Miliband is Britain's first blogging Minister

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first UK government minister’s blog. David Miliband, Minister of Communities (although probably not strictly online communities?) and Local Government, and apparently an Arsenal season ticket holder, has launched a blog within the confines of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister‘s website.
Instinctively I want to give this a cautious welcome, but sod it – this is brilliant. Miliband has been touted as the ‘heir to Blair‘ (although mainly before Cameron came on the scene), and already has a seat round the Cabinet table. You couldn’t hope for a more serious trial of the potential for blogging in government circles.
A quick scan of the blog’s comments – yes, you can comment, although naturally it’s moderated – reveals much genuine enthusiasm for the project, tinged inevitably with cynicism. But the only way to answer most of the early questions will be to try it, and see. The added responsibility of Ministerial office, and the constitutional need to avoid party politics (particularly on a Civil Service website), may make this an impossible balancing act. Let’s see.

Democracy 2.0: preaching to the converted?

A new report from the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society pours cold water on hopes that ‘more direct methods of participating’ will reinvigorate democracy. They reckon that new channels will only appeal to those already interested in politics, generally those in the higher socio-economic groups and older age brackets… ‘further marginalising the utterly disengaged’.
I don’t see this quite so negatively. Geeks are naturally the first to take advantage of new technology; but if the tools and techniques are any good, they soon find their way into the mainstream. It all comes back to Crossing The Chasm, yet again.
If you’re launching a new widget into a marketplace, who do you approach first: the people who already buy widgets, or people who don’t? It’s much easier to gain a steady foothold by preaching to the converted. This is not a bad thing… in fact, where else do you start? People feel marginalised because they can’t see any way to make things happen… but if they see others making use of new channels, and getting results from it, that may well be incentive enough.

Do big taxonomies ever work?

Ever get the feeling you’re watching a failure in slow motion? A project at my current employer – not one I’m directly involved with, let me say – is building a major new government website. They have pre-defined an exhaustive taxonomy which will drive the whole site; content authors will tag everything they write with an appropriate subject category, and the system will place it appropriately.
The tags may or may not correspond with the website’s front-end presentation structure. The explicit idea is to strip them of ownership of ‘content silos’, and theoretically deliver a more joined-up experience. My fingers are crossed for them. But…
I’ve tried to do similar things myself in the past; and I’ve come to the conclusion that big taxonomies in big bureaucracies simply don’t work. People don’t generally care enough to do it properly; it soon descends into a game of ‘how little can I get away with?’ (Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, by the way.)
So why do ‘tagging’ applications like Flickr or work? Mainly, I think, because your primary audience is yourself. It’s in your own interests to tag things properly, or you won’t find them again. If you’re tagging for Technorati, you know good tags will bring good traffic, which is the main reward mechanism for many (most?) bloggers. You are your own motivation. And yes, there are some truly customer-centric public servants who will go the extra mile. But most won’t.
Actually, I don’t entirely accept that tagging does ‘work’: not absolutely reliably. A Flickr search won’t necessarily reveal the particular photo you need, even if it’s in there. A quick click round reveals very different approaches to tagging, and link descriptions in particular. But we apply a very different quality standard. You might come across something useful, you might not. And if you don’t, it isn’t the end of the world. But if you’re looking for a key government document, and the tagging don’t surface it, you’ll be furious – and justifiably so.

Police blogging policy

Thanks to Antony Mayfield for noting the BBC’s story about blogging policemen. Antony’s absolutely right about the public sector playing by (unjustifiably?) different rules when it comes to internal ‘dissent’ – and equally, he makes a very fair point about this possibly being symptomatic of wider problems.
These days, if there isn’t an official channel to let you express your thoughts, there are plenty of unofficial options. It’s perfectly valid to remind your employees to be sensible – as Microsoft does, for example. But you have to show trust towards your people – in how they do their day job, and in how they discuss it afterwards. Policing is all about relationships, at the end of the day.

Why we need

If you’re allergic to the colour orange, look away now. There’s going to be a big marketing push this month for Directgov, and a new strapline to sell the concept: ‘public services all in one place’. The press material concentrates on one aspect above all others: the convenience of a single site. I quote…

Independent research published today has shows that people would welcome a website that gives them access to public services all in one place and that they no longer surf widely over the whole net but prefer to use so called ‘Supersites’ – a handful of trusted, reliable websites – to manage their lives.

Something in that press release quote doesn’t ring quite true – otherwise (to quote Seth Godin at Google) we’d all be using Yahoo Auctions rather than eBay. But I don’t think that’s quite what it’s trying to say. I agree that we need Directgov because people look at ‘The Government’ as a single entity. They don’t see departmental boundaries; and why should they? They need one place for all government dealings.
Of course, this is what we had initially, when CCTA launched But that platform just wasn’t ready for the internet revolution, and that’s why so many of us deserted it. (I was at the Foreign Office at the time; and a promise of a one-week turnaround for uploading documents wasn’t really what we had in mind.)
Directgov has been widely criticised, internally and externally. Considering the cost, I’ve heard some surprisingly bad things about its underlying ‘Dot P’ CMS, which is set to be replaced in the near future. But the criticism levelled by something like, whilst valid in an absolute sense, misses the key contribution being made by Directgov.
More than anything else, we need Directgov because it’s a clean slate. It isn’t beholden to a stagnant Whitehall department’s systems, structures and legacy. The editorial teams are principally answerable to the principle of Directgov, instead of to a Ministerial department. This lets them produce material which concentrates on end-user needs, not process or hierarchy. Yes of course, we all know that’s how it should always be anyway. But when you’re a small web team inside a huge bureaucracy, your views don’t always get heard. No matter how right they are.

