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Web public's ideas change nothing

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The government's first attempt at crowd-sourcing policy has ended with every Whitehall department rejecting the public's ideas, or claiming them as endorsement of existing plans.

More than 9,500 comments were published on the Programme for Government website, which was launched on 20 May, days after the formation of the coalition.

Whitehall departments published their responses late last week to no fanfare, revealing as they did that not one policy will be changed as a result of the exercise.

On the EU, for example, the Foreign Office posted a lengthy defence of Britain's role in Europe in response to dozens of furious calls for total withdrawal.

Public demands for a complete ban on immigration were similarly rejected by the Home Office. It also took the opportunity to highlight comments supporting ongoing security policy initiatives, such as the Interception Modernisation Programme.

"It was suggested that we consider the UK's ability to collect information as well as its ability to understand it and put to best use," the Home Office claimed, implausibly.

"We know that interception and communications data capabilities are fundamental to support counter-terrorism and to fight serious and organised crime."

The full range of responses is here.

The process appears to have been very similar to the majority of non-web-based public consultations held by the previous government: Decide policy. Collect responses. Selectively publish or ignore responses to manufacture mandate for policy.

Indeed, the substantial outcome of the exercise seems to be a determination at the Cabinet Office - the department responsible for wikis - to repeat it. Oliver Letwin, the Tory minister for government policy, was overcome by the democratic power of the web to enable government to ignore more, madder public ideas than ever before.

"At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas," he said.

"Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open."

There are already two more public-opinion-harvesting websites. The Treasury, often known for ignoring the opinions of the rest of government, let alone those of the public, is running the "Spending Challenge", the challenge being to decide what not to spend. It was briefly suspended last month because of racist posts.

"Your Freedom" is meanwhile collecting ideas on restoring civil liberties, the third highest-rated suggestion being "Allow us to comment on your YouTube videos!". ®

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