Twitter etiquette for corporates

It’s been amazing to watch news of Downing Street’s new Twitter account spreading round the planet. Reaction on blogs and Twitter itself has been a combination of ‘awesome!’, ‘boring!’ and ‘validates Twitter as a proper comms channel’.
But it poses an interesting question. Should a corporate channel like /downingstreet be following other people, or is it purely a one-way service? So far, I can’t decide.
Let’s be realistic: Gordon Brown doesn’t want to know what your cat had for breakfast, and deep down, you all know that. But it’s the done thing on Twitter: everyone follows everyone else. It might make people feel loved, if they see their picture embedded into the No10 page’s sidebar. It doesn’t take much effort to add people, and hey – nobody’s forcing you to read it.
Looking at it coldly then, I can’t help feeling it’s a pointless token gesture. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – look at what’s happening across the Atlantic. Barack Obama has 19,000 followers and almost the same number of ‘following’ – each of whom gets to see their picture on his profile. Hillary Clinton takes the ‘follow no-one’ approach, and has a mere 2,400 followers. And which campaign gets plaudits for its voter engagement?
Maybe that’s the point. Twitter represents a pretty deep level of ‘buy in’ to a person or a thing, much deeper than a blog subscription or email signup. You’re asking to know the minutiae on a real-time basis. By definition, it’s a more personal, touchy-feely environment. Maybe it’s the touchy-feely criteria which should matter most.
What do the rest of you think?

First MP on Twitter (?)

LibDem MP for Hornsey & Wood Green, Lynne Featherstone was one of the first MPs to start blogging, back in October 2003; she now reckons she’s the first MP to start Twittering, having tweeted (?) for the first time this morning. You’ll find her at twitter.com/lfeatherstone.
Of course, it all depends on your definitions. As Stuart Bruce will testify, Alan Johnson’s (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign for Labour’s deputy leadership used Twitter although never strictly for MP-related business; and someone has posted a few tweets under the account ‘GordonBrown‘ – one or two of which, I have to say, made me laugh out loud.  Plus our own Justin Kerr-Stevens has dragged a few ministerial statements into the Twitterverse by proxy, courtesy of his twitter.com/hmgov RSS mashup.
Twitter seems to be everywhere suddenly, just at the moment where Facebook (for me at least) has gone deathly quiet. Hitwise analyst Robin Goad presents plenty of data on the supposed slowdown of Facebook’s stellar growth in the UK, but doesn’t attempt to draw a definitive conclusion.
The points I made in a piece back in January seem just as valid now, and I’m seeing a lot of people making the same switch from Facebook to Twitter. It actually came as a bit of a shock when I spotted just how many friends and contacts were following my Twitter updates, especially when I’d done nothing to promote their existence.
Organisations would do well to look at how Twitter can slot into their online comms approach. It could be as simple as a sequence of ‘new news release’ alerts to a specific Twitter account. Not strictly in keeping with the medium’s personality, but better than nothing. And anyway, if it’s a well written news release, the first sentence should stand alone as a summary – and should therefore be perfect as a ‘tweet’.
Insanely late update: just for the record, it looks like Lynne was actually beaten by Tory MP Grant Shapps. Lynne joined on 22 March; Grant joined a fortnight earlier.

Tom Watson's 'mashed up' speech

OK, I’m an idiot. The lengthy and fair-minded piece I wrote this morning about a speech by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne at the RSA was a year late.
Osborne made some interesting points about the need ‘to recast the political settlement for the digital age.’ And now today, there’s an email doing the rounds (see Nick Booth’s piece) pointing out similarities between this 2007 speech and the one made by Tom Watson on Monday. Amusingly, it condemns the Watson speech as a ‘mashup’. But hold on. Surely it’s entirely in keeping with the whole ethos of open source, to take good ideas and build on them? Didn’t you say mass collaboration was a good thing? 🙂
OK, I’m being churlish. But this points to the biggest single hurdle in ‘politics 2.0’, or whatever we’re calling it. Inevitably, roughly once every four years, every politician’s worst instincts will come out as they fight for power or survival. You can’t blame them. That’s the adversarial, winner-takes-all political system we’re currently stuck with.
And that’s ironically why we need the apolitical Civil Service to take a lead on use of these collaborative technologies.

