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Digital Britain, but participatory Britain?

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Last week, the UK Government published the Interim report on Digital Britain. It was written by Lord Carter and was published on the website for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The report was published in both PDF and Microsoft word format only, meaning it was necessary to download large files to read it. Also, without a PDF or Word reader it was not possible to read the content within the report. Government Open standards were seemingly not adhered to in this case. (UPDATE: PDF is an open standard as of July 2008 – Hat tip: Christopher). Nevertheless, this was not the most vocal criticism of how the report was released.

Feedback by email

Tony Hirst describes the reaction of BBC technology columnist Bill Thompson to the report release. He was critical of the approach taken for feedback and commentary:

The widespread coverage has certainly provided a rich source of suggestions, comments, ideas and critical reviews to feed into the next stage of the process.

Unfortunately for those who lack access to mainstream media outlets like newspapers and broadcasters or their associated websites, there is no easy way to respond directly to its author. The report website has no information at all on how to make a contribution, and you’ll have to read through 72 pages of the report before you find a suggestion that “organisations or individuals interested in joining the discussion should register their interest at digitalbritain@berr.gsi.gov.uk”

Apparently the Digital Britain team will follow up these expressions of interest, which is nice of them, and we must just hope that Carter and his expert panel will be carefully reviewing every blog post and online comment to ensure they don’t miss anything important.

Seeking feedback through email is not the most efficient medium for commenting or debating the report. Email is primarily used for communication and is not an efficient medium for collaboration or public debate. The web page where the report was released did include an email address, but this seemed to be included as an afterthought, rather than as a productive medium for meaningful discourse.

Organisations or individuals interested in joining the discussion should register their interest at digitalbritain@berr.gsi.gov.uk.

There is a better way

Given the frustration with the lack of any appropriate public forum in which to have a detailed discussion on the report, Tony Hirst and Joss Winn decided – after some tweets – to setup a commentpress site. Commentpress “is an open source theme for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text”. In a couple of days they setup the site http://writetoreply.org, with the first document available for commentary as the Digital Britain – Interim Report.

The Digital Britain – Interim Report could easily have been published in this type of format when it was released by the Government. It could easily have been uploaded to Scribd or co-ment.net to allow for public commentary and embedding into blogs and other websites. After all, the demographic for which the report was intended is well used to using online discussion platforms to debate and engage in the report topics. By publishing the report using formats 10-15 year old (PDF, .doc) it was subscribing to a 1990s style Digital Britain that does not harness the participatory elements of a Web2.0 world.  Steph Gray correctly points out that

Publish something badly, and people will do their own thing to make their voices heard.

This is exactly what happened, and now the report has been made available on other platforms alongside writetoreply.org.

Results

After only a few days online the writetoreply site has generated dozens of comments, suggestions, criticisms and ideas. It has also enabled an active discourse to evolve between diverse parties, on various paragraphs within the report.

Tony Hirst notes how each paragraph of the report can be linked by a unique URI; for example, here’s a link to Action 1 of the Digital Britain Interim Report. This provides bloggers and others with an extended ability to dissect and elaborate upon particular sections of the report, while ensuring all debate is linked appropriately.

The witetoreply team also wrote an Open Letter to Lord Carter providing the rational behind the site and outlining how comments and ‘trackbacks’ have been enabled. The letter is available below, and Tom Watson MP has ensured Lord Carter sees the site. The reaction from Lord Carter will be interesting, as it will provide a window into how he views public feedback contributing to the final report.

Grazr

The future

The writetoreply team have setup a blog and wiki documenting their progress and seeking further ideas of how to expand the site e.g. including other public documents to allow commentary on. The US provides some good examples of how legislation can be broken down and more finely reviewed by the public. PublicMarkup.org “gives you [the public] the opportunity to review and comment on proposed bills before they are even introduced—or while they are pending—in Congress”. Also, Readthestimulus.org provides a fantastic resource for the public to debate every aspect of President Obama’s Economic stimulus plan.

The ability to comment on government reports/leglislation should become more prevalent as the themes of openness, transparency and participation are embedded into the lexicon of discussion regarding government publications. The way in which the Power of Information Taskforce Report was published (in beta form), provides a good example of what can be achieved if reports are made easy for the public to review and provide feedback. The site has already generated over 100 comments on different sections of the report. Thse comments have ranged from grammatical mistakes/typos to more detailed policy discussions.  The ease at which content in the report can be annotated, allows for casual users to actively participate in a way not possible through the use of email. Thus the medium through which this report was released exemplifies its theme i.e. the Power of Information, and what can be achieved through soliciting public review and discussion before publishing.

In the same way as the Government has sought comment on the Power of Information Report before it’s final version is published, President Obama has promised that all non-emergency legislation will be open for public comment on Whitehouse.gov for 5 days before he signs it.

One of the first blog posts from the White House on January 20th said:

One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

While there have been some hiccups with this promise, it provides an insight into how the Obama Administration is implementing its Memorandum on Open government and particularly that concerning Participation:

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.

The UK Government should think about whether a Memorandum of this kind is necessary to ensure all future reports – especially those seeking feedback – are released with an emphasis on the medium of public participation. It is the message after all.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • ChristopherNo Gravatar 08/02/2009, 6:14 am

    Regarding the second paragraph, I wouldn’t say that getting hold of a PDF viewer is particularly burdensome. Furthermore, PDF actually is an Open Standard (ISO 32000-1:2008).

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 08/02/2009, 7:46 am

    Thank you for your comment. I now realise that PDF is an open standard as of July 2008. I have consequently updated the post.

  • Steinar ArdalNo Gravatar 13/02/2009, 11:59 pm

    I think this is one of the best examples of social technology could be used to create a better and more open Public Sector. The most critical to make this work is to ensure that comments made by public must be answered quick and in a good way. A two weeks response time will not be good enough…..!

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 15/02/2009, 3:26 pm

    The comments from writetoreply will hopefully feed into the final report. Feedback and comments are possible up to 12th March. The Power of Information Taskforce report provides a good example of how beta reports are being made available for public comment before final versions are released. This report provided 2 weeks in which the public could submit comments and feedback. It will be interesting to see the impact these will have on the final report to be released later this year.

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