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The Government Needs to Get Serious About Digital Elections

23/03/2015 11:14 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:59 BST

The buzzword of the moment seems to be discussed much more than it is understood. Digital, not forgetting the accompanying disruption, has sent many a corporation scrambling to find out what exactly it means for their particular product or service. The debate is ongoing as to whether this means an overhaul of organisational structures or simply a fancy Twitter account, but for the political sphere it has the potential to be far more fundamental.

It is true that many corporations would do well to look to the Government Digital Service for guidance. GDS, set up in 2011 by Francis Maude's Cabinet Office, has a mandate that sounds every bit the Silicon Valley inspired sound bite: 'Digital by Default'. However, where many companies have been quick to create the structure and then flounder with the substance, GDS has quietly set about significantly improving how the Government is run.

The easy to use and slick GOV.UK is their most visible achievement. They have replaced the confusing and ineffectual Directgov, decommissioned 685 website domains and subdomains and put 312 government agencies and departments on a single website. The site has made it much simpler for the public to find the information they need quickly online. Just one example of this comes from the Intellectual Property Office which recorded a 19% drop in call centre volume, 17% drop in emails and a staggering 42% drop in customer visits after their website moved to GOV.UK.

GDS, under the stewardship of Mike Bracken, has changed the way government operates in the digital landscape. By championing the maxim of Continuous Improvement it is creating better digital services for the public. Such is the success of GDS that in the recent budget it was announced that the same principles are to be extended to local government. However, there is one vital thing missing from Westminster's embrace of all things digital.

With a Civil Service informed and serious about digital change, the time has come for Westminster to get serious about online voting. Politics in this country is fighting a debilitating climate of cynicism and apathy. Nowhere is this more pronounced than with young people. According to the widely cited British Election Study, voter turnout is lowest in the 18 - 24 age group and this has been the case since the 1970s. At the last election only 51.8% of people in this category voted. Although 2010 was higher than in 2005, it still lags behind other age groups and is expected to drop further still this May.

This is the same generation that has grown up in the digital age. It is a generation that spends a vast amount of time each day on the Internet, and increasingly through the medium of a smartphone. It is the generation that uses a keyboard to tweet displeasure rather than a pen to write it. It is the generation that banks, shops and communicates digitally. Is it any wonder that the polling day ritual of travelling to a town hall and casting one's vote on a piece of paper seems so archaic?

Online voting would not just benefit the young, it would benefit the millions of people leading busy lives by making it easier for them to exercise their democratic right. Westminster has often been slow to act on such things but it needs to recognise that such disillusionment needs bold action, and bringing democracy into the 21st century would be one such action. As serious as security fears are, they should be overcome and not used as an excuse for inertia.

The apparatus is there. GDS has made fantastic strides towards realising a truly digital government. However, such a shift in mindset represents an opportunity that cannot be missed. As much as our society is digital, it is every bit as cynical. The next decade will make great strides forward for communication, health, business and sport, but let it also be the decade that politics repairs its broken reputation. Nobody knows what will pick politics up from the gutter, but online voting might just be a start.