Lords committee on online engagement

Did you know the House of Lords is currently inviting opinions on how it, and Parliament generally, can relate better to the public? No? Neither did I, which kind of proves something in itself.
It’s the Lords’ Information Committee, it’s called People And Parliament… and it closes in two days. The deadline for full written submissions passed on 5 May. Having bumped into details about it earlier today, I’ve been looking at the transcripts of an April session featuring such luminaries as Ben Hammersley and Tom Loosemore. It was a feisty session at times – listen to it here. I was particularly taken by one contribution by Tom, which I will probably find myself quoting in business meetings to come.

I used to run the BBC’s message boards and forums and it is a thankless task because you end up spending millions of pounds censoring people, and I fear you will do the same, if you are successful. I do not think you will be successful as being the home for those national debates, a genuinely democratic cross-section of the country coming along and discussing issues in a constructive way. I do not think Parliament’s website itself will ever be the home for that debate.
Having said that, what I think the Web does do is open up all sorts of possibilities for you, as representatives in this place, to go out and consult. So if you want to go and find out what people think about immigration, there are many, many places on the Web where there are constructive conversations about immigration and you can go and join in and listen there. You do not have to insist that everybody comes here. That is how the place has always worked. It does not always rely on five people sat in front of a table talking to you.
So I would encourage you as Members and as Lords of this place to go out and use the Web to engage with the different issues and avoid like the plague hosting conversations on your own website. When I left the BBC I left them with a document which said, ‘Do not host conversations on the BBC’s website, link to them instead.’

There’s not a little irony, then, in looking at the forum set up by Parliament to discuss the subject: only to find a handful of responses, whose quality is, to be frank, mixed. Not for the first time then, Tom Loosemore shows he knows what he’s talking about. He also made some fine points about making Parliament’s data easily reusable as a first step towards wider engagement, and handled questions about sustainability with great tact. I heard his name mentioned as a possible Director of Digital Engagement; for the record, I think he’d have been fantastic.
There are two more meetings scheduled: one happens to be tomorrow, and features none other than Tom Watson. It’ll be streamed live online, and archived for later viewing: you’ll find it here.

Govt seeks £120k/yr Director of Digital Engagement

Who said there were no ‘senior strategic web roles’ in government? The Cabinet Office has just issued a job advert, looking for someone to ‘develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government’, and ‘act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement’. It’s a Senior Civil Service Pay Band 2 position – ie very senior indeed, ‘accountable to the Permanent Secretary – Government Communications (Matt Tee) and to the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Tom Watson)’. Oh, and the money’s not bad either: starting salary of £120,000, plus 30 days holiday.
On paper at least, the resources available aren’t great: the job spec promises only a ‘small team’ and a ‘small budget’. But regular readers will know I’m actually quite happy to see that – and the spec justifies it  beautifully, saying one of the role’s key purposes is ‘to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques.’ Perfect.
On the flipside, the demands are sky-high. ‘This is not a role for a generalist,’ it warns – a statement clearly intended to scare off the bog-standard civil servant seeking promotion. ‘The professional skills required are formidable… Within a year the Director of Digital engagement should be able to point to two departments whose use of digital engagement are recognised in the digital community as being world class. Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government.’
The applicants’ information pack spells out some specific qualities they’re after:


  • Is a highly credible individual in digital communications
  • Has run a public facing web site of significant size, for example for a broadscaster or newspaper; or has been a leading figure in getting a large organisation to engage through digital channels.
  • Has innovated in web, beyond ‘web publishing’ and can demonstrate concrete personal examples of changing how organisations carry out their core functions using digital channels
  • Understands the technology and software that enable excellent web development, and has experience of advising on its procurement and deployment
  • Has experience of achieving change through influence, especially with policy and delivery officials
  • Has the authority to be credible with Ministers and senior officials


  • Has experience of the workings of Government

So who’s going to get it? It might appeal to people like DJ Collins, Google’s European comms director (with good Labour connections); or ex-BBC chief Ashley Highfield, although he’s just started a new job with Microsoft… but it’s probably a significant pay cut for those guys. Then again, whoever takes the job will have to be doing it for the love of it, not for the money.
PS: Full marks to that man Steph for setting up a UserVoice ‘idea storm’ to crowd-source the lucky applicant’s to-do list. 🙂

