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Why ‘Your Freedom’ is a failure

In response to this discussion over at b3ta (and because I can’t post a response there), I thought I’d sum up why I think this exercise is a failure.

The idea behind this is sound – crowdsourcing opinions from ordinary citizens on laws they find restrictive or unnecessary. But the execution is so poor it is simply a waste of time and resources. And here’s why:

The site doesn’t work. They’ve clearly tried to rush this out, and do it on the cheap, so the site’s unstable. It was inaccessible for much of launch day. There’s no search functionality either, so instead of encouraging people to comment on suggestions that have already been made, it forces people to add their comments as new suggestions (unless they want to scroll through 46 pages of listings to see if it’s already been picked up). This means that people who have a valid point are buried in the sheer volume of contributions.

It’s vague. Instead of providing a platform for meaningful online consultation, asking for specifics on what legislation should be looked at, it simply asks for “ideas”.

As a result, we have a massive shit-fest, including suggestions for more laws, repeal of laws that weren’t laws in the first place, and the rather predictable deluge of people calling for laws to reinforce their existing prejudices.

Given all of this, it’s hardly a surprise that the suggestions look like something from the BBC’s Have Your Say.

It’s tokenistic. This is just a website, it’s not a genuine commitment to listen to what people want and act upon it. There’s no commitment from the government that they’re going to do anything about the suggestions put forward here. In fact, only today the Conservatives have said they consider Parliamentary reform to be an unnecessary distraction when we’ve got the economy to deal with. If that’s the case, why are they asking for our thoughts on repealing the law on reporting squirrel sightings?

People are already having conversations on forums across the internet, and face to face with their MPs, via the media, and down the pub. We all make it clear through existing channels what laws annoy us. Yet our elected representatives ignore these calls. This site won’t change that.

Someone on B3ta suggested it’s better that exercises like this exist so people who normally wouldn’t engage in the political process can do so.

I’d disagree; in the long term these kind of half-hearted, tokenistic exercises only serve to increase people’s cynicism about politics. If someone’s taken the time to add a suggestion to Your Freedom, only for absolutely nothing to happen in response to these, they’re going to be even more disengaged next time.

I’d also take issue with the name: Your Freedom. Freedom includes freedom from things as well as freedom to do things. Freedom from harm, from want, from harassment, from pain. Giving one person the freedom from, say, racial harassment necessarily means restricting someone else’s freedom to harass. This is why we have laws, and indeed lawmakers whose job it is to weigh up the arguments based on the evidence.

I fully support meaningful online consultation, and honestly believe that done properly it has a hugely important role to play in restoring public confidence in our politics.

But this is not meaningful consultation. And it’s not been done properly.

How can we do this better?

Design the consultation better. That doesn’t just mean designing your website better – although that would help – but put some thought into how you can make this a useful consultation exercise.

That means leading your users through the consultation. If you want people to think about changing laws, ask them to specify which legislation they want to change. Not everyone will know this, so link to the places where they can find out. You’ll need search functionality, and might need to re-write content to make it suitable for a lay audience. This would get people to think about what the law is now, and how we can make the law better.

By actually linking to the relevant existing legislation, you’d would provide a meaningful basis on which to kick of discussions between users, looking at the pros and cons of changing the law.

Include a mechanism to remove duplicates. It’s not difficult to get an algorithm to suggest duplicates before a user posts. This would prevent having hundreds of posts on the same topic. As it stands, perfectly sensible posts are lost in the sheer volume and arguments against the same law aren’t joined together to form a stronger, more coherent argument.

Staff your consultation properly. That would allow comments to be pre-moderated to remove dross, offensive comments and anything that’s simply impossible, like the suggestion to remove the laws of gravity.

Facilitating discussions by adding relevant links to legislation, keeping conversations on track and banning trolls would improve the quality of the consultation’s output, and mean there’s something genuinely useful at the end of all this for the coalition to look at.

This poorly-designed, poorly-resourced exercise is unlikely to produce anything useful at all. Once this closes, politicians will look at the thousands of incoherent, irrelevant posts and conclude online citizen consultation is a waste of time. That’s a real shame, and a huge missed opportunity

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