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The Digital Democracy Debate 2014

On Thursday 25th September 2014, the DDC travelled to Sheffield for an event hosted by the Digital Society Network at the University of Sheffield. The event took place in the heart of the city in the interesting and iconic Castle House as part of the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind.

The University of Sheffield's Digital Society Network and
the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy presented a two-part event to contribute to current debates on how online technologies could be used to re-engage citizens and Parliament.

The following people spoke:

  • Nick Ellison, Professor of Social Policy, University of York
  • Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Commission Member & Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Hull
  • Helen Milner, Commission Member & Chief Executive of the Tinder Foundation
  • Charles Pattie, Professor of Geography, University of Sheffield
  • Yael Shafritz, President of Sheffield Student's Union
  • Michael White, Assistant Editor of The Guardian
  • Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party
  • Alistair Stoddart, Community Engagement Lead at the Democratic Society

The event opened with Dan Hammett providing a few words of welcome and then Cristina Leston-Bandeira providing an overview of the Speaker's Commission and their remit, before outlining why they were interested in exploring new ways of engaging citizens in the process of law-making.

Following Cristina's comments, attendees were asked to take on the role of different interest groups and think about how and why they might use different mechanisms to try and make a difference to/influence law-making process. An experimental activity, one which attendee Adam Glen notes was entirely suitable for all, it did stimulate a lot of discussion about how effective different modes of participation could be and how they were suited to different groups or audiences.

Throughout the day, both during the afternoon session and evening event, a common idea came to the fore - the issue of democracy should be at the forefront, rather than the digital: that new and digital technologies could be facilitators of some engagement and interaction, but the focus needed to remain upon democracy and engagement and how to (re)engage citizens with politics and Parliament.

After the participatory activity and summary comments, Michael White took to the stage to provide some comments on the ways in which politics and political engagement had changed over time. In a wide-ranging talk, Michael touched upon the role and importance of the media, on trust and accountabilty, and on changing patterns of citizen engagement.

The evening session comprised a panel discussion with speakers offering a few minutes of thoughts and provocations on the potential for digital technologies to facilitate greater citizen engagement in politics and with parliament. Again, a core message across the panel was of the importance of focussing on 'democracy' not 'digital', on not seeing technology as a magic solution to political disengagement. Ideas from the panel, and from the floor in the subsequent debate, addressed concerns with everyday life and politics and how a focus on the digital might marginalise or exclude some sections of society. Layered on to this were discussions focussed on how digital technologies are used - are they used to promote genuine dialogue or are they used in a managerialist and dispensory manner by politicians to speak 'to' not 'with' citizens, and how do citizens themselves use technologies - what are the dangers of 'narrowcasting' and developing an 'echo chamber effect' rather than genuinely listening to and engaging with dissenting viewpoints?

Overall, the sense from the discussion was that digital technologies can and do provide additional avenues for forms of political engagement, but that these cannot be seen as unproblematic. Rather, they remain subject to power relations and dynamics. At times they can provide a valuable means to mobilise support, develop a progressive politics and get a message out to a wider audience. But, they can also be used regressively, to stifle debate and produce a shallow and partial political engagement, and can actually lead to the exclusion of some groups. As a result, any efforts to promote greater digital democracy need to take into account concerns with (digital) literacy, access (both to technology and the internet, as well as the messages being delivered (i.e. can everyday citizens understand what politicians are talking about)), and ways of ensuring the digital public sphere is a safe space for debate and discussion.

A Storify of the event can be viewed here by Dr Daniel Hammett, Faculty Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Follow the conversation at #digdemo

Image: iStock