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Trouble at the e-town hall

My councillor was having a bad day. Not only had he chosen a quiet time to visit a local night-club troublespot, but he had managed to patronise both a student and a war veteran during door-to-door campaigning - all in front of the regional TV news cameras.

Compounding his frustrations was traffic congestion making him late for his town hall surgery and the poor selection of constituents to talk to once he got there. His party's popularity score was dwindling alarmingly as he set out on his evening appointments.

The chance to experience these trials and tribulations vicariously is possible thanks to the interactive computer game Councillor Quest, one of three developed as part of the e-Democracy National Project recently launched at the Science Museum.

Explaining the scheme's aims, its manager Julian Bowrey said: "It is one of 22 schemes being funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to help deliver an overarching national strategy for local e-government. Our contribution has been supporting the initial development of over 100 ideas using new technology as a means of encouraging citizen participation in local decision-making. And now we have received an additional pound;500,000 to whittle the proposals down to about a dozen that can be fully developed."

The three games, clearly hot contenders to survive and develop during this whittling, have been created by North Lincolnshire Council in partnership with games developer Delib.

Captain Campaign enables players to take on the role of a pressure group battling for or against proposals likely to affect the community. These include the construction of a by-pass, a regional decision to build thousands of houses, and national policy regarding GM crops.

Players have to create a campaign team, based on the intelligence and communication skills of a set of characters, deploying them for such things as fundraising, media work or political lobbying. In the process they have to develop strategies and work within budgets.

Money Manager helps players examine the decisions councils have to make with limited resources, allocating a budget for long-term goals as well as immediate crises and watching their popularity soar or dip according to their priorities.

As the coffers dwindle, harder decisions have to be made regarding taxes.

The best-laid financial plans can go into free fall - if, for example, freak weather conditions occur, election chances dwindle if the player refuses to stump up emergency funds.

Key-note speaker Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at Oxford University, pointed out the appropriateness of the launch event's location at the Science Museum, surrounded by past innovations. "We are at another key technological transitional moment, with the web poised to take democratic engagement in all sorts of unforeseen directions," he said.

"Technology has significantly lowered the threshold for entry for those that wish to mobilise. It has also made politics truly interactive - emails always invite two-way communication. The challenge is to encourage this involvement, getting people participating on a scale never before thought possible in the negotiation, trade-offs, joking and shouting that are part and parcel of politics." Expectations clearly ride on these e-games making an important contribution to this process.

When Money Manager was put through its paces by students from north London schools, in competition with e-Government's Julian Bowrey, it was played at breakneck speed, with the "young guns" emerging triumphant.

All agreed that injecting more deliberation into the process in class was both possible and preferable. Zoe Ganley (14) of Mill Hill County High School was delighted to have outplayed the professional. "It gave me a good sense of the constant need in politics to balance popularity against the responsibility to provide services. It was hard to weigh up what was best to do at times."

* Councillor Quest, Captain Campaign and Money Manager are available to play online at www.demgames.org The games come with teacher notes and key stage 3 classroom resources.

Local e-gov national projects: www.localegovnp.org.uk

The local e-Democracy National Project: www.edemocracy.gov.ukdefault.htm

BBC iCan campaign site: www.bbc.co.ukdnaicanhowtocampaign

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