Independent review wants free ID cards, minimal biometrics

I’m surprised how little coverage I’ve seen of the long-awaited report by Sir James Crosby (ex boss of Halifax/HBOS) into ‘Challenges and opportunities in identity cards assurance’, published last week by the Treasury. (See press release, full doc as PDF.) It makes a number of interesting proposals, none of which merited a specific mention in the press release.
Absolutely correctly, Sir James says the potential of any such scheme ‘lies in the extent to which it is created by consumers for consumers.’ He points to a ‘fundamental’ distinction between ‘identity management’, where systems are built for the benefit of the database manager (ie government, in this case); and ‘identity assurance’, which ‘meets an important consumer need without necessarily providing any spin-off benefits to the owner of any database’.
The national security aspect becomes a pleasant side-effect. As he rightly notes, ‘a consumer-led universal scheme would better deliver on national security goals than any scheme with its origins in security and data sharing.’
Effectively, he calls for a ‘Chip and PIN’ card with a photograph on it: three independent factors – something you have, something you know, and something you are’. ‘It is the combination of such independent factors, rather than their technological complexity and individual strength,’ he writes, ‘which largely determines the resilience of the verification process.’ Well, it’s certainly got simplicity in its favour.
He says explicitly that ‘full biometric images (other than photographs) should not be kept‘; that the scheme should be operated independently of Government; and that it should be provided free of charge. But no matter how welcome and compelling his recommendations might be, there’s little sign of the Home Office swaying.
If you’ve got any interest in this subject, I urge you to read (at least) the executive summary of the Crosby report. It’s the most articulate and balanced review of the subject that I’ve yet seen. And it’s a subject we all need to care about. Nothing right now cuts as deeply to the heart of civil engagement – both in terms of what it is, and how it gets rolled out. And the signs aren’t yet good.

The rise and disappearance of Civil Serf

It was going to happen eventually. I think Puffbox.com was the first to highlight Civil Serf’s excellent blog, back in late January. She started to hit the big-hitting political blogs a few weeks later – see Dizzy Thinks, the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip, The Times’s Comment Central. But it’s only when she hits the proper media, namely this morning’s Sunday Times and Telegraph, that it becomes a big deal. Big enough, it seems, to wipe the blog from the face of the web. (Wish I’d archived it for onepolitics now.)
First off, there’s a lesson here about the relative importance of blogs in general, and the papers’ own blogging efforts in particular. If the Times and Tele were that fussed about it all, they sat on its existence for a remarkably long time. That’s assuming one desk in the newsroom is talking to another – one suspects not, on this evidence.
It’s really depressing that the blog has been deleted so quickly. I don’t recall anything especially sensitive being disclosed – she never said enough to really confirm which department she worked in, even. (For the record, some of us reached a different conclusion to the Times.)
The only controversy, and that’s already stretching the definition, was the fact that a civil servant dared to ‘tell it like it is’, and very eloquently too. It was provocative, but having been in a very similar position myself, I can say it was absolutely valid. Frankly, I think we’d be better off if there was a bit more of that.
I have a nasty feeling this has set back the cause of ‘government 2.0’ by a good few months – just as it seemed the word ‘blog’ had shaken off its most negative connotations. It’ll be interesting to see if Tom Watson makes reference to it in his big speech tomorrow.

