Maybe the internet isn’t the answer to all our problems…
It’s never been easier to contact our elected representatives but is this a good thing?
Recently we have heard about MPs who complain that they are bombarded by emails from lobby groups. If you’ve ever returned from holiday to 1,089 new emails, I am sure you will have a bit of (grudging) sympathy for them.
More significantly, perhaps, it strikes me that being able to quickly and cheaply send an email to an MPs or sign a petition throws up a couple of problems.
Firstly, there is the principle of “willingness to pay”, which, in essence, asks us to consider how much money we are willing to put where our mouths are. This principle has been applied to “public value” for example at the BBC.
It is fine to ask people to draw up huge wish lists of how they would like the world to be improved but if they are not willing to pay (in the broadest sense of the word), then how much weight should be given to these preferences?
This approach means that many MPs and policy makers discount emails. They think that because it is so easy to send an email, that the people who send them do not necessarily really want change. Perhaps there is some truth in this assumption?
Secondly, there is the problem of “cultural capital”.
We might have expected free entry to museums to increase dramatically the number of people going to museums. But in fact, this did not happen, partly because lots of people feel like museums are “not for them”. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that museums are for wealthy and educated people.
Similarly, we know from the Hansard audits of political engagement, that people from certain backgrounds (e.g. BME groups or lower income) are less likely to take part in various forms of civic activism (e.g. petition signing).
Those who think that lobbying your MP is not for “people like us” are not going to change their mind simply because it’s easier and cheaper to do so. Instead, people who would already consider lobbying their MP will do more of it.
So what is the answer?