Poetry competitions and e-democracy in the UK

07.02.2010 Poetry competitions and e-democracy in the UK

Can a creative writing competition (the MAG poetry competition) solve one of the central problems of e-democracy?

First of all, if we're a little shaky on what the term e-democracy means (probably most of us) we can clear this up by reviewing (selectively) the discussion topics at the Future-Democracy '09 conference, 25th November 2009, London, UK.

The keynote speech by Will Straw, Editor, Left Foot Forward, focussed on blogs. In a nutshell, anyone can set up a blog and become a kind of self-styled online newspaper. The process has taken off more in the USA than in the UK, probably because the USA has no real national newspapers, unlike the UK situation. In the USA, this leaves more space for the small players to move into. Anyway, bloggers can actually create and break news.

Next up was a speaker from Italy, Guglielmo Celata, who talked about a remarkable website Openpolis which collects information on about 130,000 politicians in Italy and makes it available to the public in an easy to search format. For Guglielmo, the central notions of e-democracy are openness and transparency.

The session on engaging young people in e-democracy saw Tom Lodziak talk about the UK Youth Parliament and Becky Allen from the Hansard Society talk about Heads Up. Both websites aim at generating discussion from young people about current issues. The Heads Up initiative focuses on having a defined outout - a set of ideas and conclusions that can be fed into government policy-making forums. Jo Woolf talked about Channel 4's Battlefront which is a site promoting young people's campaigns.

The morning finished with Catherine Howe, Operations Director, Public-i, talking about the challenge of bringing the sheer volume of discussion (noise) that Social Media (Facebook and Twitter) can generate into a useful output. For the moment the social web resembles the Wild West and a Facebook group with 1million members doesn't constitute a refined decision-making process that will drive society forward.

The afternoon was organised into a series of concomitant workshops. You couldn't go to everything. The highlight here (from a press perspective) was probably the workshop on the future of electronic petitions. The UK government is making e-petitions compulsory for all local councils in the UK. I opted out of this session but fortunately the good people at the BBC were vigilant and covered this in full BBC coverage of e-petitions.

So, what are the key threads running through e-democracy? And where does the MAG poetry competition fit in?

The first key thread is transparency. The web is increasing transparency. More information is becoming available and this information is being rapidly disseminated to anyone who is in a position to absord rapidly disseminated information. This process is going ahead whether people like it or not. In this context the MAG poetry competition sits confortably but this isn't the rub.

The second key thread, that comes up over and over, is participation. The web is giving more and more people the opportunity to have a voice. But the problem for e-democracy is that few, if any, mechanisms exist to translate these voices into a source of constructive decision-making. E-petitions certainly represent one way forward.

In this second context, the MAG poetry competition has developed its own unique mechanism to convert the opinions of the participating poets into an effective decision - the choice of winner. Interestingly this is achieved without discussion. There is no online debate over which poem is the best poem. The 2010 MAG poetry competition incorporates further innovation in that participants will be able to leave comments during the judging process - but these comments will only be published after the winners have been announced.

Whether this has wider implications for e-democracy time will tell. E-democracy, however, looks to be having an impact on poetry competitions.

Thank you to Dan Jellinek, Event Chair, Future Democracy 09 for putting together such a varied and fascinating group of speakers which stimulated so many thoughts and ideas.


Peter Hartey

Organizer, MAG Poetry Prize