Labourspace: great idea, awful execution

Relaunched* (presumably?) at the weekend’s Spring Conference, LabourSpace.com is the Labour Party’s campaign-based social network. Ed Miliband’s welcome message calls it ‘the place where those of us who share Labour’s values come to discuss how we want to make Britain a better place to live.’ There’s much to like about it, but they get some things stunningly wrong.
As the name suggests, MySpace is the role model. You’ve got pictorial lists of friends campaign supporters, and a campaign blog (with comments, but without RSS). There’s a simple one-click process to support or oppose the campaign in question, as well as a curious ‘revoke’ option (?). But it’s the addition of the pro-active viral aspects which make it interesting. The campaign’s ‘top recruiter’ gets their picture on the campaign profile, and there’s a competitive element to the site, based on the number of supporters recruited each monthly (?) ’round’. There’s a big button to ’email a newspaper about this campaign’. And there’s an ’email a friend’ option too.
But, er, hang on. The ’email a friend’ option wants me to supply the username and password for my personal email account? Are they serious? I imagine they want to scour my address book for people I might want to spam about my campaign… but come on guys, did you miss the recent news stories about data security?
That’s far from the only downside. There’s very little explanation of how the site actually works, apart from a Flash movie on the homepage (which nobody will sit through)… not even an ‘About’ page. The registration process is very intrusive, with address and postcode mandatory. You need to be a registered member to do almost anything, including comment on the blogs. They’ve given zero thought to SEO, judging by the lack of sensible page titles or URLs – and frankly, it looks a bit ugly.
Plus, I don’t believe ‘bringing your campaign to the attention of senior Labour politicians’ constitutes an adequate ‘prize’. If Labourspace is going to get any kind of traction, senior Labour politicians will have to take notice of it regardless. (See ConservativeHome, for example.) Offering attention as a prize doesn’t bode well.
This site could have been absolutely fantastic: e-petitions taken to the next level. But they’ve gone out of their way to make it difficult to engage with. With David Cameron talking today about making it easier and less onerous for people to connect with his party, this seems completely the wrong approach.
The Spring Conference date was known well in advance. So, what would I do with it?

  • Lose the ‘hand over your email password’ thing immediately. Unforgiveable.
  • Write a few pages telling me what the hell is going on. Dump the Flash intro.
  • Lose the Labour brand. Make me want to engage with the site, its community, its campaigns. Then let me be pleasantly surprised that it’s a Labour-backed initiative.
  • Don’t make everything ‘registered users only’. Encourage outsiders to participate.
  • Improve the design, and give campaign owners some freedom to design their own space.
  • If you’re going to do blogs, do them properly. RSS feeds would be a start.
  • Consider adding a spellcheck. It doesn’t give me great confidence in Labour’s education efforts if site members can’t spell.
  • Where’s the ability to take campaigns outside – to my own blog? my own Facebook profile?
  • Think about SEO. Start with proper page titles.
  • And clean up the source code: what’s with all the commented-out ‘lorem ipsum’ on the homepage?

Someone is eventually going to build the ultimate political campaigning platform. This could have been it. It isn’t.
*Update: sorry, just after I first posted this, I discovered it’s been around for a while. It looks like this is a relaunch rather than an initial launch, rebuilt on a new platform.

Cameron's online challenge

David Cameron takes his ‘be my friend’ campaign to the Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, with a piece about the internet ‘transforming our political culture’, and how young people are more political than ever – just not via the old-style channel of political parties. As I noted last week, he’s presenting this new concept of being a ‘friend of the Tories’ as membership-lite:

We understand that for many, the idea of signing up to a party as a full “member” doesn’t fit with what they want. For example, they might support us on some issues, but not others. By becoming a “friend”, they can campaign for action on what they really care about.

I’m still to be convinced: it’s still just party membership, albeit with fewer strings. But the most interesting aspect of the article is its final paragraph, a naked challenge to the PM:

I don’t think Gordon Brown understands the changes that are happening in our world. He’s still too attached to the old politics – where power and decision-making lies in the hands of a few at the very top. My generation, however, instinctively understands these changes. And I’m proud that it’s the Conservative party that is leading the way.

And whether you like or dislike him and his party, you have to agree with that statement. Over on the red side, what’s Labourhome’s top story?

In a move brokered by Amicus Unite Deputy General Secretary Tony Dubbins, the Grassroots Alliance has agreed to back Mike Griffiths for General Secretary, having secured the withdrawal of “wildcard” left-wing NEC candidate John Wiseman, the Labour candidate in Westmoreland & Lonsdale.

