New Media Awards - How to freshen up democracy

Imagine tracking your tax form, following a planning inquiry or lobbying your MP, all from home. Pat

Jack Straw's secret is now thrillingly out in the open. Against all expectations, the new draft freedom of information bill is the most radical departure this government has yet undertaken. Straw and his advisers have rejected the old and apparently bold white paper he took over from David Clark as being too 20th century for the 21st century we are about to enter.

Straw's bill, introducing what the Home Secretary calls "open-book government", will give everyone in reach of a PC, a digital TV or a telephone direct interactive access to policy information and their own personal files. Central government, local authorities, all public bodies and other significant institutions in modern Britain will have to adopt the Home Secretary's vision.

So anyone trying to piece together official policies and data will be able to do it for themselves, without relying on official gatekeepers in government or media interpretations of the news. Everyone dealing with a government department, local council or other public authority - over, say, their income tax, an immigration decision, a pension or welfare benefit - will be able to discover how their own case is being handled. Using a personal identification number, they will be able to find what stage their application has reached and who is handling it, without having to phone officials or visit government offices to find out what is happening.

Straw's bill includes funding to provide PC access points in all major public libraries, town halls and neighbourhood offices, social security offices, citizen's advice bureaux and other advice agencies.

In our dreams. Unfortunately, Straw adheres firmly to mid- century beliefs about the role of the state. The man (or woman) in Whitehall may no longer know best, but much of what he or she knows is best kept secret, and especially so if they are in the Home Office, the security forces or the police. So freedom of information legislation will probably be a far more conservative version of Clark's white paper plans, and will make little or no reference to the potential for electronic transparency and accountability.

But we should not assume that ministers can hold back the tide indefinitely. Government departments are constantly compared with private corporations in how they handle inquiries, complaints and access to information. If you send a parcel overseas via DHL, you get a code number that allows you to access the company's databases and track its progress, and if the parcel is going the wrong way, a simple e-mail to DHL ensures that it is redirected correctly and you are compensated. If these service standards become commonplace in the private sector, government can hardly stand aloof.

People who pay tax, who want to track a relative's application to enter Britain, or who apply (electronically) for a state benefit will increasingly expect to receive an immediate code reference - and to be able to dial up and track the progress of their "transaction". Claimants need never again be told that their giro is "in the post". It won't matter if a tax inspector is in or out of the office, you should still be able to find out exactly what is going on.

What we are talking about here is "open-book government". And it would reveal much more information about how government operates, how complex it is and how arcane many processes are. It would thus surely lead to better government.

This is the potential that should be driving reform. But what are the obstacles? First, the official mindset regards new information technology at best as a faster and cheaper means of doing what has always been done. When government systems were first computerised they were not "re-engineered" to make them simple and efficient - they were just shifted over as they were. The Conservative government's passion for contracting out government IT systems made things worse - civil servants no longer fully understand their own departments' systems, let alone know how to restructure them. Rather than put in new investment or system renewals, the government simply passed the mess on to the major IT companies.

Second, Whitehall by and large still regards the web as a small-scale change, a new opportunity for PR, a convenient place to store ministers' biographies, current departmental press releases and odd bits of public information, updated once or twice every three years. Despite pressure from Alastair Campbell's strategic communications unit for a unified "front end" for British government as a whole, government on the web remains an eclectic mess of different departments' and agencies' approaches. Whitehall cannot even get its act together to give the full information on the quangocrats who run the quango state, as recent Democratic Audit studies have shown. Yet that was one of Labour's pre-election pledges.

The existing government websites (and more so, local authority sites) are virtually all stand-alone, discrete operations - insulated from any connection to the actual working databases of departments and agencies. Whitehall officials react with horror to the idea that citizens might want to get beyond a public relations annex and gain access to core systems themselves. But that is what "open-book" systems are going to mean more and more in the private sector. So-called "web-enabled systems" are being used by corporations to create what they term "zero-touch" processes, which allow customers to access files electronically, place orders, pay and receive goods automatically - without a single employee so much as touching a keyboard. All this requires that web access goes straight into the company's main working systems. Sophisticated security systems protect companies' confidential information, rather than crude physical separation, as in Whitehall. The potential costs of freedom of information already trouble civil servants, but open-book government promises a self-funding, or even possibly a cost-saving, future for Whitehall.

