Beyond #BoatyMcBoatface: Digital Tools for Democracy

Screenshot 2016-05-20 10.53.42

While various elections were taking place the other week another Democratic Battle was coming to an end: Rest In Peace RSS Boaty McBoatface – and all who will never sail in her.

After much hype, laughter and excitement regarding the potential new name of Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) £200m polar research vessel the policy makers decided that it should be named after Sir David Attenborough.

This doesn’t initially seem to be a controversial choice, but if we throw into the mix an open Name Our Ship Poll, harnessing the power of the internet to crowdsource names, we find that the winning entry received a mere 11,023 votes compared to a whopping 124,109 votes for Boaty McBoatface.

The Boaty McBoatFace phenomenon could be held up as warning against using digital tools to involve people in decision making. Policy makers may now see the idea of using the internet to harness the wisdom of crowd as a scary and potentially risky activity.

Kate Hoey MP implied that soon we will have a whole host of silly names for research equipment noting: “democracy is alright, but once you involve people in naming everything…” Douglas Carswell MP felt that the boat should be named Boaty McBoatface: “as a monument to ministerial folly” and as a “warning to those wishing to try I-democracy that they should think it through first.”

Rather than any more profound comment on democracy what this episode really gives us is a neat caricature of poor implementation to Open Policy Making:

  • tokenistic;
  • giving the public no real power or influence;
  • keeping open the opportunity to ignore public input

James Wilson of Sheffield University noted at the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the Boaty Fiasco in Parliament last week: “If you ask a superficial low stake question you will get a trivial answer” and you may get a more interesting response from deeper engagement.

Stella Creasy MP, also at the hearing, highlighted the differences between awareness, engagement and actual participation. She observed that the NERC may have achieved plenty of awareness, and some engagement, but the public weren’t really participating in the future policy and direction of the Research Council.

Now, a silly name for a ship is not exactly the pioneering area we want to explore in terms of digital democracy but it provides an opportunity to explore the potential of digital democracy to create positive outcomes, as opposed to embarrassing headline generating gaffes.

Last weekend at the first ever Demfest, Ben Fowkes, of Delib, and I set out to do just that. We managed to come up with a whole range of examples where digital democracy went beyond trivialisation and towards being an empowering mechanism for people to shape issues that affect them.

Ben & Ali collaborating at Demfest
Ben & Ali collaborating at Demfest

You can find our slides here, our recent report on Digital Tools for Participatory Budgeting here, and some examples from Delib here.

There is a silver lining to the Boaty McBoatface saga: NERC announced that Boaty McBoatface will live on as a high-tech remotely-operated undersea vehicle!

So it seems Boaty McBoatface will never die, and neither will the potential of digital tools to enrich our democracy. But if any digital democracy is to be success it will be more likely to be determined by the quality of the engagement and participation processes, than by the type of digital tool that is used.


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