Digital Democracy

January 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 jobs
Train a million hairdressers to create a million jobs?

The credentialist debate.
The England football team chosen from PhDs in Sports Science.

Marginal voters are the good for the environment.
The green footprint of the Tunbrige Wells Focus Group.

Universities research university education.
Do turkey's vote for Christmas?

Government expenditure. (A Treasury fiction?)
Returned taxes are government expenditure.
Tax breaks are not government expenditure.

Planning policy helps the poor.
Green belts restrict the supply and increase the value of housing so the homeless aren't tempted off the streets.

By January the list will be longer and may be less cryptic.

14dec98:Geoff Beacon: Goodbye to debate?
Goodbye to Nexus
Goodbye to THES,
Goodbye to Fabians,
Goodbye to debate?

An open letter to Bill Thompson, Nexus
and Tony Durham, the Times Higher Literary Supplement.
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.

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: Postcoding
Date: Wed, 03 Nov 1999 13:09:55 +0000
From: Tony Durham (tdurham@timeshigher1.demon.co.uk)
To: geoff.beacon@virgin.net

GB>Are you really saying a topic cannot be raised
GB>on the soapbox unless it has been raised before?

Amazingly I am. We constantly have trouble explaining that the original Soapbox is a page in the newspaper and the Soapbox online discussion is meant to be for issues initially raised on that page.

GB>Post this reply on your board and a bottle of Bollinger
GB>will be on its way.

Even if you were tackling a journalist less incorruptible than myself, I think you would have to come up with something a little subtler than that :-)

Best wishes,

Tony Durham
Web Editor
The Times Higher Education Supplement
The 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?

Most ordinary people do something similar in their everyday lives. Certain sources of income are linked to certain expenditures. I know people who have practically starved rather than use income they have set aside for other purposes... hypothecation makes our politics more understandable. (e.g. congestion taxes are more acceptable if they are used to subsidise public transport.)

Perhaps some concrete examples on hypothecation could help. What is wrong with the National Lottery or National Insurance Contributions? Both involve hypothecated taxes and the world hasn't ended.

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?

Are scientists themselves suppressing controversial research and unpopular views?

"Big Science, Little White Lies", to be published 27 May by Index on Censorship raises concerns about the power of two groups, funders and peer reviewers...

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?

Imagine the quantity surveyor working on the Channel Tunnel who knows years before the public, markets, government and banks, the scale of the delays on the project. He talked to friends and people he meets on the train but who else was there to listen?

Imagine a young girl on the underground going up an escalator and on the run from one of those children's homes years before the abuse came out in public? She talked to other people on the escalator (before vanishing in the crowd) 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?

The Department of Health knows of no research into such a link?

The Department of Health knows of research which suggests such a link is unlikely?

If the Department of Health knows of any, even inconclusive, unpublished research can it say when this work was done and who did it?

Does it know of any work in progress?

AND have answers to the questions within days?

(But for now see Sue Bibby's letter to Alan Milburn).