Change the world with little effort

Naturally, I felt a little nervous the first time. I didn’t know these people. They might think me peculiar.

But I breathed deeply, typed fast and sent messages that were variously enthusiastic, earnest and enraged to my local councillors, London Assembly members, MPs and MEPs. I asked them about recycling, about whether they’d signed certain Early Day Motions, and what Europe intended to do about this and that.

I never got round to asking about road pricing, but this week I was saved the effort by nearly 1.5m others doing something like that – putting transport policy and “e-democracy” right at the top of the political agenda, with a petition on the Downing Street website.

Within days of writing those first messages, I heard back from every one of my elected representatives. And so began my compulsion to correspond with people in power. Looking into my inbox, a couple of years later, I find that I have heard back from them no fewer (and possibly more) than 140 times.

It’s unlikely that this would have happened if didn’t make it so easy.

The site was set up by Tom Steinberg, whose organisation MySociety builds websites to empower people in the civic and community aspects of their lives.

Another MySociety site, allows registered users to request notification by email whenever a particular term (such as “road pricing”) is used in parliament. I’ve had 39 such alerts, and followed them up to leave comments all over the website.

Yet another,, pressures MPs to tell constituents who sign up what they are doing. I’ve signed up to hear from mine, as have 109 other people in my area. Rudi Vis MP has replied to several of my emails and letters, but he’s yet to post messages to HearFromYourMP.

A few months ago, researching a magazine story about political engagement, I asked MySociety’s founder Tom Steinberg whether it was his intention to get more people to polling stations on election day. Absolutely not, he said. “In between elections there are more than a thousand days, and any number of decisions are taken every day. We have tools to help you influence those decisions.”

Politicians profess to welcome that. Only a week ago, the Cabinet Office minister Hilary Armstrong emphasised the potential of independent web forums in supporting public services. “These new ways of sharing information are the 21st century version of the self-help and cooperative movements that produced lasting social progress a century ago.

“We want people to be armed with the information that allows them to be independent and in control of their lives – driving up public service standards through their suggestions and scrutiny.”

So it was no surprise to me to learn, last year, that Downing Street had asked Steinberg to make its e-democracy dream a reality by setting up a site for petitions to Downing Street.

Launched in November, the exercise was swiftly embraced by the public. Some 2,860 petitions are currently active – and the one about road-pricing has attracted a massive 1,274,362 “signatures” (and still counting).

The very success of the scheme appears to have put the government off. With so many people registering disapproval, the government must either change its policies or look as if it doesn’t care about people’s views after all.

An unnamed minister reportedly said the petitions website was dreamt up by a “prat” and was proving a public relations disaster.

Not for nothing did Bertolt Brecht memorably say that when government doesn’t agree with the people, it’s time to change the people.

But is the petition really such a disaster? One thing it has done is demonstrate that a supposedly “disaffected” population is eager to participate in politics more than by voting every five years.

Joe Twyman, of the internet research firm YouGov, says the hoopla over the petition has advanced the cause of technological innovation and direct democracy but at the same time set it back. “It shows that it’s possible to force yourself and your views onto the national agenda,” he says. But it also demonstrates the potential for people to participate in direct democracy with unrealistic expectations – and to feel let down afterwards, and even more alienated from politics.

Some commentators have argued that the road-pricing fiasco shows up an inherent contradition between direct democracy and representative democracy, in which we elect representatives to take decisions for us. But that’s nonsense. “Rather than being put off from this experience, the government should embrace the hunger for more direct democracy and introduce a system of citizen-led initiatives and referendums,” says Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy. In Switzerland, 24 American states, and at the local level in Germany, these kinds of initiative can lead directly to changes in the law.

Despite paying lip-service to consultation, this government doesn’t really welcome it – as was demonstrated this week when plans to build new nuclear power plants were thrown out by the courts. Mr Justice Sullivan said “something has gone clearly and radically wrong” with the consultation exercise. The consultation document contained no actual proposals and, even if it had, the information given to consultees was “wholly insufficient for them to make an intelligent response”.

Just as worrying as the government’s attitude, some say, is the change in citizens’ behaviour. People seem to be giving up on robust, time-consuming efforts to “manage” politicians in favour of the easier online alternative – known as “slacktivism”.

In a world beset by complex problems, e-petitions provide the illusion that you can solve everything at the click of a mouse. But many NGOs shun online petitions precisely because there are few examples of petitions achieving their objectives.

