the need for police powers to keep up with changing technology, and that it should be technically possible to obtain the relevant data given the right authority. “But that doesn’t mean it should be easy for everyone in government or in other government agencies to keep tabs on the rest of us, Hell no!”

Despite some of the figures (5 million households with no access to the internet; 16 million people in the UK lack basic online skills; 11 million do not use the internet, almost half of which are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country; 1 in 4 adults have never used the internet; 40% of the people in the UK without access to the internet are over 65, 50% are in the lower social and economic groups and 70% live in social housing; a third of those with disabilities are not online; and 40% of the people who are not online are also unemployed) she positively summed up her thoughts about digital democracy by describing data as “the new locomotive”. She went on to say, “just as with the steam engine, it can collapse our world but it can also open up new horizons and can fundamentally change society. But this time we need to make sure the benefits are shared”.

She finished her talk by describing her basic principles for the relationship between the people, data and the government:

1- Governments have a duty to equip the public to operate safely and securely in cyber society

2- Individuals should have access to their own data across the public and private sectors

3- Governments should use data transparently and securely for the public good

4- Individuals should have a stake in their own data even when they are no longer associated with it

There was a lively Q&A session at the end of the talk in which the speed of technological change was discussed and questions asked around how government will keep up. Important issues were raised about the barriers to the 25% of people who do not currently have access to, or use the internet. There were animated discussions about whether politicians are influenced at all by social media and about Athenian democracy.

Dr David Cleevely

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Chi Onwurah MP

Office of Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister