Government and the internet: the new conversation

In 1999 the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto reminded those caught up in the madness of the dotcom boom that 'markets are conversations'

In 1999 the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto reminded those caught up in the madness of the dotcom boom that 'markets are conversations' and offered a way for businesses to engage with their customers based on mutual respect rather than exploitative profit seeking.

In the midst of the collapse in confidence in our MPs after revelations about the attitude of many of them to their allowances, it is perhaps worth reminding those who hold power that government is a conversation too, a conversation that is changing as a result of the internet.

I have had direct experience of the new possibilities for genuine discussion between the policy-making apparatus at the centre of government and ordinary citizens recently, thanks to an off-the-cuff remark I made on Twitter during a recent high-profile conference about 'Digital Britain'

Towards the end of a dull day, which consisted mostly of senior politicians and executives mouthing self-serving platitudes, I tweeted: "@billt: We should have got our act together and organised a #digitalbritain unconference for today, with tea & biscuits. And talked sense."

This triggered a storm of activity from a number of committed individuals, most notably Kathryn Corrick and Tom de Grunwald, who decided to produce a representative "grassroots response" to the policies for promoting broadband access and integrating the network into daily life outlined in the DCMS/BERR Digital Britain interim report. Twelve events around Britain were organised and held within a few weeks, thanks to digital communications tools. and a 60-page report submitted to the Digital Britain team.

Citizen action of this type is not unusual, but usually anything produced goes into the black hole of the consultative process. Once it has passed beyond the event horizon of Whitehall it is never heard of again.

In our case it was different. Knowing that the formal consultative period was over, we contacted the Digital Britain team to ask if they would be willing to read what we produced. From there we entered a dialogue with them that encouraged our work and also allowed us to tailor what we did to fit their needs.

We provided a brief description of the process for inclusion in the final report, and can have some confidence that what we say it is at least being considered, even if there can be no guarantee that its recommendations will be accepted.

Until recently the possibilities for genuine conversation between the state and the people were limited. Most of us had to be satisfied with an occasional election and a consultative process that excludes most people from meaningful engagement.

The experience with the "unconferences", and the willingness of the policy team members to talk to us about what they needed, how they were working and how our work would fit into their process, was a remarkable change from previous practice.

It is to be hoped that the model will be applied elsewhere now that it has been shown to work. Our interest in Digital Britain meant that we were all online and eager to participate electronically. But there is no reason why this mode of direct civil engagement with the policy making process should not be just as effective on issues like pension provision, airport expansion or the European constitution.

Bill Thompson is a technology journalist and a regular contributor to the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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