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Is the UK ready for a digital democracy?

Monday, January 12th 2015 by Tristan Wilkinson
Industry maven and Cable.co.uk tech columnist Tristan Wilkinson asks if we're ready for e-democracy.

I was listening to the radio this morning and on came a debate about the government's proposed change to the minimum threshold of voting to allow strike action. The government want a minimum of 40% of eligible voters to support strike action for it to become legal.

Now that is a debate in and of itself, but the interesting part for me was a representative from the TUC who spoke about their proposal for greater involvement by members. One suggestion included online voting, yet the government minister was, to say the least, less than enthusiastic.

This got me thinking about the less than universal approach government has to the use of technology. The unwillingness to allow online voting whilst embarking on a policy of digital by default, universal access and moving services online appears at best a missed opportunity and at worst a suspicious manipulation of the system. You either believe in universal access and the migration to a digital by default environment or you don’t.

Antiquated? Perhaps, but with 20% of the UK population unable to access the internet, a necessity

Choosing digital to provide savings for government, but not for extending inclusion in the democratic process looks like political tinkering to me. Currently you can vote in person, by post or via a proxy but not electronically.

Embracing technology to enable greater involvement in both national and local politics feels like a sensible next step. A long overdue one at that because there is an acute problem in this country with political participation.

Voting in elections is at a record low, while the vote for Police Commissioners barely reached 20% in most instances, seriously undermining the legitimacy of those who take office with such a low level of endorsement.

Right now, less than half of 18-24 year-olds vote, with the results for the 2010 general election showing a huge discrepancy between voting and age.

Only 44% of 18-24 year olds vote compared to 76% of over-65s, leading to policy making that will (inevitably) favour older voters.

The government is spending billions of pounds of tax payers' money rolling our superfast broadband and committed to substantial reforms in the way it delivers services, with almost no support for those who will struggle after finding the services they need have gone digital.

According to Go On UK, nearly 20% of adults lack basic digital skills, with the largest single demographic of this group aged 65 or older.

Arguments for the corruptibility of digital voting are indefensible – digital or not is a political issue

The practical arguments for not introducing online voting don’t stack up, which makes this a purely political choice. Online voting would almost certainly be cheaper and extend the democratic process to segments of society that are currently disengaged.

There is no reason why security and identity assurance issues can’t be overcome – other countries do it, and we have already agreed that you can perform other transaction with government online. Why not extend this to voting?

My suspicion is that the government's reluctance to introduce online voting could be perceived as a way of maintaining the status quo for those in power. After all, the system is arguably set up to overly represent an older demographic.

Introducing a system that is potentially more representative of the population and not just those who vote would be hugely disruptive. It would force policy makers to address a much wider range of issues and make potentially unpopular trade offs.

Surely technology presents the opportunity for a different kind of political debate and the tempting possibility of extensive participation in politics. Lets not just put government services online – lets put democracy online.

Tristan Wilkinson, Cable.co.uk technology columnist

Tristan has worked within the technology sector for over twenty years in a variety of leadership roles for organisations such as Intel, PSInet and most recently digital skills charity Go ON UK. He regularly speaks on digital skills and inclusion topics and worked closely with the strategy unit at No. 10 on the Tech City and Start Up Britain Initiatives. Tristan now runs his own consultancy, Digital Citizens

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