Ignorant voters want more than score-draw politics

A piece in the BBC’s Magazine today reflects on a report into voter apathy. The Joseph Rowntree-backed Power Inquiry has delivered a ‘devastating critique of the state of formal democracy in Britain’ (its words) – claiming, if I might paraphrase, that politics doesn’t care about people, rather than people not caring about politics.

Political parties and elections have been a growing turn-off for years. The cause is not apathy. The problem is that we don’t feel we have real influence over the decisions made in our name. The need for a solution is urgent. And that solution is radical.

In fact, the solution seems to be (after a quick scan of the report) a fairly predictable mix: an elected House of Lords, decentralisation of powers, more transparency in politics, replacement of the first-past-the-post voting system. Nothing to stop you dead in your tracks. But the BBC picks up on one particular point:

We may be living in the Information Age, but when it comes to putting a simple cross in a box many potential voters are complaining about being kept in the information Dark Ages… The claim that voters lack information stands out for being so stubbornly at odds with current trends.
No party worth its salt these days would launch a national campaign without a website as back up. And then there are third-party sources, the BBC being just one of them. In fact, a totally contrary suggestion could be that instead of a lack of political information, voters may be drowning in too much of the stuff.

I think the BBC is missing the distinction. Yes, we have plenty of material – but not what I would call genuine ‘information’. All I want is the truth, just gimme some truth, as John Lennon sang in 1971. Cold, hard, honest, impartial facts. OK, maybe there’s no such thing as absolute across-the-board truth. But let me speak as a voter. Give me the facts, and I’ll decide where I think the truth lies. And vote accordingly.
Is it any wonder that we get turned off by politics when one side says one thing, the opposition says the opposite, and every argument ends up in a score-draw? Don’t you wish, just once, that a TV debate would finish with the words ‘well, that settles that then’, as opposed to ‘we’ll have to leave it there.’

Functionality up, usability down

The big annual report by local government’s Society of IT Management says the rate of improvement in local government websites is slowing – and most interestingly, ‘increases in functionality may be being offset by reductions in usability.’ SOCITM’s press release lists a host of conclusions from its 2006 study, most of which seem reasonable. But it’s disappointing if we’re having to spell out basic concepts like the need for ‘proper performance measurement systems’ to IT managers.

Is my child's teacher a paedophile dot-gov dot-uk

Is Whitehall really looking at an ‘instant’ ‘online’ service to check if a prospective employee is barred from working with children or vulnerable adults? That’s certainly what’s being promised by the Department for Education and Skills in its Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill.
(Disclosure: yes, I’m currently doing work for DfES – but nothing to do with this. Not yet anyway.)
An integrated vetting and barring system, bringing together all the various lists and giving ownership to an independent body, can’t be a bad thing. And it’s encouraging from an e-government perspective to see explicit plans for ‘a ‘real-time’ instant check of whether a prospective employee is barred with secure online access rather than the current paper-based process.’
But it’s a very big step if the resulting list of barred individuals is to be made widely accessible. ‘Domestic employers such as parents (will be able) to check whether private tutors, nannies, music teachers and care workers are barred,’ the Department explains. I’m intrigued by the practicalities of this – surely the potential audience, by that definition, is so big that it may as well be a completely open system?
Privacy advocates will have plenty to say about that; but I think it’s pretty clear from recent history that rational discussion goes out the window when it comes to discussing child welfare. Perhaps a completely open vetting system is inevitable. Perhaps this is effectively it.

Stable structures spell success

Dave Winer is right about Dion Hinchcliffe being right. The main reason why RSS is taking off is that it’s so simple. ‘For RSS to be successful for us, stability and dependability are essential features,’ Dion writes. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say – as Dion does – that if we can maintain this stability, ‘having an RSS feed on everything gives us a world where just about anything is possible.’
Which is why I get terrified by things like the UK government’s attempt at a huge, use-is-mandatory subject taxonomy. The Integrated Public Sector Vocabulary (IPSV) follows on from the Government Category List, which didn’t exactly take the world by storm. Release of a second version is due in April – yes, April 2006 – and there will be ‘regular updating’. In other words, the goalposts will be continuously moving. How people are meant to ‘tag’ their material appropriately with an ever-changing taxonomy is beyond me.

Civic empowerment needs good information

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, really ‘gets’ blogging. His ‘Newslog’, reactivated upon his return to the BBC last year, is a great read. You definitely sense it’s cathartic for him. He writes things in ways you know he probably wouldn’t dare say them on TV. And he once gave me an exclusive interview about his opposition to Arsenal’s new stadium.

He’s done a very interesting piece today about the rise of David Miliband, and the concept of ‘power to the people’: ‘Not a call to revolution but a call to give citizens the power that people now take for granted as consumers… They want instead to present the choice as between “an enabling state” and a Tory government that abandons those in most need.’

It may be a cliché – but knowledge is power, and if the balance has shifted to the consumer, it’s thanks in no small part to the internet. We go out consuming, armed with much better knowledge than we ever had before. ‘Shopping around’ takes seconds, and can be done from the comfort of your home. Think Easyjet. Think Amazon. Think eBay. Think Kelkoo.

Miliband is right to highlight the disparity in empowerment. As consumers, we feel in control. As citizens, we feel disconnected, disenfranchised. Anything to give control to the consumers of public services is to be welcomed. But more than ever before, we will need effective sources of government information, freely available on the web, to help people make informed decisions.

PS: My favourite line from the Ricky Gervais podcast series was one which slipped by unnoticed. Mr Karl Pilkington puts the case for the opposition: ‘knowledge is hassle.’ I’ll have more to say about Gervais later.