Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 253 - 259)




  253. Can I welcome everyone here this afternoon, particularly our witnesses. It is very good to have you along to help us with our inquiry. We had some very interesting evidence this morning from the Hansard Society who had done an electronic exercise for us supporting the inquiry that we are doing which produced an interesting discussion. We look forward to hearing Helen Margetts and Christine Bellamy who are going to tell us more about these wondrous things, then we shall have a little discussion. It is good to have Stephen Coleman back who we saw this morning and who we shall talk more to no doubt this afternoon. Thank you for the papers from Helen and Christine. Would you like to say a few words to start with?

  (Dr Margetts) All I really wanted to do with this short note was to stress the potential that is here from one particular technological development, and that is the Internet, and one particular area of Government, which is Government administration. There is absolutely no doubt that citizens are using the Internet as a forum to interact with all kinds of organisations, with private sector organisations, with political parties, with pressure groups, with each other. They cannot interact with Government organisations unless Government organisations are also there developing a web presence. Government organisations are doing that and the Prime Minister has pledged that by 2008 100 per cent of citizens' transactions with Government will be capable of taking place electronically. There is nothing inevitable about the implications of that for participation. There are various ways, I would argue, to have a digital state where all Government processes are digitalized. There are various outcomes for citizen participation that could derive from that. I make two suggestions here of what the digital state might look like and what the implications for participation would be. One is a much more open state where the use of the internet and the worldwide web allows citizens to have much more fruitful and perhaps even more democratic interactions with Government organisations. That is one where Government organisations actually become their web sites—that is actually a quotation from an official in the Australian public service about his organisation—where citizens can communicate with Government any time of the day or night. That does not have to mean that they never see a person and that they never really interact with Government organisations because a lot of evidence from the private sector suggests that if very simple, routine, boring transactions can be carried out in a zero touch way where officials do not have to spend any time on them, the simple conveying of information, for example, or the paying of money, then that leaves time for more sophisticated transactions to take place between citizens and Government and it allows for more responsive policy making. If citizens interact with Government electronically that automatically generates information about citizens' behaviour that we do not normally have, we do not have in traditional types of administration. It presents Government to the world as a much less confusing, much less fragmented entity. It is possible for Government to be presented in that kind of holistic, joined-up way which makes it easier to deal with, easier to find your way around. It can make Government much more transparent and it is possible for Government to be more open. You can use a combination of external web sites and internal intranet web based networks in order to give citizens a view of what is going on inside Government. An example of that is the organisation DHL. If you send a parcel with DHL then you can go on to the Internet and track your parcel wherever it is in the world. It would be nice perhaps to be able to track your transactions with Government in that way, to have that same view of what is going on inside Government. That is one scenario. I think you can see signs of that happening in many organisations and in some governments in some countries. There are some examples there from the Australian Government. On the other side there is a much more pessimistic scenario where citizen participation is decreased rather than increased. It is possible for Government organisations, for example, to proliferate the number of web sites that they try to maintain making them less open to citizens and more confusing to find their way around. The US Department of Defence, for example, has around 3,000 web sites. That does not make the Department of Defence more open to any sort of citizen participation. The US Federal Government are actually in the process of commissioning an organisation to provide them with a map of Federal Government web sites because the situation has now become too confusing for them to be able to do it. There is the possibility that Government has a lower presence on the internet than other organisations and I think we can see that danger already. Private sector organisations have very strong motivations to innovate in this area, Government has less so. Government may find itself less central instead of more central as other organisations more and more turn to the web to communicate with citizens and Government may find itself at a disadvantage rather than at an advantage. Equally, just as external electronic communications can become confusing, so can internal web based networks and the inside of Government could become more closed and more secret than it has been in the past because of the spiralling complexity of intranets inside Government. Both of those ideal types, they are scenarios that I am not suggesting have happened, I am just presenting them as two possibilities of what can happen with the digitalization of Government processes. I think it is a very important thing for the Public Administration Committee to consider how this digital state will turn out so that the possibilities there for increasing citizen participation, innovating in participation, can be maximised.

  254. Thank you very much indeed for that. I was interested to hear about your parcel tracking. I wonder if people can track their vote in a similar way and see what happens to it over a five year— Sorry, I am just rambling really.
  (Dr Margetts) Anything is possible.

