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"Big society" requires Big Brother to keep its distance

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12 October 2010

Big Society not Big Brother

Big Society not Big Brother

If the UK government really wants citizens to put their hands up, take responsibility and do things that used to be the preserve of government, how should they approach it?

Myself & fellow RAAKonteur Gerrie Smits attended a session at CityCamp LDN this weekend. CityCamp was a chance to meet other civic minded techies and. In their own words:

“CityCamp LDN will bring together London’s leaders from all levels of government, business, academia and community organisations to reimagine the way in which technology and the web will shape the future of London.”

One of the first sessions we attended was called “Politics for Good”. And the head of Labour’s recent new media efforts kicked off the session.

What became abundantly clear is that political parties are by and large using digital media’s vast potential to:

  • Communicate and activate their user bases to vote and diss the other parties around election time;
  • …and that was about it!

    Hardly politics for the good. Hardly the stuff of Clay Shirky’s brave new world described in Cognitive Surplus: a world where active citizens build and organise civic tools using social media.

    A lively debate ensued. With politicos often ganging up on each other, looking to score the cheap point. We were hoping for a more nuanced discussion about how government could indeed play a role.

    Are political parties well placed to encourage this kind of civic involvement and collaboration? Or are they – in confrontational hurly burly that is the Westminster system – naturally divisive?

    Is the mere fact that David Cameron has talked up “Big Society” going to cause Labour supporters – even those that are natural volunteers – to shy away from Big Society initiatives? It certainly seems that way.

    My take away: if the government really wants to encourage participation, it should act as an enabler, a platform if you will, as it’s doing with data.gov.uk and the London Data Store

    And with enabling I mean:

    • provide funding for platforms and events that bring citizens together;
    • help set standards; and
    • support the creation of API’s,
    • expose government data.

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