Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has asked the British public to help decide which laws should be repealed by way of what can only be described as an exercise in crowdsourcing via the government sponsored ' Your Freedom ' website. However, it seems the great British public are not taking this journey into online democracy in action quite as seriously as the politicians would have hoped.
"The Coalition Government is committed to restoring and defending your freedom" Clegg says "and we're asking you to participate." Which is nice, as is the notion that "Rules in society create good law and order. But too many nannying, unnecessary rules restrict freedom and make criminals out of ordinary people." Many members of the public will agree with that sentiment, and will be happy to that they have been invited to help the government "root through the laws of our land, identify anything which looks unnecessary, pointless, or just downright daft, and ask – are these necessary?"
However, no sooner had Clegg posed the question: "Which offences do you think we should remove or change, and why?" online than things started to go wrong. First there was the completely expected, by everyone other than the government and those responsible for running the site itself it would seem, deluge of public interest that resulted in the crowdsourcing site crashing to a halt under the sheer volume of traffic. On day one the site saw more than 2,200 ideas, 7,419 comments and 18,000 votes, and that despite many people being unable to actually connect at all.
But that was just the tip of this particular political iceberg. Far more seriously is the lack of seriousness of many of the responses that have been made to that request for help. Did Clegg and Co really not foresee that, when given the chance to rant, the British public would rant? Well rant they have, and then some. Indeed, this morning the government was forced to post an 'update notice' to remind participants that "we want you to suggest ideas for removing laws and regulations, rather than ideas for creating them." A little late, considering there are already some wonderful suggestions for raising the motorway speed limit to 100MPH, bringing back the death penalty, charging for hospital food and the introduction of National (military) Service for the unemployed. Seriously, if you didn't know better you might think you had stumbled upon a rebranded edition of the Daily Mail newspaper online.
The frightening thing is that Clegg has promised that "your ideas will inform government policy and some of your proposals could end up making it into bills we bring before Parliament to change the law." Or perhaps the really frightening thing is that anyone actually believes this to be the case.
As I write, the ideas with the most comments include such knee jerk reactionary stuff as bringing back the death penalty and reversing the fox hunting and smoking bans, as well as slightly more well thought out things like a repeal of the Digital Economy Act. Others have taken the opportunity to vent their spleens at such archaic laws as the one covering archery on a Sunday which dates from 1515 and another that apparently requires citizens to report grey squirrels when they see them.
But my favourite, and quite literally the elephant in the room referred to in the title of this news story, has to be the one calling for a relaxation in the laws surrounding pachyderm ownership which states "The regulations on owning an elephant are complex. We believe it is not the state's business to discriminate against pet lovers and propose a simplification in the rules currently on the statute books. Due to excessive regulation ownership of a pet elephant is almost impossible for hard-working families on average incomes."
I find myself agreeing with The Guardian's Duncan Campbell when he writes "...the battle to catch Clegg's attention is at fever pitch. Who is going to win? The drivers? The hunters? Or maybe alliances like the smoking gunowners or the driving hunters? Does he know what he has unleashed?"
I fear he does not. If this online crowdsourcing experiment just leads to frustration in the corridors of power and abuse by the great unwashed, who is to say it will ever be repeated? And that, dear reader, is bad news for anyone who truly gets the value of online democracy in action.