  255. Before we have a discussion I think perhaps Christine Bellamy could say something to us.
  (Professor Bellamy) I do not think I need say anything more about the potential for ICTs in relation to democracy because I think what Stephen Coleman was saying this morning and what Helen has just said really covers the field there. I set out at the back of my memorandum as systematic a list as I could of the kinds of applications that there might be, ranging from putting up existing information leaflets on the web to online discussion that Stephen was talking about. My view is that the real contribution that the web could make is to stimulate the kind of lightly mediated discussion that enables people to opt in because they choose to opt in, because they feel they have something useful to contribute. It seems to me that it would be a big mistake to think of democracy as simply a kind of giant market research exercise where the main purpose is to get as representative a set of views as you possibly can. It is clearly valuable, but I think the real contribution of any technology that makes it easier for people to join in is that it may cause them to exercise two rights that have been fundamental to democracy since people started using the word. One is freedom of expression and the other one is freedom of association and how to join with other people to lobby into the political process. That is really all I have got to say about the potential use of ICTs. There are, however, three issues that I think you need to think about quite carefully. They are in my paper but I have reformulated them a little bit in the light of the discussion this morning. The first is one of the things that is often said about ICT is that it reduces the cost to the public of joining in. It may do that, but what I think is more certain is that it increases the costs of those who have to listen to them. I think that became quite clear this morning; that it is not a costless exercise to parliamentarians and people in Government if people are joining in more on the web. That is one way of saying if parliaments and governments do encourage people to use internet technology then they have to think quite carefully about their own internal processes. The word I am trying not to use here is re-engineering internal processes, which is the way this is often expressed. It is not a question of simply bolting looking at e-mail on to all of the other things that MPs, for example, have to do. I think sooner rather than later parliaments, governments, MPs themselves, have to sit down and think about two things. One is "how do I reorganise myself so that this has the degree of priority that I think it ought to have in relation to the other things that I am doing to listen to people?" The other thing is "what is all this going to cost?" It may be that it has to be resourced in more fundamental ways than simply providing MPs with a computer and access to the appropriate telecommunications. It is about the appropriate research assistance. It is about the ways in which you can digest what is happening. It is about making time and room to respond to people in the kind of timescale that they expect to be responded to on the web. That is quite a major exercise for people thinking about how parliaments ought to work. That leads me on to the second point that I want to make, which I think does come quite directly out of what was being said this morning. If you do not think very carefully about how to make that space then the danger is that you get very hung up on how you control the way in which people exercise their right of saying things to you, because you suffer from an information overload. As an academic I suffer from information overload. You can send a research assistant off to a library and they take a week to get something that they could download off the internet by lunchtime and they want you to have looked at it by teatime. Everything is quickening up as a result of this. We all have to adjust our working processes. If we do not adjust our working processes then we get very hung up on the kind of discussion that was emerging this morning which is "what technologies are available to sort email out, and who is going to summarise all this for me?" and so on. That seems to me to have some dangers, although it is necessary up to a point. One of the things that is clearly turning people off mainstream politics is the feeling that it is ever so highly managed by spin doctors and so on and the only messages that are going to get through are the ones that people want to hear. If you exercise the kind of control technologies which do come with internet, and are quite freely available and are getting more efficient all the time, then the danger is that you simply reinvent those problems and displace them on to new technology rather than solving the problem that they express. The danger is that it will filter out the kinds of views that you do not really want to hear and compound the problems of political and social exclusion. The third point I want to make is that one effect of technology in relation to all kinds of processes is that when you start using it, it does make people think much more carefully about the rules that they are working on, because computers are rather formal technology and the way you join in is a fairly formal process. One effect of e-democracy is that it makes people think rather more carefully about the rules of public participation and I suspect there are things we ought to think about anyway in public participation but do not quite often, which is who can join in and who says whether they can join in. The internet knows no boundaries so clearly you have to exercise some control, or do you? Do you allow anybody perhaps who is surfing on the web to join in any discussion group and, if not, who determines that and on what basis, what criteria do they use? Then there is the question about are there some kinds of political participation where it would actually be right to guarantee a degree of anonymity or not and how do you organise that? What happens to the information that people put on the web simply by joining in? If you join in an e-discussion are you then opening yourself up to junk mail that anybody wants to send you on that topic? What are the proper limits to the kind of surveillance that you might be opening yourself up to? None of these problems are insuperable from a technological point of view. This is where the whole business of e-democracy is going to ride the back of e-commerce because e-commerce is having to solve these problems anyway, like allowing you to join in on the basis that you can authenticate who you are but at the same time protecting your anonymity from the people you do not want to have your data. These things can be sorted out technically. They do suppose that there is actually a prior discussion, which is the criteria that you want to employ in order to then employ the technology. These are the sorts of things you have to think about quite carefully and it comes back to building up the trust that Stephen was talking about this morning, which is the kind of infrastructure of confidence that people need to have on both sides, not just people being confident that they go on the web and that they will be listened to and respected and that their data and information they put out will be respected, but also the confidence of people like you who have to listen to them. They need to know they are listened to and may know something about the rules of the game and can approve the rules of the game that people are joining in. That is all I want to say.

