BBC closes £1.3m experiment in grassroots online democracy

In a few days’ time, on April 30, the BBC will close down its experiment in grassroots democracy, the Action Network.

The project started life five years ago as BBC iCan. According to the people involved at the time, iCan was a significant change for public service broadcasting because it was about encouraging people to get involved rather than sitting back and watching politics happen.

In a farewell note, the BBC noted the growth of blogs and social networking services had essentially made the Action Network redundant:

We now feel that the pace and innovation of online democracy means that our members can access a wider range of web tools, and have more control of their campaigns, outside Action Network.

In some ways, the project was flawed from the start. When it was launched, there were questions as to whether a public broadcaster should be involved in hosting grassroots campaigns. As BBC News editor Peter Horrocks noted in a recent speech:

The whole web is now out there for anyone with a special interest to pursue their cause easily. We have learnt from that experiment and are now pointing users to alternative ways, inside and outside the BBC, of getting their voices heard. The general conversation on the web is freely available to all. The BBC does not have to host that either.

Horrocks also explained that the BBC had gradually withdrawn investment from the Action Network “because the level of involvement in it compared to the cost was inappropriate”. In other words, it was failing to attract enough people to justify the expense.

Action Network costs
Tom Steinberg, of WhatDoTheyKnow and other online civic projects, put in a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the BBC had spent on the Action Network.

The total from 2003 to 2006 came more than £1.3 million.

The BBC has been eager to stress that it “will continue our commitment to help people engage in civic life and national debate with two new initiatives”.

The exact shape of these is still unclear, though there is speculation that by a greater emphasis on linking out to other people’s blogs and websites, the BBC may be adopting its own version of networked journalism.