This year’s European elections marked an all time high for disengagement and an all time low for turnout, reaching a meagre 43% pan Europe (that’s 20% – or a third – down on 30 years ago), worse even in the UK at an mightily undemocratic 34.7% (up from 24% 10 years ago mind).
But just as many in the start up world view a recession as the ideal time to start a new venture, what better time to get creative and take some risks to re-engage the public than when things are at rock bottom?
Credit to v, the National Young Volunteers Service here in the UK, they certainly seem to share this view, commissioning Sidekick Studios to unleash their imagination and focus on getting young people to connect with Westminster in new and innovative ways. As the project has it:
“We’re asking them [16-25s] ‘what do you care about’ and their responses will be written out in Parliament by this robot, in real time, for MPs to read directly. We hope it will bring both sides closer together”
Rather fantastically, the project team have managed to persuade Parliament to agree to strategically position the robot in the waiting lobby of the House of Commons during local democracy week, most likely parked somewhere near the feet of the bronze statue of ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As people submit ideas via the website, the robot will jump into life and start to scribble down messages from the masses and attract the attention of passing politicians.
Sidekick are keen to move beyond the ‘cool’ buzz surrounding the project as soon as possible and begin to actively engage (mesmerise even from my experience). With the nature of life in Parliament making it tricky to stay in touch with the real world, the robot project will go some way towards using the power of the web to humanise what is a staid and disconnected environment, raising the volume of an already raucous Parliament a notch or two by adding an extra 15,000 opinions to the day to day business of government.
Early results are interesting. Yes there have been some less than credible entries, but in the main submissions to date have been thoughtful and thought provoking, covering anything from the representation of women, the rise of extremist parties, equality and policing, and pension provision. And, in stark contrast to the turnout figures from the European elections, 53% of 16-25 year olds express an interest in politics, a figure that has startled everyone involved in the project.
And the project doesn’t stop there. Drawing on web technology and principles very much of the moment, the wider Voicebox project polls opinion from young people across a wide range of issues, from labels and stereotypes to what young people do in their spare time to what kids care about. All data is openly available for download or via an API to enable people to take, remix and visualize the outcomes of the project in context with other information sources.
But it wouldn’t be an innovative solution if there weren’t hurdles to be worked through now would it? Sidekick Studios themselves highlight a number of questions thrown up by the project, anything from:
- In an age where the internet can enable direct democracy, who gets direct access and who doesn’t?
- How do politicians handle being targeted directly by such a diverse range of individuals, each with their own hyper-niche agenda?
- How can they make sense of such a broad, rapidly changing conversation from all these different people, effectively shouting at them?
- In a world of one-to-one digital services with constituents tweeting their MPs, does the cult of personality become even more important?
- And how does that contribute to the death of the political party?
- And if that is the case, what does that mean to our current democratic system, which has so long been built around the 2-party system, government whips, lobbies, divisions and so on?
At the centre of all of these questions is the ever thorny issue of how we best strike a balance between representative and participative forms of democracy and engagement, creating space for new and interesting forms of citizen feedback and challenge to inform the decisions of those elected to represent our collective best interests.
That having been said, what is most exciting about projects like VoiceBot is the age of experimentation which it signals. By getting our creative juices flowing, allowing our imaginations to run wild and, most importantly, staying true to a vision of participation and engagement on a grand scale, we are beginning to create the space for answers to emerge of their own accord through trial and error.
No matter what else, I for one can’t wait to see the look on the faces of the Members of Parliament when they return from recess to find a letter writing robot churning out messages from their constituents outside their chamber!
So why not get writing and give them something to think about.