Digital DemocracyJanuary 2000: Faxfn: Topics for Digital Democracy (draft 14dec99)
Certain topics of public policy are uniquely suited to internet discussion forums: the topics politicians shy away from and the topics that require too much special knowledge for journalists to routinely present to the public. Faxfn is starting a list. Here is a first draft :
Training and jobsBy January the list will be longer and may be less cryptic.
14dec98:Geoff Beacon: Goodbye to debate?
Back in 1998 the "ground-breaking Nexus/Downing Street Third Way Debate" on www.netnexus.org did make the ground move a bit for me: It had a good level of high-quality debate with several postings per week. Sadly the current debate, "Food or Health: a biotech dilemma" started two months ago seems only to have had the starting entries from Bill and Tony posted on it.Goodbye to Nexus
There isn't much going on the Higher Nexus Soapbox site, either (see http://www.netnexus.org/mail_archive/soapbox.archive/). I have been actually responsible for over half the content in the past three months (two postings from me with one reply from someone else). And my last effort has been ruled out of order (I sent in a copy of "Exams and leafy suburbs" thinking that it would be a welcome chance to take up an important debate... and reach a wider audience than Faxfn attracts.)
I did have a secondary motive: I do want to know if the spirit of debate still exists in Nexus or THES. Here is part of the rejection:
Subject: Re: PostcodingThe trouble is Tony (and Bill), you inhabit a world that is too subtle for me. I have been wanting to ask what seem to be straightforward questions but rarely seem to be able to get straightforward answers. (And believe me, I have tried.) In the early days of the Nexus "ground-breaking" debates it was possible to contribute in a way that us participants felt effective. For example, the small piece on hypothecation I did in the "Third Way" debate contained:
What's wrong with hypothecation?It was quite exhilarating to have a somewhere where some of the myths underlying political debate could be challenged. It had been strongly asserted that hypothecation was a nonsense. This assertion (with the silent weight of the Treasury behind it?) never seemed to be explained in public. But you provided the opportunity. It is pleasing to see the government (or at least the DETR) has overcome this particular mythical barrier and embraced hypothecation.
There are several other similar myths and government departments seem to want to use these myths without arguing for them (see Prof Swales No engagement at the Treasury). You and Bill are in an excellent position to provide a platform for debate which could provide some scrutiny. But my last posts to your Soapbox ("What do universities do?" and "Academic tosh") got the only response it had for months and the debate on Nexus/THES seem to have all but stopped. A pity.
You clearly can do some good stuff and you have been trying. I like one of the "starts" that Tony made on the Soapbox:
Is big business setting the science agenda?But a few good starts is not quite enough. These things need to be followed up until the answers are given.
But what really bugs me is the Fabian Tax Commission. I remember making some modestly sarcastic remarks on the "Third Way" debate about Steve Nickell, because someone presented his work as holy writ that one must learn by rote before having any view on unemployment issues. Of course, I would be delighted if Professor Nickell would answer some of my questions but I hope I don't first need an MSc based on his work.
But now Professor Nickell has his chance. In November 1998 I sent a short submission to the Fabian Tax Commission (see Employment through Tax Breaks). But a phone call to the Fabians in February 1999 told me "Steve Nickell is the expert. The group will probably be relying on him."
A year after my submission I have no feedback. And searching the web? Alta vista ("fabian near tax near commission") gives two references: One to Faxfn and one to a page on the Fabian site (http://www.fabian-society.org.uk/programme/taxcom.htm) which says "The Commission will meet for a period of just over a year, reporting early in 2000. It will publish a series of discussion papers and organise a number of seminars during 1999 to encourage debate in advance of its final report." Is this a private debate or a non existent debate?
Perhaps, Bill and Tony, you could assure me that that you are free from the control freakery that us paranoiacs now imagine to be round every corner. Surprisingly, I am still a supporter of New Labour. But I believe that reasonably informed debate, of the sort you can provide, is an essential element in making New Labour work.
Anyway, it would be nice to get some response from either of you - you are better placed than Faxfn to make Blairite politicians and academic gurus (and Whitehall mandarins?) answer questions. If you get answers, they will be better for it, we will feel better for it, and perhaps (eventually) government policy will be better for it.
15dec98a:Geoff Beacon: Stop press - debate reopens?
A new posting has just appeared on the THES/Nexus soapbox. It is on the problem "that many of the students achieving good 'A' levels come from good schools". That is exactly the topic of my "Exams and leafy suburbs" piece that Tony Durham refused for the THES Soapbox.
Due to delays in putting the "Goodbye to Debate" piece on faxfn, neither Bill or Tony can have seen it (even though it was in draft at the time the advert in Prospect Magazine was placed). I think this must be a good sign. I hope they will consider taking up some of the topics in the 'Faxfn Digital Democracy' list.
21dec99a: Faxfn: How do we get the answers?
Example: PQs on Benzodiazapines.
Some topics of public policy are uniquely suited to internet discussion forums (see above). Wouldn't it be excellent if Parliament went one step further towards digital democracy and supplemented Hansard's excellent reporting of Parliamentary Questions and provided online mechanisms to inform MPs and the public. Something like Electronic Select Committees but working in days and weeks rather than months and years. And with better access making it easier to present evidence, particularly informal evidence from people who know at enough least raise the questions.
Some examples of informal evidence (that would need to be checked):
Imagine a welder in the 1960s working on the construction of a high profile power station, which has since closed years ahead of its time. (Then, of course, it was publicly owned.) He knew the stainless steel pipes were badly designed. He told some of his friends and others he met but who else was there to listen?And the PQs on Benzodiazapines? They are there to see on the web site (http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/) but the issues are not given a structure that gives it continuity. The following answer was given by the Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton) (7 Dec 1999 : Column 186WH)
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the side effects of pregnant women using benzodiazepine. I understand and am currently advised, that there is no proven link between benzodiazepine use and damage to developing foetuses. Current advice is that all drugs should be avoided in pregnancy if at all possible.Wouldn't it have been nice to see the questions that this raises put (e.g.)
Does "no proven link" mean
The Department of Health has heard no reports of such a link?AND have answers to the questions within days?
(But for now see Sue Bibby's letter to Alan Milburn).