ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

Shining Light into Policy-Making Recesses

by Tamara Fletcher

One of the more interesting prospects of ‘e-democracy’ – the use of the Internet and other new technologies to improve democracy – is its potential for opening up the governmental policy-making process.

Traditionally policy formation in the UK has been a closed and secretive affair, undertaken by advisors and ministers in the backrooms of Whitehall with input from a select group of think-tanks and lobbyists. Public consultation does sometimes occur, but it is anyone’s guess to what extent the results actually affect the decision-making process.

The Internet has been hailed for some time as a potential tool for shining some light into these recesses, to allow more people to take part in consultation and to introduce more transparency into subsequent deliberation processes by publishing more official materials online, such as the minutes of meetings.

Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, summed up this vision when he told last year’s online debate ‘Boosting the net economy 2000’: “Many key decisions are complex, and there is considerable uncertainty about the consequences of alternative measures. The policy-making bureaux in most governments are limited in size, and are typically overloaded. The new technologies hold out the promise of drawing upon far wider expertise.

“The challenge is how to do this in the most effective way. I suspect that the more structured the questions that are posed in the Internet dialogue, the more meaningful will be the responses. Participants in the dialogue could be required to provide evidence backing up their arguments. “One advantage of this approach is that it would widen the circle of expertise which the government could draw upon, which all too often is limited by circles of personal acquaintance.”

So much for the potential, but how far is it being realised? Britain’s first virtual policy think-tank was Nexus (, set up in 1996 by a small group of Oxbridge graduates at Tony Blair’s invitation and with initial funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Blair was interested to see how he could reach the academic community – already heavily wired up – to spread the New Labour word, and through Nexus initiated an open discussion between Downing Street and visitors to the site on his ‘third way’ political philosophy.

Bill Thompson, former head of the New Media Lab at the Guardian who joined the Nexus project to help with the technology, says: “Nexus did exactly what Tony Blair wanted it to do – it got academics to support New Labour and got people much warmer to the idea of online debating. It was dead easy to plug into and offered a low-tech solution. We had a high level of intelligent contributions.”

“The third way debate was the first time online debate directly influenced number 10 and public policy. It established the Internet could generate serious content, not just attracting nutters.”

Another pioneer of online democratic debate is the International Tele-democracy Centre at Napier University in Scotland, which for the past few years has been carrying out detailed research into online petitions and consultation, including live trial projects with the Scottish Parliament and Downing Street.

Ann Macintosh, director of the centre, says, “We are looking at ways to gather opinions from individuals and groups through the use of technology - voting, surveys and debates - to get more open views. We have an opportunity to gather opinions before the policy document is produced to the specified target audience.

We would like e-consultations based on issues pre-policy document but you have to be careful with the term e-consultation – just publishing a draft policy document online as a PDF and asking for comments is not e-consultation in my eyes. You need to use the technology to first find out what people want and to inform them with adequate resources so you get informed responses which encourage debate - the process needs to be open and transparent”.

The more traditional think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Social Market Foundation are looking to use the Internet as well. The IPPR has an extensive digital society programme, and although this is composed ironically largely of physical seminars and mailed-out questionnaire surveys, it is now set to include one or two online debates as well.

Some 15 think-tanks have joined to create the ‘Policybrief’ initiative, an online portal to policy information ( And the IPPR and the SMF, along with the Industrial Society and Headstar, the publisher of E-Government Bulletin, were among supporters of the recent Voxpolitics project ( which looked at the use of the Internet in political campaigning.

Writing for VoxPolitics, Ian Kearns and Nick Hardy of the IPPR said: “The net, by its very nature, is inclusive. It reduces the barriers to human interaction. That said, for the Internet to . . . transform and not to perpetuate our political circumstances, three further conditions must be met. The first, most obviously, is universal Internet access. The second is a citizen body . . . which is willing and able to use the net to become connected and re-engaged. And the third, perhaps most importantly, is a formal political class with some predisposition to take Internet politics seriously.

“Of these, there is evidence to suggest that the big problem lies with the formal political class. Levels of Internet access in the UK, after all, are increasing, and there have been many cases of citizen use of the net to organise protest and agitation for political ends. What though, do we find when we examine our formal politics? Are our political representatives and masters embracing the new opportunities to engage with the rest of us?”

Not according to Thompson, who says that while in 1996 in the early days of net hype it was possible to influence Labour’s thinking, people are much more cynical now.

“Those who were active in net policymaking at the beginning have gone back to traditional forms as they feel it won’t have impact as the government have already formed their policies.” So the problem of online policy-making has nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with the processes it feeds into, and how receptive the government is to wider input.

“If we don’t understand [how people make decisions and formulate policy] then we may be wasting time with the technology”, says Frank Bannister, a senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and e-democracy expert.

“Each new generation of nerds thinks it has the answer, only to run into the same brick wall of human behaviour. We must understand people and organisations before we can determine how to meld them with technology.”

This article first appeared in E-Government Bulletin, a free monthly newsletter. To subscribe, send a blank email to

Please contact:
Tamara Fletcher, E-Government Bulletin,
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 1273 267 173