Can No10's new web enthusiasm survive transition?

I hear that we could be seeing more Prime Ministerial activity on YouTube in the next couple of weeks, following the disappointing Party-led efforts. With government business largely on hold for the local elections, and with the staff presumably in limbo ahead of The Great Transition, I’m told the web team at Downing Street is working quietly on its own YouTube channel, to launch in the next few weeks. Things like ‘blogs’ and ‘wikis’ are reportedly on the horizon, too.

There’s a real buzz around No10’s web activity, sparked principally by the e-petitions system. Having worked in several large Whitehall departments, where progress was agonisingly slow, I’m jealous. Downing Street is small, powerful and answerable to no-one (other than the electorate). If Tony Blair approves your idea, there really isn’t anyone who can overrule that. This means they can be more ambitious, more daring. And e-government is all the better for it.

(As an aside, I hear that a remarkable number of petitions are ‘incorrect’ – protesting about something that isn’t actually there to protest about. Of the ‘five most popular open petitions’ currently listed on the site, three are materially inaccurate. So whilst 63,000 people are demanding that the government should ‘change the current student loan interest repayment, to deduct payments monthly not annually’ – apparently, it already is deducted monthly, and always was. Rather than kill the petition, they’re leaving it active… but adding a note to the top, explaining the situation. I guess if you still sign your name, you’re effectively saying that you need a further explanation – and indeed, your emailed response will come in due course.)

But of course, there’s no avoiding the shadow of Blair’s likely successor in all this. Gordon Brown has, in the recent past, been described as a deluded control freak, a Stalinist who feels ‘serious discussion about priorities… is just not worth it and they will get what I decide.’ Doesn’t sound promising, does it? As Blair’s people follow him out the door, to be replaced by Brown’s people, will this sudden enthusiasm for online engagement survive?

Downing Street doesn’t actually do anything for the citizens; but at risk of stating the obvious, it sets the tone for the many departments and agencies who do have front-line activity. No Whitehall department would ever have built the e-petitions site, for example – but now it’s a reality, and they have to deal with it (and the two-way communication it generates). A Prime Minister’s Office which really gets all this is an asset for the whole public sector. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

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