  256. Thank you very much indeed for that. On the last point you made, how do we know that? I think you said that people can be trusted and that the information they put out can be relied upon but surely the point is that is not the case, you do not know whether these people are to be trusted and you do not know whether the information is to be relied upon?

  (Professor Bellamy) You do not know whether the information can be relied upon, that is true. What you can do, if you choose to use certain technology, is to know at least that you are talking to somebody who is who they say they are and that is an important way of knowing whether or not you want to give some credence to what they are saying.

  257. Can I get a sense from you all about just how important all of this is before we probe some aspects of it in terms of how the political process and how the administrative process works. I am trying to think of what we might compare it with. Do we compare it with when people could first see politicians on television?
  (Dr Coleman) I am the designated optimist. I would compare it with print. I think this is probably the most significant effect of electricity upon communication that we have seen. Radio and television have been part of that process, but they have enabled one-way communication. The telephone has been extremely important but it seems to me that what we are seeing now is convergence between these things: text, sound and the ability to see other people across great distances and even in different time zones, to store up and retrieve information, to digitize the record and look at it when you want to look at it. All of that is such a change in the way that we shape and fashion our lives that I suspect it is very difficult in the year 2000 to try to evaluate this in broad historical terms. If I were comparing it I would not compare it, for example, with the Kennedy-Nixon TV debate, I would compare it much more with Luther nailing his theses to the church door.

  258. Never knowingly undersold. I will tell you the problem I have with it as you describe it in that way and it is the problem we have had with the inquiry as we have gone along. We get the gee whizz factor, and that is not to devalue it in any way at all, I mean the excitement, but what we have found very hard to get is the more concrete illustrations of what it actually has meant in terms of the decision making process. It is possible to point to lots of process going on but what is very hard to find out is the connection between that process and the product.
  (Dr Coleman) Can I make one observation. I think you are right, the difficulty about this is that at the time of the rise of print there were very few people who were able to speak about the broad consequences of print and at the time of television and radio coming about that did not happen either. There is something strange happening at the moment which is that there is a large group not only of academics and scholars but people in industry, people in the press, television and radio, who are spending an enormous amount of time straining their imaginations and trying to think critically about what all this means. The discussion about the meaning is itself much bigger than anything that is really happening at the moment. We all know that things are about to happen. The one thing that most of the internet scholars have got right so far is that they predicted year by year, almost month by month, how the thing would grow. What they have not been able to do is to discover exactly how it will be shaped. I think that one of the reasons why this is an important inquiry and an important discussion now is, as Christine Bellamy and Helen Margetts were saying, there is political choice about how this develops. It could be a process of even more cloying surveillance and it could be a process of opening things up. In a sense it is not just a question of what the consequences are going to be for democracy, it is also a question of how democracy handles determining the consequences.
  (Professor Bellamy) It is much easier at the moment to find examples of political mobilisation, or political subversion almost, on the web. For example, we have some information on what might be going on in China or Kosovo or whatever which we would not have if somebody was not putting it up on the web. And then there is the judgment that you were referring to about what credence to give it. But nevertheless there is this possibility of subverting the normal controls that governments put upon the distribution of information. There are the cases of pressure groups organising almost an instantaneous lobby because they have managed to mobilise people on the web. The question is whether governments and parliaments are going to be content over the next few years to let all of that go around them, which is leading certainly some people to say that politics is being de-centred, that activity through the normal channels of parliamentary democracy has already in many people's perceptions become de-centred, or whether or not governments and parliaments will choose to react in a way that inserts their institutions into all of this. I think that is just a straight political choice. You can hope that it will go away and let people do whatever they want to do, which will give them some means of expressing certain kinds of political opinions in certain kinds of ways, but then the question is how that is going to map on, whether it is ever going to map on, to the kind of process that I think you are more interested in.

  259. We all want to come in on this but can I just ask one more question on what you said there. You did not say "hollowing out" but it was that kind of process that you were describing. Surely that is to misunderstand some essential ingredients of what the political process is all about. At some point someone has to evaluate this mass, this chaos, that is floating around. To evaluate and to make judgments on the basis of it. That can never be done by the process itself, can it? At some point there has to be the insertion of the evaluators and the judgment takers.
  (Professor Bellamy) I do not think that Parliament going on the web in a more active and interactive kind of way is going to substantially change the fact that we are already seeing more fragmented and diffuse political processes. That seems to me not to say that Parliament and Government should not join in.

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