The American academic Gene Sharp, of the Albert Einstein Foundation, has spent a lifetime investigating non-violent protest. During the Cold War, he drew up what has become a classic taxonomy of precisely 198 methods available to activists.

Sharp’s work suggests that people who oppose road-pricing will have to do more than petition Downing Street. Additional steps might include picketing, holding mock funerals, disrobing, “haunting” officials, singing, marching, turning their backs, boycotting, undertaking a go-slow, taking sanctuary, exposing themselves to the elements, foregoing food for days on end, and refusing to engage in sexual relations with individuals who approve of road-pricing.

Alternatively, they might look at the example of the few hauliers who briefly blockaded fuel depots in 2000 and in doing so managed to reverse government policy.

Which is not to say that technology can’t transform democracy. On the contrary, that’s already happening.

Peter Emerson, of the De Borda Institute, has spent a many years trying to interest politicians, the media and the general public in a sensational voting process developed in revolutionary France. The de Borda system involves complex mathematics, which made it impractical until the advent of computers, but it will be familiar to anybody who ever watched the Eurovision song contest: voters express their preference from a range of options, ranking them from highest to lowest. The eventual winner may not have been anybody’s first choice, but won higher approval from everybody than any other contestant in the so-called “preferendum”.

Virtually unnoticed by the wider world, the preferendum has been used with success in places as deeply divided as Bosnia and Northern Ireland. As long ago as 1986, Emerson used it to achieve consensus between Unionists and Sinn Fein.

Emerson talks with impressive enthusiasm about moving into a new era, beyond the tyranny of the majority. “Democracy is for everybody,” he says, “not just fifty per cent – or less in the first-past-the-post system. Every government should represent the entire parliament, not just the bigger ‘half’.

Too often, he says, our current political model involves submitting a simple question to an equally unsubtle for-or-against vote. “This identifies, not the will of those voting but only the will of the author of the proposal. In other words, as often as not, the answer is the question. He who writes the proposal dominates the agenda. No wonder majority voting has been the chosen methodology of the likes of Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Duvalier, Pinochet, Khomeini, Mugabe and Saddam Hussein.”

An academic at Queen’s University Belfast, Dr David Newton, has worked with Emerson and thoroughly investigated the convergence of democracy and technology. Newton likewise emphasises that the tyranny of the majority can itself undermine democracy and destabilise society. “Some voting systems lead logically to what happened in Rwanda: the minority doesn’t matter, or it’s seen as a threat, so you might as well kill them.”

“We have had to use this voting system in Northern Ireland because we know already what people’s first choices are going to be. But if everybody puts one of the other options second or third that may turn out to have 75 per cent support. Often you find that people have basically the same interests but in a different order of priority. So it is possible to meet in the middle.”

The really hard work, Newton stresses, lies not in the vote but in identifying the range of options on which people should express a preference. “Creativity and innovation can be rare in politics, whereas letting everybody come up with their own options is a standard business brainstorming practice.

“It’s really worth delaying any discussion of individual options until every option has been listed.”

Again, technology can help to provide solutions. In particular, Newton extols online chat, online surveys, discussion forums, email lists and wiki sites that enable people to work together on written ideas.

Under this model, if the people who signed the petition against road-pricing engaged in further debate – Tony Blair has promised to reply to individual signatories by email – they might find they break down into (at least) two slightly different interest groups: those who oppose any hike in the cost of driving, and others who oppose the introduction of yet more state surveillance. Among the second group especially, many individuals might find themselves sharing common ground with the environmentalists who set up own, less successful Downing Street petition in favour of road pricing.

As Sian Berry, co-speaker of the Green party and founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s puts it: “We’ve got to stop thinking of ‘motorists’ and start thinking about people who a need to travel to work every day in the most efficient and pleasant way possible. I don’t think many motorist groups would argue that a stressful, wasteful gridlock every morning is the way forward.”

But can Emerson’s system work with the really intractable problems? Whether or not to renew Trident? Or the issue tearing the Anglican church in two – gay bishops?

“Yes, it definitely works,” says Emerson. “People have got themselves into a fix of thinking that these issues are either/or. The least we can do is to look for alternatives, and find common ground. With Trident, what people really want is national security, and there may be other ways to get that.”

He may be on to something. I shall write to my MP at once.