Will Nick Clegg’s government “suggestion box” work?

July 1, 2010

-Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of several books, including ‘Who Moved my Job?’ and ‘Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field’.The opinions expressed are his own.-

If Thomas Paine were around today he would be a blogger, writing virtual pamphlets that shake a fist at the machinery of government.

Fortunately I am a blogger, but as I sat in a library in Whitechapel this morning listening to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launching his ‘Your Freedom’ initiative, I couldn’t help recalling a few lines from Paine’s ‘Common Sense’:

“Some convenient tree will afford them a State House, under the branches of which the whole Colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man by natural right will have a seat.”

Paine was describing how a new society, without historical baggage, would setup and structure a system of parliament. There would be regular meetings under a tree for all locals, until the meetings got too large and unruly or we found it more convenient to outsource the attendance at the tree to a representative… something we now call parliamentary democracy.

But what happens if the parliamentary representatives get too detached from the people they represent? Regular elections are meant to provide an opportunity for the public to have a voice, but in a globally connected and constantly changing era, perhaps we need a better way of helping the public to find a voice.

Enter ‘Your Freedom’. The Cabinet Office has realised that ‘crowdsourcing’ works well in other areas (think of movie trailers on YouTube for example) and allows the public to nominate ideas, and then vote on what’s hot and what’s not.

Ideally this should be an exercise in allowing the public to influence policy-making as well as suggesting which archaic legislation should be scrapped. Clegg reminded us that there is still a law on the statute book that requires British citizens to report sightings of grey squirrels.

In short, this is a government suggestion box, but with the sophistication of a modern social network, allowing people to vote on ideas so the more popular ones gain increased visibility.

But what if it doesn’t work? Every student of political science has heard of Alexis de Tocqueville and his ‘tyranny of the majority’ – that the public usually needs to be lead in the right direction because the majority view is often just plain wrong.

Not that the majority of people are stupid, but single-issue campaigners with strong opinions can often fail to consider the consequence of their actions.

There are many examples in modern society; the role of British troops in Afghanistan, free labour movement within the European Union, the social use of banned drugs, the abolition of the death penalty, the ban on smoking in public places.

All policies that might be decided in an entirely different way if an open public vote took place, rather than a vote by whipped members of Parliament.

So the government may find that they don’t like many of the ideas being discussed on the Your Freedom website; police, drugs, cannabis, tax, and motoring are already popular discussions on the first day the site is open for use.

But to be fair to the Deputy Prime Minister, he acknowledged that even if the government does not like the most popular discussions, they can’t ignore them – these are transparent debates open for anyone to read or to contribute further.

But there is no mandate to adopt any of the discussions as government policy, no matter how popular, so only time will tell if this virtual speaker’s corner becomes a thriving hub for democratic debate or a ghost-town for the disenfranchised.

Picture Credit: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg delivers a speech setting out the government’s plans for political reform at the City and Islington College in London May 19, 2010. REUTERS/Oli Scarff/POOL

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