Guess what? Hansard Society backs online democracy

In the run-up to Christmas, I completely missed the release of the Hansard Society’s ‘phase one’ report on its Digital Dialogues initiative into ‘the use of online technologies to promote dialogue between central government and the public’. It’s all here in glorious PDF format.

The good news is that, perhaps predictably, the online world comes out of it pretty well. Public engagement is a good thing, and the majority of those drawn to online channels were not previously ‘engaged’; but it should be seen as a complement rather than a replacement for conventional offline methods. There’s also a fair bit on the importance of appropriate planning and ongoing management / moderation.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the report concerns David Miliband’s ministerial blog.

There are aspects of David Miliband’s blogging that have justified the criticism. The most important is that for reasons of inexperience and lack of time Miliband has not adequately established his blog’s presence online. There are very few links to other relevant blogs – either in the permanent ‘blog roll’ or in the posts. The Minister rarely interacts with the comments made in response to his posts, and does not visit other blogs to comment. Therefore, the Minister’s blog fails to exploit its potential as a node in the communicative network that blogging has created. It stands out because of its establishment associations and looks awkward next to its peers.

Redressing the inefficiencies presents the most pressing challenge to David Miliband and his fledgling blog. Success may bring a greater acceptance by bloggers and generate more general traffic amongst those who are not regular participants in the political process. However, this will require a team effort by the Minister and his departmental communications team, and it will be interesting to see how this will be viewed by evangelical bloggers and political opponents.

I think criticising Miliband’s lack of engagement in the blogosphere is harsh: he does have a pretty heavy-duty day job. And I’m a bit surprised to see the degree of attention given to the £6,000 spent on setting up the blog, particularly when I know precisely how much was spent on some of the other projects covered.

Other case studies tend to follow the standard form for such experimental work, where all is forgiven as it contributed to the learning experience. A three-week long forum on Welfare Reform attracted only 84 registered users, with only 18 of them actually getting round to posting anything. (And no, you didn’t have to register to view.) Total number of messages: 44. None of which, by the look of it, were by the relevant DWP policy team. Pretty diabolical all round, frankly. But hey, ‘when reflecting on the exercise, the department detailed a number of aspects it would approach differently with the benefit of hindsight,’ so that’s OK then.

If you’re involved in this kind of thing, it’s well worth having a look through Part Three, the draft guidance. It’s maybe a bit too generic, but you’ll certainly find some useful stuff in there. At the very least, it’s good to have a generic ‘terms and conditions’ to copy-and-paste.

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