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Internet Is Transforming Governments and Politics

Paul Budde

People-power needs to be taken seriously

All round the world we are seeing massive social changes in the way people interact with their leaders and with their political elite. In many cases governments and politicians seem to be behaving as though they are immune to the changes that are following on from these new grassroots-based democratic processes. They often do mention reforms and recommend reforms, but there is an equal need for them to transform their own sector and their own way of conducting politics and government. This applies to both the political leaders in developed and the developing economies.

A similar trend can be observed on an international level between the people and, for example, the many UN agencies and other international institutions. These organisations also have to transform themselves in order to allow for much more inclusion and a much broader stakeholder decision-making processes.

Governments and international organisations will need to transform like all the other sectors. The top-down paradigm no longer works; a much broader approach needs to be taken, from the bottom up, if they are to remain relevant in the new digital age. Similar to newspaper publishers, music companies, telecoms companies, energy providers, book publishers, retailers and others, governments can no longer operate from within their traditional ivory towers, far more participatory systems will need to be developed, that operate on an ongoing basis, not just in the few months prior to elections.

Government sector reform

Apart from political reforms, governments also urgently require their own sector reform. Most of the industry sectors are already experiencing that the most important consequence of the digital economy is digital productivity. This means that significant costs can be — and need to be — taken out of the economy. Many government sectors are facing crises, but have so far resisted transformation; healthcare and aged care are probably the most significant sectors here, but education, energy and other services that are directly or indirectly controlled by governments or by their laws and regulations also need urgent transformation in order to sustain good quality, affordable services, for both the end-users and the taxpayers. The costs of healthcare, aged care, energy supply and so on are spiralling out of control and are requiring structural changes.

People nowadays have many ways to organise themselves, to influence processes and activities, and in general to participate in the broader government and political arena. Ignoring this development will undermine the traditional leadership role taken on by politicians; they will need to much more open themselves for a continuous dialogue. In general terms the people are not as politically divided as the politicians themselves. There might be a hard core of voters on either side, but the majority of people think and operate more in the middle ground. This applies to all issues — healthcare, education, telecoms, refugees or climate change.

People are often more sophisticated than their politicians

Not taking the middle-ground view into account and claiming to have a mandate for a more ideological approach will only further alienate the majority and increase discontent. Using their so-called 'election mandate' and basically, after such an election has been won, ceasing communication with people who are well-informed, not ideological and often highly specialised in their particular fields will see these people developing alternative action and grassroots-based activities. With the assistance of the new technologies people are able to organise themselves much better and significantly increase their influence through the use of people power; this then brings them into conflict with those politicians who are arrogantly sticking to their one-sided view and staying within their ivory towers.

We are only at the beginning of the internet revolution and it is already clear what it is doing to society. People have always wanted to become more involved in the everyday issues, and they are no longer buying political messages such as 'we have a mandate for the next few years to basically do what we want'. They also don't want to see good policies thrown out simply for ideological reasons. When a political group is elected it most certainly is not on the basis of holding a blank cheque. Most of the people they represent will have views on many issues that are far more nuanced than the official party line of that group. Such a black-and-white picture leads to situations where politicians often simply remain in their ivory towers and dictate from the top, far removed from the people. They argue with each other in parliament, while the citizens are unable to become more directly involved in policy-making activities.

This quest for more people involvement and inclusion is now going to be possible, and politicians should embrace it rather than ignore or resist it. The internet is changing the traditional ways of politics and policy-making. Politicians need to transform the way they traditionally have been — and often still are — operating and embrace this change. Obviously decisions need to be made, and politicians have an important role to play here, but it is clear that in many countries this process of decision-making has stalled or has been hijacked by certain right-wing or single-issue political groups that have no real interest in pursuing democratic outcomes.

You can dumb down politics and media, but not people

Like other sectors under pressure to transform, the political sector also opts for a dumbing-down approach, often supported by an already dumbed-down media that is focused on firing cheap shots and selling headlines that shock and sell. And to a certain extent that works.

However, when it comes to the crunch the people themselves are not dumbed-down. Yes, they will read the headline to feast on it or to get angry about it, but they then resume their life in a far more intellectual way than politicians and the media give them credit for.

The internet enables people to obtain a much broader view what is going on around them. In the past political outcomes often had to be simply accepted, as — beyond elections — the people were unable to effectively influence them. Now these outcomes can be ongoing scrutinised and checked against the real facts. People now have unlimited access to a world of knowledge and information, and many will Google these topics and issues and check Wikipedia and other trusted services to inform themselves far more widely. Not only this — they have access to each other, and can organise themselves online to more effectively influence such outcomes.

Bullying, negative, arrogant or cheap talking politicians are not accepted by such an informed society and those politicians will see themselves marginalised by the majority of the people they are suppose to represent. Unlike most politicians, people generally do not operate in a black and white environment. They have to cooperate, compromise and listen to the ideas of others that could also contribute to solving problems.

Such a rigid and old-fashioned political system will increasingly be bypassed by the people who can organise themselves into digital communities of experts that will become more and more powerful, especially in an environment where the political system fails to transform itself.

Spy scandal further alienates people from their politicians

The current spy scandals are placing a further strain on the people-politician relationship. People might not react strongly to the issue but the spying situation will most certainly make them more wary of their governments. They will be more guarded towards them, and less trusting. This is, of course, further undermining the status of politics and politicians.

The tech industry will jump onto this new situation and come up with software and services that will make it more difficult for governments and their agencies to spy on them. Because of the new awareness people will also be inclined to buy more secure services.

Furthermore, and among others, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have already implemented security that will make it impossible for NSA and others to obtain their information by using the tools they have been using in their recent spying activities. Traditionally the situation has been that due legal process had to be followed by government agencies in order to intercept communications or spy on citizens, but internet technologies make it much easier for these spooks to bypass all of that. And this is what people are worried about, not about spying as such.

People will also question the relationship between countries. Looking at the reactions from countries such as Germany, Brazil and Indonesia one really has to question the value of such spying activities. The damage inflicted on international relationships would appear to be greater than the value of any information gained. It makes sense to use the technology to catch criminals, but spying on friendly heads of state and their spouses is something completely different.

Distrust between friendly countries is going to be detrimental for social and economic developments. Everyone will lose in that environment.

Transformation of the UN and other international bodies

As mentioned above, the change in relationships between nations is also happening between people and international institutions such as the UN and its many agencies. Here, too, those organisations need to transform themselves in order to stay relevant in the digital age. They will also have to dismantle their silos and embrace the multi-stakeholder decision-making approach, engaging with the people on the ground who have their own community networks of geographically- and issues-oriented expert groups.

What we see happening here is that many of these rather disparate experts are linking up with each other through the internet and starting to form new and powerful grassroots movements.

International organisations and governments need to take these social developments into account and begin to make the changes that will be crucial for them to stay relevant in the digital age.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication. Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

Related topics: Internet Governance

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