Internet-first government policy

Between 2015 - 2018 I contracted for a number of UK government departments, including Government Digital Services (GDS), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Home Office (UK Passports). Even though I’d studied Politics & German at University, I’d never actually worked in politics, so this was an experience of the political system, at a time when the way public facing service development was becoming ever more digital and user-centric.

I’ve been lucky enough to work and become friends with some amazing Civil Servants and consulting businesses working around government but yet my overwhelming sense, is of Civil Service fighting the tide to “do the right thing” for citizens and society, rather than enabling policy that has the people at its heart.

In the UK, the events of June 2016 now overshadow all policy-making and whilst systemic reform should be the first priority, current events rather indicate the opposite is true. So, whilst digital services are thoroughly researched, tested and built along agile, collaborative principles, it’s not the case that policy is being developed in the same manner. I’ve long wondered what effective user-centric democracy would actually look like. It’s a conversation I have with people, in different government departments.

For example - how could we change the electoral system to reflect the way in which citizens already interact with internet technologies? How can left behind communities become empowered? Essentially, how can politics move from top-down, to bottom-up?


Hello and welcome @ChrisR, my name is Alberto. I am an old-timer here on Edgeryders.

I walked that path myself, back in the 2000s. I was fortunate enough to be put in charge of several first-generation open government projects (blog in English), so I had some opportunities to experiment. I also collected my reflections into a book.

Nowadays I am much less involved in that scene. There is still good work to be done, but I have become pessimistic on the chances of system-level reform from within. I guess I went to deep into complex systems science, with its luggage of emergence and resistance to external pressure. My latest, and probably last, contribution to high-level thinking about government is called The Black Briefing. It proposes that government is just another agent, subject to evolutionary pressure to survive and grow. This pressure systematically steers government in the direction of superimposing standards onto the full complexity of society and the economy. If done with sufficient power, this will result in overwriting society with standards, in a social equivalent of monoculture. Complexity breaks down, and consequences can be dire.

In this perspective, I am quite wary of deploying the metaphor of a commercial service for democracy, like in “user-centric democracy”. It makes complete sense that, say, a restaurant service be user-centric, trying to make it easy for the client to order and consume food. Why, after all, saddle her with the full complexity of procuring the raw materials for her meal, preparing it, keeping the kitchen clean and so on? The information about that is contained in the meal’s price. With democracy, I am not sure the metaphor holds. A voter that thinks she should be spared the intricacies of policy might be an unwary one, believing, for example, that disentangling a national legal and economic system from something as deep and broad as the European Union is a simple matter of cutting a Gordian knot.

How do you see the matter? How does it map onto infrastructure and policy for the Internet?


Thanks @alberto. Thanks for sharing your blog post, I’ll definitely take a look. I suppose there’s a couple of points I’ve considered to your comments. To your point of the metaphor of commercial services and the idea of “user-centric” government. This is a principle I’ve actually seen being applied, for real, within digital services. This is partly why, for so long I’ve been interested in how citizens can become more enable to participate in an iterative democratic process. I suppose the deeper question to answer becomes “how much government should a citizen be exposed to?” My view has always been that the current democratic settlement is too abstract, too representative and fails to empower either the individual, the community, or the society. Thus, the impact of relatively rare referendums and elections aren’t correlated to the individual’s viewpoints and actions.

Indeed, to your EU point - how do citizens understand the wider implications of such questions, rather than outsourcing such decisions to a political class no better equipped to answer the question than the electorate that it supposedly serves.

I’ve seen with my own eyes the impact of effective, government, user-centric design and am curious to see how this might escape the confines of a Civil Service, to make its way into higher level decision making by way of a network effect that might enable more thorough and deeper decision-making. The side effect, in a changing world might also be more stable government with active, rather than passive contribution from citizens.

Of course, I’d be failing my own argument if I didn’t acknowledge that this would require, testing, iteration and learning and that failure is definitely an option!

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That is a tricky one in the sense that many of what we could think of as “left-behind communities” are either poor, live in rural areas or are otherwise less connected. Or maybe they are just seen that way, and are more connected to the Net than is often understood because they have a mobile phone that connects. Still, I live in a rural area and whereas I have a broadband connection, about five properties down the road they do not have broadband and frankly, little chance of getting one other than expensive and slower satellite connectivity. Since it is fairly mountainous, cell reception is pretty spotty. Those people all drive into town to hang at the library or coffee shop for their connection.


Hi @johncoate. My view is that inclusion needs to be formalised. I feel that digital or not, our democracy has stopped (or maybe never did) work to include everyone. In addition to the question of geographical inclusion is race, gender, economic etc etc.

Meanwhile, this Politico story does not paint a very encouraging picture of how the GDPR is working out…

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I broadly agree with @ChrisR that the democratic systems we have in place are generally broken, or rather, less effective than they could be if they were to be rethought using human-centric design principles. For me this isn’t necessarily internet specific - the internet and access to it etc may be required to enable better solutions but what I think the question here is is more about does our current democratic processes work well for humanity in today’s/tomorrow world?

I too have been trying to work within and have come to the same conclusion. Frustrating as it is the machinery of large organisations is not set up to work for humanity in a human centric way, it’s always fuelled by corporate and capitalist values.

@ChrisR I feel we know each other…

To echo the point that working within isn’t the right place for us to do this thinking - just over a year ago, I was asked to create a vision of what “innovation in Government” could look like. Whilst closely studying emerging government strategies I noticed there was little in the way of GDS type ambitions (the human centric approach) within the plans for our society. In fact the main thread throughout the likes of the UK’s Industrial and Digital strategies are based on widening the doors to large corporate support and, reading between the lines, approving their capitalist control and influence in exchange. The Government’s contribution in all this is to sponsor large programmes of infrastructure development (yet more capitalist gain) and to provide economic incentives in order to create the perfect environment for global industries to make their home in the UK.

Chris, if you’re interested in exploring what democracy looks like for a nation based on rethinking using a service design process that you’re familiar with then I think we could set something up. I think it plays well into the topic of Internet of Humans, we could possibly run some design sprints and build up a “discovery” to present at a track in November. Maybe the festival will include prototyping and broadening of the discussion.


Inspiring discussion!

Briefly, it seems like the global political systems are not able to achieve the necessary climate goals. So let’s make a kind of bypass-operation and connect consumers and producers via some kind of moral filter! How about this draft:

Imagine an app/site that makes it super easy to favor the most climate-smart alternative. It should be possible to ask for a product or even a shopping list and get the best way to achieve it in seconds – calculated given your geo position and transport – wherever you are.

The app workers are a global network of volunteer “consumer politicians” that agrees upon the basic mission and rules. It distributes consumer power via high granularity: a participant can only debate/rank/vote in maximum 10 product categories. Delegation gives tree advantages: Higher competence in the respective debates, more power in the areas of interest/expertise and less workload for each participant.

A lot of consumers starts to use the app and it becomes beneficial for the #1 products. The application takes a fee from aspiring companies for assessment and voting in the categories and regions where they want to become the climate-leading alternative.

Is it a bad idea? Otherwise, let’s realize it! :grinning:

That sounds really interesting… I would be glad to attend something like that.