The hyper-connectivity of the general public through the use of modern technologies, such as social media and mobile, is shining a light on the government’s inability to quickly respond to current events and develop policy in an agile way.
This was one of the findings from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skilss' Foresight project, which set out to explore how changes in politics, economics, our environment and demographics will affect our notion of identity.
Foresight highlights how mobile technology allows people to ‘swarm’, or keep in touch with large numbers of other people and to organise impromptu gatherings. This enables the mobilisation of groups, who use it as a resource for social or political change.
The UK government’s agility was challenged during 2011’s London riots, where groups were formalising across the Capital through the use of Blackberry messenger, Facebook and Twitter. The speed of communicating via these services created difficulties for the government in predicting where threats would develop.
It even led to the government assessing whether it should shut down social networks during periods of such disruption, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying at one point he would look at “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence”.
The Foresight report reads: “Younger people are much more likely to be hyper-connected, and this may strengthen and facilitate new protest movements, for example drawing attention to social, political, environmental or global issues, and mobilising protestors, including people who were not previously associated with any radical action.
“The impact of the equally hyper-connected media environment can amplify and add momentum to such movements, creating larger-scale public issues which could be unanticipated.”
It goes on to add that the speed of modern globalised communications creates an environment in the UK that allows the public to be influenced by issues and events emanating from Europe, the USA, or further afield. This can create uncertainty and volatility, says Foresight.
“Therefore, a particular challenged posed by hyper-connectivity will be the potential for greater social turbulence, which could be difficult to predict or anticipate. Policy makers will need to be alert to adverse consequences caused by these kinds of changes, as they could challenge social order,” reads the report.
Foresight highlights how the public, because of this increased speed of communications and hyper-connectivity, may expect the government to respond with ‘similar swiftness’ and be able to react in real-time to current events, ‘or at least to act more quickly’.
Foresight says: “This high expectation of agility and responsiveness poses a real challenge for policy makers. While policies that are responsive to changing identities are likely to be more effective, equally there are dangers in being either over-reactive or superficial.
“A compromise will therefore need to be found between responsiveness and agility, and the more measured approaches that have been used by policy makers in the past.”