Governments haven’t been the quickest to embrace the internet as a means to expand and facilitate public consultation, beyond the ubiquitous “Contact Us” forms on websites, and the ability to submit briefs by email. Even something as simple as a petition, at least here in Canada, still has to be submitted the old-fashioned way: on paper, with real signatures.
I am certain every government, both in Canada and elsewhere, has its own reasons for not venturing into the digital world more enthusiastically. However, a couple of recent, but very different, exercises in e-democracy from two different sources might provide some insight into why e-democracy initiatives haven’t moved to the forefront: it’s too difficult to control.
1. From the UK: Spending Challenge and Your Freedom
The Coalition government has launched two online consultations. The first was the Your Freedom site, launched on 1 July 2010, which simply asked people to tell the government which laws and regulations it should get rid of. The other, launched on 13 July 2010, was from the Treasury Department, Spending Challenge, and sought to engage the public in findings ways the Government could save money and deliver programs and services for less.
Both proved rather popular, the Your Freedom site perhaps more so, with 2,205 ideas, 7,419 comments and 18,000 votes made within the first 24 hours, causing the site to crash repeatedly. I don’t think the traffic was that heavy over at Spending Challenge, but I’ve not found any specific data on that.
However, both sites revealed the same things. Firstly, the comments and suggestions put forward fell into three categories: serious ones, colourful but still serious ones, and those that were, to be British about it, taking the piss.
Both sites were also plagued by another problem, one common to anyone who’s ever participated in an online forum, or maintained a blog: trolls. In both cases, the government has been forced to suspend, at least temporarily, some of the interactive features of each site. The following status update appeared on the Your Freedom site, on the weekend (but has now been removed):
Status update – Sunday 18 July 2010, 11pm
Users are currently unable to log in to this website due to a few users posting offensive content.
We are working to stop this happening so you can continue to be involved in Your Freedom.
Things were worse over at Spending Challenge. The site was forced to turn off its interactive features just days after launch. Blogger Clifford Singer clearly outlines what the main problems were in this post.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to moderate a discussion forum knows it can be a full-time job, especially if the forum deals with anything remotely controversial. The busier the forum, the more open it is to trolls, and the moderation requirements increase substantially. Perhaps the government simply underestimated how popular the sites would be. Perhaps, because governments are rather new at this sort of thing, they didn’t understand that the internet is home to an awful lot of people who use any venue they can to spout some really awful things. On the Your Freedom site, for example, on the Moderation Policy page, we learn that the site administrators “aim to review and take action on any flagged material within two working days”. Two working days online is an eternity and simply not a quick enough response time when dealing with abusive commentors. In the end, the issue is one of control: the government simply had not put in place sufficient means to ensure that either site was properly moderated, and they quickly lost control of the situation.
2. From Canada: Digital Economy Consultation
On May 10, 2010, the Government of Canada launched an online public consultation aimed at creating a digital economy strategy for Canada. The public consultation period ended on July 13, at which time this website was closed to additional comments and submissions.
However, just days before the end of the public consultation period, a debate on the census had become the second most popular topic. This was, of course, a reaction to the Government’s decision to end the long form census, a decision that has been roundly criticized by an ever-growing number of sources. The debate on the census had become so popular on the Digital Economy site that it was featured on the home page as one of the “top three ideas”. Then, as the Globe and Mail’s Jennifer Ditchburn reports, the discussion disappeared. It was still on the site, but all links to it had been removed. The only way to find the discussion was if you had the exact URL bookmarked.
The government claims the discussion was moved to an “off topic” section because it was not deemed relevant, and perhaps that is a legitimate reason. Blogger David Eaves disagrees, pointing out that “since the digital economy is part of the information economy (information – like that created by the census), (…) part of the digital economy strategy should to reinstate the long form census”. It is a bit perplexing that the census discussion was allowed to stand – until opposition to the government’s move to abolish the long form became more widespread. If the topic was simply irrelevant to the main discussion, wouldn’t that have been noted when the thread first appeared?
For governments seeking public input online, they have to be aware that open forums attract two things: abuse and views that will run contrary, sometimes very contrary, to government policy. The first is perhaps the most difficult to deal with effectively. If the disruptive or offensive content isn’t dealt with quickly, the overall tone of the site quickly deteriorates, making constructive contributions more difficult. However, if moderation is excessive, with moderators selectively removing problematic postings, you run the risk of appearing to be deleting content based on ideological grounds. As well, excessive moderation can run counter to the aim of the site: letting people have their say.
As for the problem of receiving comments and suggestions that simply run counter to official government policy, that one is easier to deal with. If a government isn’t really interested in considering ideas other than those the party believes in, maybe it shouldn’t go through the charade of soliciting public input in the first place.