Declining trust in politicians

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has published its latest survey of public attitudes towards public servants; and if anything, there’s a slightly more negative tone to this set of results, compared to previous surveys in 2004 and 2006.
For those of us who see engagement as a key area, there are some interesting numbers. 59% say it’s extremely important for public office holders to be in touch with what the public thinks is important; but only 28% said most/all MPs were, with Ministers faring even worse at just 20%. Three quarters say telling the truth is extremely important; but only 22% think most Ministers do, and MPs don’t do much better at 26%.
I’m surprised at the relatively low importance placed on MPs and Ministers explaining the reasons for their actions and decisions; but even in these days where Ministers have infinitely greater capacity to state their case, the survey shows a trend of increasing dissatisfaction. Then again, the same data shows we’re less likely to believe them anyway.
The survey also asked about news sources, with a whopping 70% saying they never look at websites with a political focus. However, as the report notes, among regular internet users, it was actually the 65-and-overs who were most likely to look at political sites (22%). You’d rightly expect readers to be more likely to be men, have degrees and read broadsheet newspapers; but there’s something intriguing about ’13 per cent of those with a political party affliation [reading political sites], compared with 9 per cent of those without one’.
You can download the full 130 page report from the Committee’s website; there’s bound to be some data in there to enrich your next PowerPoint presentation.

Political engagement with June Sarpong

June SarpongI never ‘got’ June Sarpong MBE as a TV presenter – she always seemed (at least) half-asleep to me. Her elevation to the status of Question Time panellist wasn’t met with universal acclaim. But to her immense credit, she does seem genuinely passionate about bringing young people, specifically young women, into politics – as the piece she wrote for Channel 4’s 25th birthday demonstrates.
Now she’s launching a website called Politics & The City. A quick glance at the homepage reveals a site that’s a lot more Sarah Jessica Parker than Sarah Teather. I’m not personally over-keen on the design: too much Flash, not enough clear visual direction. And although it’s not immediately obvious amid the supermodel namedropping, I’m assured there’s political content in there, somewhere.
An interview in today’s Independent tells the whole story. Content is being written by ‘two political journalists and two glossy magazine journalists’. There will be regular contributions from June’s celeb chums. You get the picture.
Apparently the site’s had ‘rave reviews from test audiences’. Maybe I’m too old, or too deep into politics already, or too masculine… but I don’t get it. Then again, as I said, I never ‘got’ June. However, since it’s been built using WordPress (by the Liverpool-based Interconnect IT), I’m obliged to love it. 🙂
Frankly, we’re at the point where any attempt to engage people in politics is to be welcomed. A poll quoted in this morning’s Times (and referenced on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog) showed – unsurprisingly – that people generally ‘like’ David Cameron at the moment, and ‘dislike’ Gordon Brown. But when they were asked if either man ‘means what he says’ or ‘says what you want to hear’, both party leaders scored equally badly – almost identically so. Depressing stuff.

Re-engaging the public through violence

Super Political BoxingI blame the Tories. They brought us ‘A Kick in the Balls‘, an attempt to make political capital from some (apparently) frank exchanges round the Cabinet table, with a Flash beat-em-up game aimed squarely at the viral market. Tekken it wasn’t. (In fact, playable it wasn’t.)
Now, remarkably, we have Super Political Boxing for your mobile phone. It’s a reworking of a previous apolitical sports game by mobile specialists Glu, which goes for cartoon-style fun along the lines of the classic Punch Out, more than the simulation of EA Sports’s Knockout Kings / Fight Night series.
It’s your chance to vent your anger against such world leaders as Bush, Berlusconi, Putin, a remarkably beefy Angela Merkel, and our own Mr Brown (with a guest appearance by his predecessor). It’s far from the most sophisticated mobile phone game I’ve ever played, but I’m partial to the occasional boxing game. The graphics are well done, it’s actually playable as a game, and it’s a laugh. Which, I guess, is all it was ever trying to be.

