Wednesday 14 July 2010

Spending Challenge Website is "Comedy Gold"

I have written before about the new government's 'Your Freedom' website, describing it as "the Cones Hotline for the 21st century". Unfortunately, its next fumbling attempt at crowdsourcing, this time seeking ideas about how to make cuts in public spending, is just as bad.

Clifford Singer of the
Other Taxpayers Alliance has very kindly allowed me to reproduce the following brilliant post, which originally appears here.

Spending Challenge: race hate meets comedy gold

The government's Spending Challenge website, launched on Friday, invites us to send our ideas for cuts. "A team has been put together right at the heart of government," claims the blurb on the homepage, "and their job is to make sure that your ideas and comments are taken seriously."

Which is deeply worrying, because for the most part the contributors to Spending Challenge give the impression that they have moved there directly from the Daily Express comments board. Many entries have little bearing on government doing "more for less" and instead reflect personal hobby-horses, like the ubiquitous "Bring Back Capital Punishment". Others are exercised by "benefit scroungers", such as the contributor who wants to sterilise young girls who "just breed at will".

One of the most popular tags is "immigration". Entries here tend to fall into one of two categories:
  • racist ranting written entirely in lower case
The former includes a post, "there is only one way to save money", which states:

"now i am not a racist person but this country has had problems since the early 60's we need to decrease the number of immergrants in the uk i walk dow the street only to see hundreds of illegal immergrants that cant even speak english and i mean polish and muslims mainly and most of themare working in our local shops and local call centres."

The latter includes "STOP IMMIGRATION START REPATRIATION", which even links to a Facebook group.

All of which has led one contributor to ask: "Is the moderator asleep?" The answer seems to be yes, as many hateful comments remain online despite being having been highlighted on Twitter and in blogs since the weekend. Some users have helpfully added the tag "Racist" to offending posts to assist the sleepy moderator.

Where is the TaxPayers' Alliance when you need it? Why is the government spending our taxes on a repository of racial, sexist and homophobic hate? The BNP already has a website.

Happily, there are some more enjoyable moments to be found amongst the dross, including the following austerity-inspired measures:
And is it just possible that Ed Balls has joined in too, with a suggestion to "Send one Miliband brother to Africa to supplement international aid"? "In this age of austerity we can't really afford two of them," writes "jeesus"/Balls, who adds thoughtfully: "Flights have a huge carbon footprint so he should be sent there with a boat."

Perhaps the most ingenious suggestion is entitled "Create Spending Challenge Website":

"Create a website where the entire population of the UK can make absurd suggestions on how the Government can save money. Allow easy access and registration so that users can create multiple accounts to vote on their own suggestions. As hundreds of thousands of citizens will be sat on their computer, they will not be a drain on resources outside their own homes such as roads, police, oxygen etc. Saving money."

So why is Spending Challenge turning into the Tories' biggest crowdsourced car crash since Cash Gordon?

First, the premise is wrong. The deficit has spiralled due to bank bailouts and recession – particularly falling tax revenues. Government cuts – driven by ideology rather than necessity – may well increase the deficit by dampening growth. If Spending Challenge focused on improving services, it might have something to commend it. But the title gives it away: it's about cuts.

Second, this simple crowdsourced approach, while perfect for the Photoshopped fun of MyDavidCameron, is entirely ill-suited to developing policy. Guy Aitchison explained why, in relation to the government's more benign Your Freedom website:

"I have some experience of trying to run an online political consultation having done so with the Power2010 campaign. As with 'Your Freedom' we asked people to submit ideas to be discussed and debated online in comment threads before being voted on. This process brings with it the well-known problem that the most organised and active interest groups will push their agenda to the fore (this is true of democracy in general, of course, but on the web it's amplified). It is also extremely limiting. People visiting a website have no obligation or real incentive to educate themselves on the issues or explore alternative points of view. It’s easy just to turn up, copy and paste your favourite rant, and then move on.

"Of course, there will be moderators who can identify this but I can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been missed to build in more deliberative processes that would have allowed people to explore and probe the issues face-to-face, as happened with Power2010’s deliberative poll ran by James Fishkin which brought a representative sample of over 100 people together over a weekend to discuss political reform.

"It was striking how seriously people treat the issues when given the chance (especially compared to most web discussion) and I can’t help but think an opportunity has been missed for a much richer public discussion of what the values are that people want protected. This could have informed and fed into the online deliberation and would have also been more inclusive allowing the large percentage of the population who aren't internet users to join in."

Others, too, seek more meaningful forms of public engagement – Paul Evans's Local Democracy blog is well worth reading. But for now we must make do with cut-and-paste ranting, which means this might be the only Spending Challenge suggestion that actually works: "Charge £10 a go for suggesting 'make benefit claimants work for their money' on this site."

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