Can goverment change old habits and give up control? Insights on govenment on the web

Repeating Mick’s question Is Our Politics too Big for the Net? I thought I’d show what the Hansard Society I’m associated with has been doing with parts of the UK Government to shake up their interactive communication and accountability. There are ideas here that could be adopted by Stormont. Digital Dialogues is part of the Society’s wide ranging e-democracy programme. It was a three phase “review of ways in which central government can use new technologies to promote public engagement and democratic renewal.” The tone of that formal-sounding mission statement reflects the pretty stilted approach of the official mindset – old habits die hard – but they’re making a big effort to hit the market. And I’m confident that the exercise holds the germ of greater accountability and direct democracy to come. I pick out three examples. 1. From E petitions in the Downing St website
From the Digital Dialogues report:

Coinciding with Tony Blair’s final weeks as prime minister, a series of public lectures were held in which he set out his view of contemporary issues affecting the UK. The final lecture on the media and public life became the focus of this engagement exercise. Journalists and commentators were invited (by Reuters and the Hansard Society, respectively) to take part in an argument mapping exercise about the lecture, which was testing new technology which aimed to facilitate deliberation (rather than polarised debate).

In the event, few people took part in the web deliberations. Invitees commented on the prohibitively complex interface that greeted them, but there were other reasons for their non-participation. Most were interested in commenting on the lecture in their own newspaper columns, and they set out their position on the topics raised by the former prime minister there rather than on the deliberative site.

2. David Miliband’s current blog has been developed as part of a suite of blogs by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

DD report “The suite of blogs incorporated another ministerial blog as well as those of a number of embassy staff and delegates to a range of countries (from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe). Despite the sensitivity of the contexts from which the FCO bloggers were posting, they were given camcorders and encouraged to post videos of the environments in which they work. Many made multimedia entries to the blog, combining text with video to show the complexity of their work.”

3. Food Standards Agency blog.

DD report “There is a requirement on the FSA to produce entries that have a broader appeal.” ( Well, this one on washing green salads made the MSM news, so they may have learned a lesson already)

From DD conclusions on the whole review . “People have different motivations for participating in online deliberations with government. Some want to have their say; others want to find out what other people think and to see how government responds. Online deliberations provide the government with opportunities to enhance public understandings of their work, but they are not a solution to disengagement of themselves. That relies on good practice.

Our research shows that online engagement exercises with clear objectives have fared better than those with undefined goals. Websites that combine careful planning and appropriate marketing with the development of reflexive engagement strategies have a greater chance of success”

The report is written in equally careful officialese but it’s pretty clear that better blogging skills with a touch of anarchy are generally needed. Can government supply them? And do people expect that from them? Two big steps towards enhancement add up to more independent input for effective interaction and real connectivity with the people: one, strong minded, independent mediation in the public’s favour ; and two, frequent external hosting. The big question is: Is government prepared to cede control? Still it was ambitious exercise and a fair effort. The public take-up is expanding and the quality can only get better. Browse in the Hansard Society site for more information and ideas.