Movie critic Kermode takes video-blogs into mainstream

I’ve always been a big fan of Mark Kermode, movie critic, broadcaster and visiting fellow at the University of Southampton. Prior to podcasting, I would schedule my Fridays to allow me to hear his Five Live segments with Simon Mayo. And yet curiously, I’m not really a movie fan (although I sometimes think I could have been). And besides, I’m now the devoted parent of a toddler. Cinemas are off my agenda for the foreseeable.
Kermode has one thing in his favour: passion. He really cares about movies, and he’s quite prepared to show it. It’s almost as if that passion is what attracts me, more than the subject matter. It’s the same with Clarkson & co on Top Gear. Since last summer’s floods I no longer own a car, and I don’t get especially excited by them. But Top Gear is must-see TV. (Indeed, as my wife puts it, she loves Top Gear apart from the car bits. That kinda sums it up.)
So it’s great to see Kermode being the subject of the BBC’s latest blogging project – and, if I’m not mistaken, their first true ‘video blog’. And yes, guess what, it’s great stuff.
Let’s look at the mechanics of it. The ‘entries’ use the BBC’s embedded video player (which finally works on my system!)… and look terrific in full-screen. They’re limited to 2 minutes, ish… and they’re mostly a fixed camera pointing at his head and shoulders, with the occasional still image or trailer excerpt dropped in for variety. No clever production, no smart-arse video effects, no background muzak. Frankly, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a dead cheap camera, probably even a half-decent phone, and a YouTube account.
Why does it work? It’s all down to Kermode himself, once again. A warm and engaging personality, a thorough knowledge of his subject, a sense of what makes a good anecdote. He’s clearly comfortable in front of a mic or camera; he goes in knowing what he’s going to say, but doesn’t seem to be reciting a half-memorised script – or worst of all, reading off an autocue. But mostly it’s his passion, genuine passion. His opinion on what constitutes a good film (almost) doesn’t matter.
This is the first example I’ve seen of a ‘mainstream’ videoblog which really works (although as Dan Taylor points out, you can arguably trace it back to BBC2’s Video Nation); and it shows the power of video in personal engagement.
There’s unquestionably a role for this in government and politics, giving MPs, ministers and candidates an opportunity to demonstrate the genuine passion they have for what they (want to) do (in theory). And this is the model they should aim to follow.

PoliticsHome: overwhelming and soulless

‘Staying on top of modern politics has become a full time job,’ declares the long-awaited PoliticsHome on its About page. ‘Things move too fast: it is too much for any single person to track.’ Unfortunately, the same can be said about the site itself: load up the homepage, and a torrent of headlines hits you head-on.  It’s overwhelming, and it leaves me dazed. I complained that the new Foreign Office site didn’t guide the eye: I take it all back.
There’s no doubt that, if a political story is out there, PoliticsHome has it in here, somewhere. Most of it is well-intentioned: the whole ‘live reporting’ aspect, a few ‘ticker’ areas, a nice grouping of the various sources’ coverage of the day’s big stories, a diary, a bit of story categorisation. A couple of ideas look familiar – the ‘newspaper front pages’ is a direct lift from my work at Sky News, for example.
But it looks like an ugly big database, more like a stock market terminal than a ‘super blog’, or an online magazine / newspaper. It’s hard to imagine a less engaging design; maybe they don’t consider that a priority. But having brought some famous faces on board, such as Andrew Rawnsley and former BBC man Nick Assinder, I’m surprised not to see them making more of the faces and their original material.
The idea of scrolling 100 items horizontally, in the window at the top of each page, is ludicrous; it’s utterly unusable. I’ve got a few issues with the technicals too: some page elements seem to refresh randomly, then there’s a brutal full-page refresh if you leave it five minutes. Quite simply, there are better ways these days.
I fear PoliticsHome has miscalculated. Politics is increasingly about personality, warmth and engagement. That’s why the blogs’ visitor numbers are growing (regardless of the accuracy of the specific figures). But PoliticsHome feels cold, functional and soulless. I don’t expect to use it.