Can the Civil Service engage with the citizen?

From Saturday’s Guardian (with thanks to David Wilcox for spotting it):

The government is planning to link up with the power of consumer and civic movements on the net by offering funding, permitting civil servants to post information on sites, and releasing information currently locked up in Whitehall. Ministers believe web movements are rapidly transforming the power relationship between government and society. A two-month review inside the Cabinet Office, including ministers, communicaitons (sic) officials, and outside experts such as Tom Steinberg from mysociety, is to be established next week, for the government to consider how to respond. They are discussing whether it is sensible for government to pull back from setting up its own sites if they are going to compete with existing innovative ones. They are instead thinking of providing funding for grassroots sites dedicated to information sharing.

Lovely thought, and with people like Tom involved, there should be the odd sane contribution at least. But bear in mind the radical shift in approach that this would represent. Not only encouraging two-way interaction, but going a step further by putting someone else in charge of it. Good luck, Tom!

Personally I have only mild reservations about the notion. It isn’t much different from private companies engaging in public forums… a case of balancing honesty and transparency, with a need to stay reasonably ‘on message’.

But ministers aren’t the problem here; the civil service is the problem. Ministers know they need to understand what’s happening in the real world, because the clock is always ticking until the next general election, with the inherent risk they might get kicked out. The civil service has no such concerns, with the only ticking clock being the one that counts down to his/her retirement. And senior civil servants simply don’t want to do anything which might put that at risk.