I feel engaged already.

No10's new recruit is a geek

Various reports on the political blogs about Gordon Brown’s latest recruit to the No10 staff: David Muir, who will work on political strategy.
It’s interesting for readers of this blog because, until earlier this afternoon, he was a fairly prolific blogger – until, that is, he flicked the password-protection switch on Typepad. The Times’s Red Box blog has pulled some interesting facts from the Google-cached version of the site, not least that he ‘parades IT geekery with pride’. And to further boost his geek credentials, it transpires he’s a ‘pro’ user of Flickr,  and an occasional user of del.icio.us.
I was told most of No10’s online enthusiasm left the building along with Tony Blair last summer; so an appointment like this has to be a good thing.

Cameron calls for data standards

Of all the topics I might have expected David Cameron to speak in favour of, standardised data formats was not top of the list. So I’m grateful to Nick Booth for pointing to Cameron’s speech last Friday to the Conservative Councillors’ Association.

At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. It’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account. That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account.
We will turn that approach on its head. We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups.

A very timely call, especially in the light of discussions last week about Harry’s consultations site (some of which, I’m told, he’s updating manually?!). I particularly like the way Cameron ties this into the tangible benefits for councillors themselves, removing the need for so many performance measurement exercises.
I’ve had some dealings in this field, particularly during my time with National Statistics. And I’m afraid it’s going to be much, much more difficult than Cameron makes it sound. Too many legacy systems, a chaotic approach to statistical geography, and (frankly) too much opposition from statisticians. Very few statisticians appreciate why they do what they do; they just do it. The work takes on an almost monastic purity. They don’t trust mere mortals – media included – to represent it properly. I was one of a management team hired to drive a culture change in that regard. Our success was limited.
Cameron’s speech focuses on TheyWorkForYou as a role model for data reprocessing; but I’m not sure the comparison holds up too well. A database of numbers would be much more difficult and more sensitive than the absolutes of Hansard: who said what (subject to correction, of course), and who voted how. Realistically we need to get to greater standardisation of process first: starting with defining consistent geographic reasons allowing sensible comparisons over time.
And besides, we haven’t done a great job of producing standardised data in RSS format, one of the most simple and straightforward data standards out there.

Tories need friends

I’m genuinely surprised to see the Tories’ new Facebook-targeted viral video. It’s David Cameron, sitting in a drab – in the Commons, judging by the furniture? he says ‘Whitehall’ – office. Then it’s Jimmy Cliff. Then it’s flashy animations with a string of familiar electoral promises, some more substantial and quantifiable than others. Although having just watched it, I can’t actually remember any of them.
As Sky’s Jonathan Levy notes, Obama it ain’t. Nor is it Webcameron (although I note there’s a ‘DVD extra’-esque background clip on Webcameron). It feels more like an old-style Party Political Broadcast… one of those ones which tries too hard.
Two key words jump out at you. ‘Change’ – I make it 11 uses of the word (or a close derivation thereof) in 90 seconds, plus a couple of ‘different’s. Remind you of anyone? Then, in the final second – ‘donate’. This new entry-level ‘Friend Of’ membership is clearly the new Big Idea:

Donate as much or as little as you like and help us campaign for the change people really want. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter, information about getting involved in the local community, and access to our new Affinity Programme.

The use of the word ‘friend’, with a ‘Facebook exclusive’ (!) launch for the video, is not accidental. But it’s still an invitation to align yourself with a specific political party: a form to fill in on their website, an explicit – and crucially, un-retractable – declaration of Party Political support. Simple Facebook friendship, on the other hand, would leave me in control; would keep my details as confidential as I want them to be; and would still offer the same ‘engagement’ opportunity.
The Tories have done so much right in the new media space lately, making this all the more curious. I’ll be watching with interest. But no matter how much Cameron’s approach appeals to me – and I’ll admit, I like a lot of it – I won’t be signing up as a formal ‘friend’. And I suspect, as a politically-literate father in his mid-30s running his own business, I’m precisely the sort of person this is aimed at.