This week, Jeremy Corbyn took to Facebook Live to announce the launch of The Digital Democracy Manifesto – a key policy announcement in his bid to be re-elected leader of the Labour Party, and part of his 10 pledge plan ‘to rebuild and transform Britain’ should he become Prime Minister.
As someone who has over the past decade written about social media, worked with online learning providers and co-founded a (soon-to-be-relaunched) community-led wiki/social enterprise, I’ve long been fascinated by how digital technology can influence socio-political change in the real world.
So naturally I’m enthused that a high profile politician is making a big deal about the potential digital tools have to make the UK a fairer place. Much has been written about the Digital Bill of Rights and Digital Citizen Passport aspects of the manifesto elsewhere, so I thought I’d use this post to analyse the social media orientated parts of the document…
So is Corbyn’s manifesto quality content or just digital noise?
Programming for everyone
This is the section that seemed the most eye-catching and bold. The intention is to use publicly funded Open Source technology and a National Education Service to get more children and adults into programming, coding and development.
The manifesto states that:
“The National Education Service will enthuse both children and adults to learn how to write software and to build hardware. Public bodies will financially reward staff technicians who significantly contribute to Open Source projects. We will host official events which celebrate the achievements of both the professional and hobbyist designers of the networked future.”
This will be of interest to many in the digital sector, especially in light of the Conservative government’s latest acknowledgement of the current digital skills gap in the UK.
A recent report by the Science and Technology Committee highlights that 90% of jobs in the country today require digital skills to some extent and suggests that we need 745,000 workers with these skills to fulfil industry demand by 2017.
So how we think about plugging that skills gap is undoubtedly a massive question. A nationalised educational push to get more people into programming could well be a part of the answer.
Social media education for everyone?
The ‘Community Media Freedom’ part of the manifesto looks at access to media and how people are equipped to use emerging tools to best present themselves and their ideas.
While the document doesn’t explicitly refer to social media, it does promise the following:
“We will ensure that British citizens are able both to express their own views and to receive the widest possible diversity of opinions over high speed digital networks. The National Education Service will provide learning resources for students of all ages to acquire the theoretical insights and practical skills for analysing and making media.”
This is an exciting idea for those who think more should be done to educate the public of the best way social tools – including big name services like Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs, vlogs, wikis and forums – can be harnessed for more than just communicating with friends and accessing entertainment.
Again, the nationalised education scheme looks like the key provider of this information. This is alongside a push to “reform the laws on intellectual property so that both producers and consumers benefit.” This will surely be of interest to social content platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.
Open knowledge library
After just a quick perusal of the manifesto it soon becomes clear that much of Corbyn’s ideas for the UK’s future are centred on how education is key to a future digital democracy – whether in learning to use emerging media to better express ourselves and our ideas, or in actually developing the new medias of the future.
The proposed National Education Service is essential to this, and it is tipped to be a radically democratised online tool itself:
“We will create a free-to-use on-line hub of learning resources for the National Education Service. The Open Knowledge Library will be the digital repository of lessons, lectures, curricula and student work from Britain’s nurseries, schools, colleges and universities.“
Of course, such tools aren’t new. Services such as edX offer free online courses from mostly US-centric universities. But a UK government funded place to pool learning material available to all ages and across new media is a pretty striking idea.
Help for digital social enterprises?
At first I thought the ‘Platform Cooperatives’ section was signalling the allocation of government funds to help stimulate upcoming digital entrepreneurs to focus their talents on projects of social benefit. It states:
“We will foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services. The National Investment Bank and regional banks will finance social enterprises whose websites and apps are designed to minimise the costs of connecting producers with consumers in the transport, accommodation, cultural, catering and other important sectors of the British economy.”
After reading it a few times, I’m accepting the idea might not be as far-reaching as I thought and I’m not entirely sure I understand the form such govt./bank funded sharing economy platforms will take. I think some of the confusion comes from the notion of ‘producers’ in relation to transport. (Is that private train companies or simply people who drive cars?)
That said, I see how a Corbyn government would want Britain to lead the ongoing development of sharing economy services – to make the logistics of modern life more cost-efficient and to further boost the social mobility of UK citizens. It’s surely a sector of tomorrow’s digital landscape that has massive potential.
The manifesto also looks at using digital tools to better enable members of the public to get involved in politics.
This is under a section headed ‘Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation,’ to paraphrase:
“We will utilise information technologies to make popular participation in the democratic process easy and inclusive. The holders of a Digital Citizen Passport will be automatically placed on the electoral register of their new constituency as soon as they change their home address…We will create a 21st century networked democracy where everybody can be a political decision-maker.”
There is something quite piecemeal about the way people connect with government through digital channels currently. Petitions gives individuals the quick digital means to gather signatures to get topics debated in parliament, while tools like Government Gateway are quite siloed and look like a relic from a time well before Facebook.
With that in mind, it does seem logical to have digital tools play a more unified cross-channel role in political activities, not least to get the public more engaged in a democracy where they can have more say.
What I’ve mentioned so far are the parts of The Digital Democracy Manifesto I felt most relevant to those with an interest in social media in the UK, and how social tools can play a bigger part in politics and projects to help social causes in real life.
The manifesto also includes the proposal for a Digital Bill of Rights and an opt-in Digital Citizen Passport which are both quite integral to the broader move to get more people online, and the logistics of having greater numbers of people using more digital tools. It’s worth heading over to the manifesto itself to read what they’re all about.
One key thing that struck me when going through the manifesto was how seemingly unsuitable for social media the onsite content was.
The Facebook Live launch was great, and the points within the document were quite individually tweetable, but I was surprised to see that the accompanying blog post was dry, image-less and failed to link out to examples and further information in an effort to be part of the conversation.
On top of that, much of the language (‘Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation‘?!) within the blog and PDF was less than accessible and left me – someone who has worked in digital for nearly ten years – being confused about certain pledges.
Frankly, I wonder how much the manifesto would connect with those who aren’t yet so digitally inclined.
On a content note, I was surprised to see the PDF – i.e. the actual manifesto rather than the supporting blog post – having scant more information than the post. This would have been a good place to spin out some of the more complicated ideas and to give information about plans for where funding would come from (beyond citing the National Investment Bank).
Content-wise, it was also interesting to read a political document on digital culture and to not come across references to the more obvious themes of modern digital life – such as harassment, bullying and notions of security. I wonder if leaving these out was an oversight, or a deliberate way to not overshadow the more positive elements of digital tools and online interactions.
Takeaways – quality content or just noise?
This really depends on who is reading The Digital Democracy Manifesto.
Those with an interest in social media, digital tools and progressive politics will no doubt be enthused by the policy idea. It is refreshing for any politician to be optimistic about the value of digital for real world change – particularly in terms of education and empowering the electorate.
This manifesto certainly goes a step further than embracing Facebook and Twitter as a way for MPs to connect with citizens.
On the flipside, will the manifesto connect with those it really needs to?
The content is great, but perhaps engagement with the manifesto was a bit forgotten after the initial Facebook and Twitter broadcast. I’m unsure that it’s as shareable as it could be and that someone who has just a passing interest in digital and social tools will connect with the jargon.
That, I think, is a shame – because it is those people who I think the manifesto is really aimed at. And it is those who could most benefit from a progressive government with positive ideas for the socio-political power of emerging social technology.