Iain Dale, Mick Fealty, Stephen Tall, Craig Elder from the Conservative Party and Adam Parker from Realwire kicked off the blogger session at Government 2010 with five minutes each. Here’s something on each of those! Mick went first:
To state the bleedin’ obvious, there is a sea-change ahead.
Mick observed that, thus far, the Internet has been very poor at generating nuanced, useful thinking or innovation: online consultancy is viewed as a box to tick rather than as something which helps better decisions get made. However, what blogs and social media have done well is quick, light response – agile responses to changing circumstances.
What he’d like to see is a move from ‘closed-source’ to ‘open-source’ analysis of policy. A lot of policy at Westminster level gets made in think-tanks, but that approach is just too expensive to work for local and devolved governments. Furthermore, think-tanks work in seclusion: they have no room for consultation with, or contention from, the public. He suggest that if that process could take place in fluid, moderated communities in public, then that could change how policy is made for the better.
Next up was Craig Elder, online communities manager for the Conservatives. He says that what’s going on now is “old politics on new media”. There’s a worrying feeling that what’s said on new media is not going to be taken seriously: with, for example, Number 10 e-petitions, everyone points at the Jeremy Clarkson for PM campaign, but that happens because of cynicism about whether anyone’s listening.
He thinks that we can change that through creating the sense that citizens are empowered, particularly through data – for example, online crime maps which let the public see whether the money spent is working. On the other hand, does the number of Ministers on Twitter herald a new age of engagement? Not really – in a sense, it’s “Twittering while Rome burns”. Is this really the best thing that ministers can do?
Trafigura, though is a testament to the interrogrative powers of the blogosphere: proof that there’s potential here, but it’s very early days yet.
Stephen Tall, of Lib Dem Voice, then spoke on the power of unofficial consultations – they get to different audiences from official ones, and some (like Facebook groups) have the potential to convert “slacktivists” to activists. Steve Webb’s been holding surgeries – with 200 participants! – on Facebook, and:
Official council consultations are crap, and no-one responds to them anyway.
Apparently. (He later pointed out that Whitehall publishing only the data it wants published won’t empower people: to do that you have to go local, go in depth, and publish all the data.)
Inevitably, Twitter came up again – the first Twitterer during Prime Minister’s Questions was Jo Swinson, who got flak for abuse of Parliamentary privilege. It’s subsequently taken off, though: there were 96 tweets from MPs during the last PMQs. Still: is this really a worthwhile use of MPs’ time?
Finally, he proposed three tests for whether social media projects are worthwhile. Are you able to get more information out to people in a digestible form? Are you genuinely engaging with them? Are you empowering them? That’s what really works.
And, lastly, Adam Parker, of Realwire, introduced himself as “Jarvis Cocker on Question Time, only without the talent”. Way harsh, especially after his first point: that it’s not social media’s fault if the conversations are dull! If we want people to be engaged, we have to first be interesting. What’s more, not everyone’s on the Internet, not that many people are on Twitter or read Iain Dale’s blog. So, social media’s biggest impact in the short to medium term is going to be where it influences, or sets, the mainstream media agenda.
In particular, when it comes to politicians and parties engaging directly with the electorate, he’s not convinced. Retail brands are being forced to participate in social media in order to defend their market position and brand image. In other words, they’ve got an economic incentive; will social media ever be a real force in politics until it hits politicians at the ballot box?