How do you trust a politician?


By - Tuesday 26th November, 2013

The growth of online civil society in Croydon is a sign of a coming era of authentic Internet politics, says entrepreneur and new Citizen writer Geoffrey Walters

 


Which important social relationship links student riots in Athens, mass deprivation in Detroit and the rise of Marine le Pen’s Front National in France? What is the common theme behind falling electoral turnouts, sharp hikes in tuition fees and the secretive money-laundering of Goldman Sachs?

Across Britain and much of the Western world, there is a growing sense of disconnection between citizens and those in power. Politicians are one of the most maligned demographic groups in the UK – second only to bankers and directors of energy companies. Rightly or wrongly, they are perceived as self-serving, greedy, and out of touch. Whatever one thinks of his politics, or his quip that the present government should be replaced by “admin bods,” Russell Brand’s recent interview with Jeremy Paxman showed that political apathy unites Britons from eloquent, loquacious comedians to cynical, politically-savvy TV presenters.

A quick Google search reveals just how serious this problem has become:

Politicians according to Google. Screenshot by Geoffrey Walters.

Bad jokes about nappies and sperm aside, history provides us with plenty of lessons about what happens when the people lose all faith in the ruling classes. They’re not pretty.

There is an urgent need to fix the broken relationship between the elected and the electorate

The Croydon Citizen is an exciting example of what can happen when people band together and discuss local issues. In the year since its founding, it has become an online hub for community affairs, welcoming views from all parts of the political spectrum. I recently met with Editor-in-Chief James Naylor; his passion for Croydon is nothing short of infectious.The announcement of a print edition is testament both to his hard work and to the productive sharing of ideas between contributors and readers. From Steven Downes’ blog Inside Croydon to Bienosa Ebite’s radio show In the Loop, Croydon’s inhabitants are discovering a taste for discussing Borough affairs with other local people. Few would deny that such discussions play a vital role in engaging citizens in their local community.

But what if these discussions could be held in a way that involves elected representatives directly? If politicians actively participated in open dialogue online, could this be a way of restoring popular faith in our faltering democracy, both in Croydon and across the land?

Several existing online platforms have attempted to answer this question. All have failed.

Civic usage of Facebook is credited by some with precipitating the events of the Arab Spring, but dialogue with elected representatives remains limited to comments under posts that announce the latest council or government initiative. Citizens are lucky to receive an answer on Facebook from their local MP or councillor, and the platform is not structured in such a way as to enable politicians to get a quick overview of public opinion on a given topic.  Many politicians use Twitter, including Croydon’s Steve Reed and Gavin Barwell, but an arbitrary limit of 140 characters is more suited to trolls and Miley Cyrus than to serious political discussions. Sites such as Change.org, Avaaz and 38 Degrees are certainly well-meaning, but tend to pitch citizens against politicians in a fairly combative, ‘us vs. them’ style. Their petitions are often little more than tactless rants against the establishment, with few counter-perspectives offered, minimal dialogue between citizens and no visible input from politicians.

For all our impressive modern technology, it is deeply ironic – not to mention incredibly sad – that we have failed to build a platform that cultivates a mature, empathetic connection between politicians and citizens, one that addresses both parties’ needs

As an entrepreneur, and someone who is passionate about politics, I have built a social network that aims to solve this problem.

My website, GovMakr, reimagines one-to-one email exchanges between politicians (‘Govs’) and constituents (‘Makrs’) as open conversations in which the whole community can participate. Rather than write an entirely new message about a popular topic, such as intervention in Syria, constituents can contribute to existing discussions involving their own elected representative and other members of their community.

An exchange between an MP and a constituent is opened up for comments, becoming a transparent discussion for the whole community. Screenshot by Geoffrey Walters.

Discussions are sorted by broad category (education, foreign affairs, environment etc) and popularity with constituents, making it easy to get a sense of public opinion without the need to hold consultations. Citizens can upvote the messages closest to their heart, ensuring that their local politician is made aware of the issues that matter most to the local community. In return for communicating transparently, politicians receive an unprecedented level of quantative data about their constituents’ wishes, a way to speak with constituents that non-incumbent rivals do not share, and a means of communicating with groups of constituents that prevents them from being spammed by petition emails. Instead of composing a new email response to a popular topic, which takes time, MPs can simply point a constituent towards the appropriate ongoing discussion on GovMakr.

Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, has just agreed to start trialling the platform, and it is only a matter of time before it will be launched in Croydon North and Croydon South, too. For me personally, this is a bizarre quirk of fate. My grandfather was born in Purley, and his bedding business, Sleepeezee, found its first customers in Croydon over 80 years ago. The circle of life is complete.

I am a great believer in the potential of the human species to better itself, so it is my sincere hope that GovMakr will help rebuild the broken relationship between the elected and the electorate. With its burgeoning online civil society, its famous Tech City, and my family’s history in Croydon, I can only think of one place to start.

Please feel free to sign up and use the prototype! It’s completely free for citizens. If you like the concept, tell your MP about the site or share this article with your friends. If you are an investor or a software developer who wants to be involved with GovMakr, or you just want to give me some feedback, please get in touch at . I’d really love to hear from you.

Geoffrey Walters

Geoffrey Walters

Geoffrey is an entrepreneur who is obsessed with the possibility of authentic communication between politicians and citizens. He read French and German at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he specialised in German political history and the Eurozone crisis. Before founding GovMakr, he worked as a communications consultant in London and for the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. The latter role involved drafting a piece of research on genocide prevention which was presented by the President of Slovenia at the United Nations. He is a seven-time veteran of Model United Nations conferences and a former winner of the National Youth Parliament competition. In his spare time, he enjoys playing classical music and reading about psychology.

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