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If Only Jefferson Had Had E-Mail

The New Statesman 20 February, 1998 Bill Thompson and Scott Aikens report on attempts by No 10 to widen policy debate, using the Internet. A recurring criticism of the new Labour government has been the apparent unwillingness of senior policy makers to engage in debate with those who are not already seen as "inside" the project. So there is keen interest in an electronic experiment in policy formation currently under way; for the first time the Policy Unit at Number 10 is undertaking an online consultation exercise among the group of academics, journalists, MPs and policy wonks clustered around Nexus, the self-styled "virtual think-tank"( The subject of the consultation is the nature of the "Third Way", to which renewed attention has been drawn by the recent exchange of ideas between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, first at Checquers and more recently at the White House. As Clinton himself said: "We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say Government is the enemy and those who say Government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way". The idea of holding an online debate emerged after a meeting earlier this year between David Halpern, a Nexus co-founder and Cambridge academic, and David Miliband, director of the Policy Unit. Rather than run a conventional briefing, it was decided to use an Internet mailing list run by Nexus to bring together academics and other interested parties so that they could discuss the Third Way. The results of this would be turned into a briefing paper for the Policy Unit, with some of the participants invited to attend a seminar at Number 10 at which this paper would be discussed with the Prime Minister. Nexus, which was set up in 1997, has conducted much of its work via the Internet through a number of linked electronic mailing lists and a "virtual library" of papers on the Nexus website. The first stage of the debate took place on a Nexus electronic mailing list earlier this month. More than 100 postings were made by 43 contributors, including an opening statement from Milliband on behalf of the Number 10 Policy Unit. During the debate contributions were made by David Marquand, Stewart White (who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Tony Wright MP, John Browning of The Economist and Julian LeGrand from the LSE. The briefing paper is now being written forsubmission to Number 10. The mailing list, called uk-policy, has been running for about six months. Mailing lists are one of the main tools of today's digital academic, providing a discussion space in which list members can post messages which are automatically distributed to all other members -tens, hundreds or, for some of the main lists, tens of thousands of interested individuals around the world. The uk-policy list is closed and moderated - that is, people applying to join the list have to be approved by Nexus, and all posts are read and approved by the list moderators before they are sent out. The aim with uk-policy has been to limit the number of messages sent and ensure that they are relevant to the subjects under discussion. In some instances it is necessary to have strong moderation, although at other times

it is preferable for participants themselves to develop and enforce aims. In any case, a good list architect uses various tools to achieve a desired environment, always avoiding the common tendency of mailing lists and USENET newsgroups to decay into abuse or irrelevance. While uk-policy is a closely managed list, an archive of all messages is publicly available at the Nexus website (, allowing anyone who is interested to follow the debate. It would be almost impossible to keep list postings secret anyway, since any list member can forward a posting to other individuals or even other lists with a simple click of a mouse. In some respects the Third Way debate is just another aspect of the development of "electronic democracy", a term which has been in use for several years. Reflecting the wider access to email and the Internet there, the US has a number of well-established political Websites and discussion forums. One of the most mature, the Minnesota MN-POLITICS mailing list and Website, was in fact a direct inspiration for Nexus, but even in Minnesota the focus is on public politics rather than the policy process. In this respect the Nexus debate marks a significant development in the use of the new media within the political system, opening the opportunity for national and even global "wonkathons" involving the world's foremost thinkers and possessing a democratic edge. Simple online consultation is not itself new. Email responses were first invited to last year's Conservative Green Paper on electronic access to Government (the Government.Direct initiative), and this is now the norm. The fledgling electronic democracy pressure group UK Citizens Online Democracy has run online debates for Brent Council and is currently fielding the public consultation on David Clark's Freedom of Information Green Paper ( But there has never been an attempt to use the tools of electronic democracy at the highest levels of policy making, nor to reach out to such a concentrated collection of geographically distributed expertise. It would have been impossible to get all of the contributors to the Third Way debate together in one place at one time, or to allow sufficient time for all the contributions to be made. But an email list allows for distributed participation, thoughtful reflection and extended debate, characteristics which most policy seminars do not share. Whatever the wider significance, the results of the debate are interesting in themselves, particularly the gulf which opened up between New Labourites who, despite qualms, consider Blair's use of the term "Third Way" sufficient in itself to guarantee its reality, and those who prefer to look instead to a "new politics" which is not hidebound by traditions. The range of contributors has been impressive. Whereas Thomas Jefferson was forced to remain in France throughout the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Stuart White, one of the Nexus founders, was able to contribute to this debate via email from MIT. Nexus, as a relative newcomer to the world of think-tanks, is obviously pleased to be given the opportunity to run such a prestigious debate, and to have the active participation of the Policy Unit. In the UK the distinction between this sort of consultation and the nation-wide public participation encouraged by pressure groups such as UKCOD seems likely to grow, with "electronic politics" and "electronic democracy" emerging as separate threads of the larger digital universe. The recent launch of the government intranet, providing a secure network for ministerial and Civil Service collaboration across departments, and the encouragement of interactive technologies in local government mark other important developments, suggesting that digital governance is here to stay. If, as planned, the debate feeds into a Downing Street seminar attended by the Prime Minister then the contributors will almost certainly have had more influence over Blair's thinking on this key issue than most Government backbenchers. This again raises the wider issue of access and accountability within electronic politics. Policy formulation in the UK has long been based on closed meetings, invitation only seminars and private contacts. It would be a tragedy if the closed mailing list replaced the smoke-filled room as the locus of political manipulation. While the Nexus experiment, with an open access archive of all postings and liberal approach to list membership, is far from this, it would take only a few modifications to the host computer to turn uk-policy into a closed seminar. The key

question for the government now is whether it wants serious debate in the open, not whether it wants to use computer technology to make debate possible. Bill Thompson is a journalist specialising in Internet affairs. Scott Aikens is a US academic based at Cambridge University They are joint moderators of the uk-policy mailing list.