Government 2010: Peter Kellner from YouGov, eConsultation panel

Here’s some notes from the first two sessions at Government 2010! If, in haste, I’ve accidentally misquoted/misparaphrased, I apologise in advance: there’s a lot more on Twitter, and you can watch the conference live online here.


The first speaker of the day, Peter Keller of Internet-based pollsters, YouGov, gave the opening keynote.

We all need bullshit detectors; we need to teach our children how to detect bullshit…

— Peter Kellner, YouGov

His speech was part call-to-arms, part cautionary tale; he argues that the Internet has fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and Government, largely through unprecedentedly rich access to the information used to make decisions in Government — and that this is both opportunity and threat.

He started by suggesting that the ways we use the Internet are analogous to the early days of cinema; we’re largely just using technology to do things we’ve done before. Cinema grew out of its theatrical roots to, eventually, developing its own techniques – real locations, cuts, and so forth and so on. In his view, we haven’t worked out what the interesting new techniques, and new methods, are yet; to paraphrase, “we are now exploring ways of interacting with the public which simply weren’t available ten years ago.”

Taking journalism as an example, the economics of print and the scarcity of spectrum space for broadcasters enforced a technical monopoly over the transmission of information. This meant you couldn’t compete even if you wanted to. It’s only now that the Internet has removed many of the barriers to entry. The result of this upheaval is that none of us really knows what the transmission of information is going to look like in 20 years’ time. Cases like the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck injunction farrago just demonstrate how the Internet has completely changed the rules of the game – both the business rules and the nature of reporting. In particular, he talked about accountability: Yougov is held to account by a small number of bloggers who follow polling in great detail. The effect is that YouGov, and other pollsters are more careful than would have been 20 years ago as a result; they know they’ll get called on it if they screw up!

In government, however the same technical forces have had much less impact. (That set up a fantastic quote – another early leader for soundbite of the day, in fact! – that “Going back to Ancient Greece, representative democracy has had a very long run.”). He then made a fascinating argument: that this is, in part, because elected representatives have had a technical monopoly on access to the data government’s based on. Before now, if you want the statistics which inform the Budget, you had to traipse out to your nearest HMSO, put down £50, and buy the Red Book. Nowadays, anyone can get that data online: like journalism, the barrier to participation in decision-making has been flattened.

That’s an opportunity, but also a threat. In Peter’s view, the political parties haven’t yet got the message that access to information is fundamentally changing how people interact with public services and how people approach politics. For example, we’re getting more choice in public services, but now we can know much more than we used to, and make more informed decisions, thanks to the availability of things like school inspectors’ reports on the web.

To challenge the threat that this poses, we need to fundamentally change how government operates. Government needs to be more candid; to interact genuinely; and we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater by forgetting the important social roles institutions currently play, which is something you can’t really replace with purely online interaction.

In particular, not all the information online is accurate or fair; Google helps us viscerally experience Gresham’s Law: bad money, or bad ideas, drive out good. We need to be wary that the Internet can be used to spread malice, so we need to equip kids with the critical faculties to find what they need and test what they find – and here’s where Peter Kellner, quote machine, struck again with the line up the top.

There was a lot to chew on in this speech, and I’m certain I’ve missed a lot! I’ll be going back to watch it again later.


Peter Kellner was followed by a panel on eConsultation chaired by Harry Metcalfe from The Dextrous Web (and, notoriously, Ernest Marples. Unfortunately, Tom Watson couldn’t make it (detained on constituency business), but he was deputised for by a representative of YouGov (who, right now, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for).

We’re sticking PDFs online and asking people to email us. There has to be a better way.

— Harry Metcalfe, The Dextrous Web

One of the prevailing themes here was summed up by a question from Emer Coleman of the GLA; if the Government gets to choose the questions asked, is it really consultation at all? Harry Metcalfe had already argued that you need to consult before publishing a Green Paper, in order to frame the debate; Ewan McIntosh of 4iP pointed out that just because papers are commented on, it doesn’t mean real consultation is happening. Neil Williams of Debategraph went further: with the audience of consultations being largely self-selecting, noisy and vocal minorities will loom large in online debate.

Next up, the bloggers: a panel chaired by Iain Dale, featuring Mick Fealty (Slugger O’Toole), Stephen Tall of Lib Dem Voice, Craig Elder from the Conservative Party, and Adam Parker of Realwire. That should be interesting — more soon!

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.