Skip down to main content

Prof Helen Margetts’ remarks at London Cyberspace Conference

Published on
14 Nov 2011
Written by
Scott A. Hale

Helen Margetts spoke at the London Conference on Cyberspace, organized by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1-2 November. Although much of the conference was dedicated to the the darker side of the Internet—Internet threats and cybersecurity—some of the conference was dedicated to looking at the social benefits of the Internet and how they might be maximized. This session was chaired by Francis Maude, and other speakers included the President of Estonia, Toomas Ilves, and Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda.

Full text of Prof Margetts’ remarks

Talk to FCO London Cyberspace Conference 1-2 November 2011
Seeing like a citizen—not seeing like a state?/>

The Internet has brought all kinds of change to social, economic and political life. Basically, in countries with significant levels of internet penetration—most developed countries and even some developing ones—many citizens live quite a lot of their lives on-line—shopping, working, socializing, dating, making travel plans—even making love, banking, saving, borrowing, playing games and entertaining themselves. When it comes to interacting with government in any way—people expect to do that online too. Unlike earlier information technologies—which were largely internal to organizations, particularly government—the Internet is used by society at large as well. In fact, in many countries—including this one—citizens have been a lot more innovative with the Internet than government, especially when it comes to collective action, mobilization and citizen engagement. After two decades of bemoaning political disengagement, we should realize that Internet-based forms of engagement are on the rise. Posting political content on social media has jumped straight into the ‘ladder of participation’ measured by the bi-annual Oxford Internet Survey at nearly 10% of internet users.

This new environment can bring lots of social benefits, but also new challenges to governments. First, I’ll talk about the benefits. This environment offers government agencies new potential to interact with citizens efficiently. In an age of austerity, ‘digital by default’ strategies offer real potential to save money. Multi-channel approaches, much heralded throughout the last decade, are really expensive. Incentivizing—and even mandating—citizens to interact electronically really saves money. I don’t have to tell the President of Estonia about that. Some commentators—including me—argue that government needs to go further: to become inherently digital, where Internet-based technologies are centre stage in government, where many processes are ‘zero touch,’ without human intervention, where government agencies ‘become’ their electronic presence.

Inherently digital government—as well as being more efficient—can be more effective, higher quality, more citizen-focused. There is a lot of ‘free’ data out there on the Internet, as citizens go about their business on social media platforms, expressing their opinions, ranking and rating goods and services, participating in social networks and civic associations they leave a digital imprint. This is what we call ‘big data,’ a new sort of data—not survey data that tells us what people think they might do, or think they have done, but real data, transactional data about what they really did or really think, now. As social scientists, it is a challenge to work out what this data means—it is not the sort of data we are used to dealing with, it doesn’t have handy demographics attached like a survey. But it is worth doing because all this data can give government a much better understanding of citizens’ behaviour, preferences and needs. It gives government information that it doesn’t currently have about hospitals and schools, about tax and social welfare, about initiatives that could—or do—make up civil society—or the ‘big’ society—about riots, demonstrations, protests and unrest. Information that can be used to match policy to preferences, match services to what citizens are willing—and are not—willing to do, in terms of managing their own affairs, for example, as they do with their banks accounts.

This inherently digital environment also allows policy-makers the possibility to ‘nudge’ their citizens in certain directions. If people are doing so many things on-line, then online environments can be manipulated to foster certain types of behaviour. People’s actions can be made anonymous—or visible—our experimental research at OII has shown that visibility is the ‘killer app’—make people visible and they are far more likely to make charitable donations or contribute to the public good, to environmental initiatives, for example. The Internet allows the provision or not of ‘social information’—real-time information about what other people are doing which will cause certain types of behaviour. Again, experimental research at the OII have shown that social information is the key in making civic engagement more efficient, making the most of citizens’ willingness to act collectively. But research has also shown how social information makes mobilization more volatile—can bring flash mobilizations or tipping points. Most mobilizations fail—data we have collected shows that 95 per cent of petitions to the UK government in 2010 failed to get even the 500 signatures required for an official response. But the ones that succeed grew exponentially and rapidly in unpredictable ways, even bringing policy U-turns (as in road-pricing policy under the last government, or forestry privatization under this one) and posing challenges to political unity (as in the recent parliamentary debate on an EU referendum).

Now the challenges. None of these social benefits come automatically. In this new environment, government can struggle to remain ‘nodal,’ to be at the centre of social and informational networks. Government agencies have a culture of thinking that people will come to them, allowing them to act like a privileged watchtower, before which everyone must pass. Before the Internet, this was probably true—if you wanted to contact a service delivery organization, or complain, or express a policy opinion, or set up a local organization, you would probably contact the government or a legislative representative. But in cyberspace, you can do all these things without interacting with government at all. Research shows that when citizens seek government-related information, only around half of the time will they get it from the government itself. The UK government’s site is festooned with ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ buttons, but if government wants to generate debate or discussion—it can’t rely on people actually using them. Engagement on the Internet starts outside government. When the current UK government announced the plan to privatize forests, they put out a consultation. But the successful opposition to the plan came largely from outside the government—the pressure group 38 Degrees, Twitter and Facebook campaigns and petitions all started from within online social networks. As someone from Downing St. put it, “It was a genuine cock-up on our part. We honestly did not think we would get this response.”

All this means that governments can struggle to ‘catch up’ with citizens using and switching between an increasing array of social media platforms. Autocratic regimes have fallen into disarray amidst the demonstrations, mobilizations, riots and generalized unrest of the Arab Spring. In democratic regimes, the financial crash and crisis has brought social backlash and protest against state retrenchment, public sector cutbacks and even market capitalism itself—to the surprise and even shock of policy-makers and institutions, from governments to police to the Church of England. All these mobilizations are larger, more effective, more public, more volatile and more important because of the Internet.

Just before the Internet got famous, in 1998, the political anthropologist James Scott wrote a book called ‘Seeing Like a State,’ where he bemoaned the tendency of states to impose high modernist top-down hierarchical plans on their citizenries and environments. The Internet allows governments to move away from this model, but to do this will have to reach out rather than in, use the ‘big data’ I have talked about, accept blurred boundaries between government and society, be agile enough to anticipate and work with massive shifts between social media platforms, from Myspace to Facebook to Tumblr and beyond—different, in different countries. In short, government has to become more messy and disorganized, less hierarchical—and in some people’s minds, less governmental. For governments to make the best of cyberspace they will need to work out ways of using the Internet to ‘see like a citizen,’ rather than ‘seeing like a state.’

Related Topics