This is the nub of it. Standard-issue freedom of information would make the quangos, as well as government at all levels, more transparent. But citizens would still have no access to meetings, to inspect minutes and verbatim transcripts of meetings, to know what meetings take place with interest groups, and so on. Add open-book government to the formula and suddenly the whole process moves far faster. The policies and decisions of the expert committees that rule on the safety of food and drugs, and control genetic experiments in the environment, hazardous substances, nuclear activities and waste, would at once be made open to peer-group review and public debate. The secret dealings that government departments and other authorities, including local councils, have with major national and local interest groups could be weighed against wider concepts of public consultation and interest.

Open-book government could also form a significant part of a new era of "electronic democracy". It need not simply improve access and transparency to government, but it could also help give new life and meaning to representative democracy as we know it. The same electronic advances could make public consultation and participation wider, easier and more diverse; and provide new media opportunities which could both focus and diversify the information people receive and obtain for themselves, as the old media fragment into more and more apolitical and specialised forms - sports channels, gardening channels, fashion channels, golf channels and so on.

A wonderful example of the potential here was the BBC's Election 97 website, which on election night itself recorded more than 1.5 million "hits". During the election, the website not only provided far more reliable basic information than any conventional mass media source, but it also allowed people to e-mail queries and get answers. As supposed experts in politics, we were stunned by the quality of the questions submitted, the insights they contained and the appetite for information and debate that they revealed - party policies, opinion polls, electoral trajectories and key issues were clarified and debated in depth. The site earned the BBC great credit. But not the aftermath. The site was briefly made permanent as "Politics 97", but has since been swept away in a Birtian re-modelling, cost-cutting and dumbing down of the BBC's entire web output.

Yet this and other innovations have shown the enormous potential for greater "discursive democracy". Government departments, local councils and other public bodies can make clear how they shape their policies and invite interested citizens and specialists to participate directly in determining them. Interactive question-and-answer sessions, policy forums, panels and discussion groups, planning consultations, chat-lines, even tabloid-style votes can all generate a great deal more information that policy-makers should consider. They could also give far more in-depth information more cheaply and conveniently, respond to people's questions and ideas and encourage the public to submit proposals for action.

Already the BSE inquiry has shown the way, transferring daily transcripts of its proceedings to the web within hours of witnesses having spoken. The potential for other public inquiries, parliamentary select committees and other central government bodies to do the same is immense. And at local level the possibilities for handling local planning decisions, plans for reorganising secondary schools or healthcare proposals are endless.

Electronic democracy opens up bigger questions about the relationship between politics and the media. Some commentators insist that the media perform an independent role, while critics allege that they are subject to a variety of pressures, including state dominance and political spin. But it is not too cynical to state that newspaper, TV and radio coverage is always mediated by forces and powers that are far from transparent; that the media reinforce powerful views and interests rather more often than they interrogate them; and that they seek to entertain rather than to inform.

Ten years from now, the media will be highly diversified, television viewers will be spoilt for choice, and the press will be a very special product indeed. But the new electronic media just might offer much more unmediated information - just as some television time will give raw access not only to major news dramas but also more specialised political and social happenings. Sky, for example, made a feature of unedited party political news conferences at the last election.

The government has a duty to kick-start the momentum for more diversified citizen access by introducing genuinely radical freedom of information laws and ending the era of closed-book government. The pressures for democratisation are running strongly in parallel with the desire for more efficient and effective government. Will new Labour seize the moment?

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of government at the London School of Economics; Stuart Weir is director of the Democratic Audit, University of Essex

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood