Tom, Tories and Timing

Tom Steinberg’s blog splutters back to life after more than two years asleep, to confirm reports that he will be advising the Conservatives on IT policy. ‘I’ve been asked to advise the Tories on IT policy,’ he writes, ‘and I’ve accepted.’
He’s clearly sensitive to the issues this raises as regards his ‘day job’ as director of MySociety. He immediately jumps in to stress MySociety is ‘non-partisan’, and that he himself has no interest in party politics. That’s all fair enough. But it’s inevitably going to make life difficult, on numerous levels. Take for example this paragraph on’s ‘About’ page:

No, we are not party political, and this project is neither left nor right wing. It is about building useful digital tools for anyone who wants to use them. And unlike most think tanks that say they’re non-partisan, we really are – none of that ‘It’s not official, but everybody knows they’re really close to party X’ nonsense here.

Now of course, MySociety isn’t just Tom – but he’s its public face, and a very visible face at that. Can we really read that paragraph today, in the same way that we would have read it last week?
Let me be absolutely clear. I completely understand why Tom has accepted this offer. Direct access to (future?) Ministers at a policy development level is invaluable. You can, of course, get a lot done through the civil service; but a change of Prime Minister brings with it the kinds of opportunities you can’t ignore. And I have no doubt that Tom has accepted this role because he sees it as the best way to get Good Things done.
But – why now? The exact circumstances of the announcement, at the Conservative Party Conference, can only serve to offend current good contacts within Labour… putting Tom in an awkward position, for the next six months at least, and (conceivably, I suppose) beyond – for no obvious benefit. And despite his protestations of non-partisanship, it will inevitably be portrayed in party-political terms: a defection by a former Labour advisor, one of Gordon Brown’s Everyday Heroes turning his back, etc.
MySociety’s Francis Irving asked on Twitter, ‘how is steiny helping tories with bills any different from helping labour with petitions?’ My response is that we still have some notional separation between politics and government, and the petitions system was built for the civil service, for The Government Of The Day. I would have fully expected Tom and MySociety to engage with a new Conservative government, if and when. But I’d have expected him to wait until they had actually become the Government.
Tom is a good guy. A great guy, actually. I hope he knows what he’s doing. And I hope it pays off in the end. In the meantime, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Cameron pledges to free our data

David Cameron has taken the Conservatives’ promises on availability of public data a few steps further, in principle at least, in a speech at Imperial College on taking ‘broken politics’ into the ‘post-bureaucratic age’.
‘In Britain today, there are over 100,000 public bodies producing a huge amount of information,’ he said; ‘Most of this information is kept locked up by the state. And what is published is mostly released in formats that mean the information can’t be searched or used with other applications… This stands in the way of accountability.’ Now I’m still not convinced that there’s that much deliberate, conscious locking-up of data; but certainly, the formats in which that data is eventually made available often has the same end result.
OK, so we’re broadly agreed on the problem… what’s the solution, Dave?

We’re going to set this data free. In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it. This information will be published proactively and regularly – and in a standardised format so that it can be ‘mashed up’ and interacted with.
What’s more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new ‘right to data’ so that further datasets can be requested by the public. By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account. And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.
If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.

Now don’t get me wrong here, it’s great to have Cameron’s explicit sign-up to the principle of data freedom, standardised formats, the presumed right of availability, and a 12-month timeframe. But it’s not really anything that the other major parties aren’t already talking about – and in the case of the current government, bringing in the Big Guns to actually do something about. OPSI’s data unlocking service, for example, is nearly a year old, and effectively answers the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ idea. Now it hasn’t been a huge hit… but the principle is already established.
And then there’s his unfortunate choice of public sector jobs as an example of what they might do:

Today, many central government and quango job adverts are placed in a select few newspapers. Some national, some regional. Some daily, some weekly. But all of them in a variety of different publications – meaning it’s almost impossible to find out how many vacancies there are across the public sector, what kind of salaries are being offered, how these vary from public sector body to public sector body and whether functions are being duplicated. Remember this is your money being put forward to give someone a job – and you have little way of finding out why, what for and for how much. Now imagine if they were all published online and in a standardised way. Not only could you find out about vacancies for yourself, you could cross-reference what jobs are on offer and make sure your money is being put to proper use.

Er, isn’t Mr C aware of the recently-upgraded Civil Service Jobs website – with its API, allowing individuals and commercial companies to access the data in a standardised format (XML plus a bit of RDF), and republish it freely? The Tories have talked about online job ads since December 2006; maybe it’s time they updated their spiel.
So what does today’s pledge boil down to? On one level it’s just headline-grabbing, bandwagon-jumping, government-bashing, policy-reannouncing rhetoric. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If all the work is going on already, but it isn’t well enough known, or isn’t proving as effective as it could/should be,  maybe we should be welcoming any headlines the subject manages to grab. And if Cameron’s Conservatives do take power at the next election, and truly believe in what was said today, it would be the easy fulfilment of a campaign promise to yank these initiatives out of their quiet beta periods and into the limelight.

Tory Facebook campaign won few Friends

ConservativeHome blogger Tim Montgomerie posted a damning article over the weekend, condemning ‘waste, over-spending and poor revenue strategies’ at Conservative central office. One particular remark jumps out: ‘The Tory leadership did not fix the party’s finances during the good economic times and are now facing very difficult decisions as a consequence.’ Sound familiar?
Tim’s piece provides some inside intelligence about the success, or otherwise, of the big ‘be our friend‘ campaign earlier this year. ‘£500,000 was spent on newspaper and internet adverts earlier this year to launch a ‘Friends of the Conservatives’ scheme. Few Friends have been recruited and many believe that that money could have been much better spent. […] CCHQ are repressing the publication of membership data but it is feared that numbers have fallen by at least 17,000. I’ve tried raising these issues privately,’ he says subsequently in the comments, ‘but to zero effect.’
Elsewhere in the comments, one newly recruited supporter tells of his unpleasant experience when he tried to get involved locally; and when he signed up for the ‘friend’ scheme: ‘I got an email in reply thanking me for volunteering. Since then, nothing, zip, zilch, b*gger all. Not even an invitation to contribute to party funds.’
I’ve been trying to think of a clever conclusion – but, not for the first time, I can’t get past the big number. Half a million quid spent midway between general elections, ‘few recruits’, and a continuing overall fall in membership… at a time when forming the next government seemed (past tense, perhaps) a certainty?
Oh yeah… and it probably would have been wise for the Tories to ensure the various links to the Friendship campaign were properly redirected when they launched their new website. All the links I graciously gave them, even to key pages like ‘Get involved’, are now returning 404 errors.

New Tory site completes the set

There are quite a few reasons to warm to the new site. A refreshing colour palette; well-executed content tabs; a good solid navbar along the top; and most importantly, lots of human faces. The source code drops all the right names: Flash, Amazon web services, JQuery, Lightbox, and so on. But the apparent obsession with iPod-style ‘coverflow’ effects seems a bit over the top: I can just about forgive the Photo Gallery, but as an entry to the Policy section, it’s just unnecessary glitz.
I must admit, I expected to see much more David Cameron across the site – given his unarguable skills in front of camera, and the relative anonymity of the rest of his front bench. Webcameron is still a live project, and gets a tab on the homepage, but it isn’t – currently – opened by default. Today’s ‘news’ section includes one Cameron pic, plus the faces of two Party spokespeople; but the headlines don’t name them, there’s no room for a summary, and frankly I don’t immediately recognise them. (Their names are in the ALT tags, but I’m not sure that’s much help.) Yet the Ordinary Members in the Wall get an on-page namecheck… curious.
The handling of the local angle is also a bit of a surprise. There’s no ‘enter your postcode’ box on the homepage; instead, clicking the ‘Where you live‘ link in the primary nav takes you to a regional map of the UK (rendered, again unnecessarily in Flash) – and thence to a region homepage. This might be a conscious move ahead of next year’s European elections, but it still feels odd: does anybody actually identify with their region? When you get there, there’s rarely a strong connection between the content and the region – and the postcode search, when you finally find it, doesn’t work at all. Hey, at least Labour’s lookup worked.
There’s been a lot of attention on The Blue Blog: the site’s new group blog, featuring posts from Cameron, fellow front-benchers, and other party people. It’s lacking some obvious functions – eg author by author RSS feeds – but it seems to work well, and it’s a smart move to tie the categorisation into the site’s main thematic classification, even though most topics aren’t being used yet. To comment, you have to be signed up to the site: understandable I suppose, but still a disappointment. Comparison with ConservativeHome will be inevitable, and it’ll be interesting to see what relationship develops (if any) between them.
And as for the Wall of supporters… hmm. The homepage snapshot is good, with deliberate echoes of Facebook, and they’ve clearly given some thought to the Wall page itself. But I’m not sure it works (yet): the clips are either too slick (scripted?), or too rough. At least they’re short and snappy.
Overall, I think I like it. There’s plenty of content, and it’s generally well structured. The design is excellent, but the Flash stuff goes too far. The steps into the social side are welcome, but I find myself a bit disappointed at the micro level: the new LibDems site feels like it’s giving a much better view of local activities and individuals.

Tories hit Twitter; where's Labour?

It really is Twitter week in Westminster. Barely ten days after the first MP began tweeting, and only a week after Number 10, the @Conservatives have launched an official channel – although so far, it’s precisely the one-way Twitterfeed-powered channel we all expected @DowningStreet to be (but wasn’t).
Likely to be more interesting is @conhome, the Twitter feed of the influential ConservativeHome website. It’s being written as a joint effort by the look of it, with identified authors: not a normal way to run a Twitter channel, but more likely to generate two-way tweeting, I guess.
Meanwhile there’s no stopping LibDem Lynne Featherstone, who started all this: she’s even been tweeting from the benches of the House of Commons chamber. And of course, her LibDem mates first tweeted back in May 2007, with an experimental election night service. The account is still active, with occasional alerts.
All of which brings us back to the age-old question of the Labour Party‘s general underperformance in new media. @Labour does exist, but it’s the Irish Labour Party. I’ve guessed at a bunch of possible Twitter IDs which Labour HQ might use; and all are still coming up as unregistered. Hey, even a basic Twitterfeed-powered channel would be a sensible starting point, and a defensive claim of the best ID.

BREAKING NEWS: Looks like there’s movement on the Twitter front. @uklabour is now pumping out Twitterfeed-powered updates from various sources. Thanks to Paul in the comments (below).

Instead, Labour seems to have been putting its efforts into a special homepage for its local election efforts. It has a campaign blog whose RSS feed doesn’t know what character set it’s sending, and thinks an appropriate story description is the first four words. There’s a box to make an online donation, which asks for your name and a donation amount, then seems to do nothing sensible with them. It’s terrible.

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.

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.

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.