NEWS19 March 2014

‘A lot of noise, and very little informed debate’

Deborah Mattinson, Peter Kellner and Richard Wilson debate decision-making in a ‘tweetocracy’.


Up for debate this afternoon on day two of the MRS Annual Conference was how decision-making in a democracy has been affected by the increase in noise and data in the digital age.

“The huge wave of published information coming at our politicians has not affected politics in a healthy way,” claimed Deborah Mattinson, co-founder of Britain Thinks.

Taking aim at the daily polls produced by organisations like YouGov, Mattinson said: “There’s a lot of noise, and very little informed debate.” Twitter goes mad, she says, when a poll shows a change in voting intention that might not even be statistically significant.

Her claims were refuted by Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, who said that quick polls were important and that he “hoped that over time people become more intelligent regarding what polls do and what they can’t do.”

He pointed out that it was a YouGov poll that provided solid information regarding the general public’s hostility to military action when the Syria debate came to the fore late last summer. “We provided a useful confirmation of something that MPs suspected. It is good democratically that MPs have that information. But this is different from saying, ‘Should they be led by public opinion?’”

He added that, in many instances, it is important that politician’s are not “blown around” and are free to decide on the merits of a course of action.

According to Richard Wilson, director of Osca: “What we’re seeing is the digitisation of civic life, with a tweet replacing a chat down the pub with your MP. The lines between a tweet and a robust poll are blurring, but I think that politicians are developing antennas with regards to what is meaningful. Communicating via MPs surgeries doesn’t make much sense any more.”

He admitted, however, that it is hard to see a “prescription” for making politics work better but said that, in his opinion, the “big opportunity in the digital space is fewer, more robust polls, rather than reactive politics, driven from a place of insecurity rather than strength”.

Mattinson proposed building-in a mechanism whereby people are chosen at random from the electoral register in a system which makes public involvement in policy development compulsory, in a similar way to jury service. “Politicians get things wrong all the time,” she said, while discussing this form of political co-creation.

But Kellner said that it is important that politicians continue to make decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. “Polls, tweets, emails are all part of the process of conversation. But the buck stops with them.”

He added: “I hope that decisions are taken more rationally. I think what we are seeing is what we often see following huge technological change: turbulence, uncertainty, trial and error; a lot of error …  I hope it will settle down.”