Hansard Society event on Twitter in politics

What can you say about Twitter? They came in their dozens to the Hansard Society’s event at Portcullis House to find out from a panel consisting of blogger Iain Dale, MPs Jo Swinson and Kerry McCarthy, and Tweetminster founder Andrew Walker. I hadn’t expected to learn a lot: I’ve been using Twitter longer and more intensively than most people. But I still came away more than a little disappointed.
Yes, some/many people talk a lot of pointless nonsense. Yes, people send links to stuff. Yes, sometimes certain topics rise to prominence. Yes, you can build engagement with people. But if you’d spent the hour and a half just looking at the Twitter website, you’d have learned all that for yourself anyway. And since most people in the room were already Twitter users, they probably knew it before proceedings started.
The event just didn’t get to the heart of what made Twitter different. Most of the points were equally applicable to any other ‘social media’ channel. And regrettably, it felt like we were falling into the usual trap of seeing social media as new broadcast channels. Sure, there were brief mentions of debate (conclusion: it’s not very good at it) and short-form correspondence with constituents. But almost everything was in a context of getting your message out to an audience.
All of which misses what, for me, is by far Twitter’s strongest selling point: namely, the fact that your audience is listening to you because it wants to listen, wants to engage… and wants to help.
I longed to hear one of the panel talk about how their Twitter audience helps them be better at their work. Examples of where they’ve asked a question, and their followers have answered it. Or where they’ve said they’re about to go into a meeting with someone, and a follower suggests a Killer Question. Demonstrations of the power of the network. But none came. (It’s a pity, because I’ve heard Tom Watson talk most persuasively about precisely that.)
One of the reasons I love Twitter myself is that, when everything – and everyone – gets boiled down to 140 characters, there’s no room for airs and graces. It’s a level playing field, with world leaders’ great pronouncements streaming in alongside mundane updates about what my mates are having for breakfast. It’s a reminder that you’re nothing special – or rather, you’re just as special as everyone else.
You might have something to say to me, which might interest me; but equally, I’ve got something to say to you, which might interest you. We’re all in this together. And post-expenses scandal, in a profession which depends on connecting personally with an electorate at least once every five years, I’d have thought that was a timely reminder.
A good-natured, upbeat but ultimately insubstantial evening.

Creative Commons: 3 MPs on blogging

A shock conclusion emerges from the Hansard Society’s latest research into MPs’ use of new-fangled technology: they are normal people. Well, ‘kind of normal-ish’, Labour’s Tom Harris clarifies. We’re here at Microsoft’s relatively new London offices to hear from three MPs, one from each of the main parties, on what they put in, and what they get out of blogging.
As things kick off, I’m feeling mildly subversive. Partly because I’m using a Linux laptop on Microsoft’s patch. But mainly because I’m the only person in a room of 50, here to talk about technological matters, with a laptop in front of them.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell is first up: he’s in a rush off. He makes, on the face of it, some provocative statements. Technology is ‘having a transformative effect on the disadvantaged’, he says, citing a specific example of local parents of special needs kids, who got information from similar support groups around the country, and used it to take him and the local authority to task. Westminster will need to adopt open source politics, he says, or new entrants will take market share; and it will ultimately lead, he suggests, to more grown-up politics. And with that, he makes the dash up Victoria Street to obey a three line whip. To be fair though, he did blog it up before I did.
Next it’s LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone: a blogger since 2003, but – she insists – she’s so not a geek. For her, it’s a way to prove she isn’t ‘lazy’ like ‘all the rest’; she extols the blog’s value in local campaigning. ‘I pay no mind to the dangers of blogging,’ she says – although, she admits, she does have someone check her stuff for anything ‘politically suicidal’.
Finally, at the top table anyway, it’s Tom Harris – who, he reminds us (to my own surprise), has been blogging less than a year. Straight away, he confronts the ‘received wisdom’ that he lost his ministerial job because of his blog: he genuinely doesn’t know if that’s true, and he hopes it isn’t a signal that ministers shouldn’t blog (or at least, shouldn’t be worth reading). He rejects suggestions that he’s some kind of maverick – in fact, he says, he takes ‘the party line’ very seriously, and assures us you won’t find much in his archives that deviates from it.
He started blogging as an outlet for the opinions which didn’t otherwise get a platform; and as a conscious effort to balance out the right-leaning dominance of the ‘blogscape’. As a former journalist, he finds the writing very easy: but interestingly, he reveals that he spends more time moderating comments than writing posts. (Andy Williamson tells us the majority of MPs’ ‘blogs’ don’t accept comments, incidentally. Hmm.)
Several times, particularly in the concluding Q&A, Tom speaks in favour of a liberal, almost anarchic position. It’s probably inevitable, he says, that every candidate at a forthcoming election will have a blog; it’ll be impossible for the parties to control centrally – ‘and that’s great’. He has a bit of a dig at ‘an unnamed individual’ displaying control-freak tendencies – but doesn’t name him. Whoever could he have meant?
I’m struck by Tom’s and Lynne’s differing routes into blogging. Lynne isn’t being too self-deprecating when she talks down her technical skills; but she’s astute enough to see the value in it all, and is surrounding herself with people whose skills complement hers. It makes her such an interesting appointment to head up the LibDems’ online efforts: she’s a campaigner at heart, and she’ll ensure that the party doesn’t get carried away with tech for tech’s sake.
Tom meanwhile comes across as ‘one of us’. Over a glass of wine afterwards, he expands a bit on the control freakery, naming a couple of names which I won’t repeat here. He isn’t too bothered how many of his blog’s readers are local constituents. Even if his blog cost him his ministerial job, I don’t hear any regret in his voice when he talks about it. He’s blogging for exactly the same reasons I do.
I leave feeling we’re in quite a happy position just now. Those MPs who are blogging (properly) are doing it because they want to, and/or because they want to get something constructive from it. We haven’t yet reached the point where all candidates need to be seen to do it – as, say, with tedious printed constituency newsletters. But there were signs tonight that it’s starting to happen… and that, fundamentally, is a bad thing.

Final Digital Dialogues report

The third – and final – report from the Hansard Society‘s Digital Dialogues new media experiments emerged on Tuesday, although I very nearly missed it in all the excitement around Downing Street. The press release offers ‘a few simple rules’ for those wanting to use the internet for engagement and consultation, based on the experience of its 25 case studies:

  • Government departments must be adaptable and willing to take risks
  • Transparency and timely feedback to participants is essential
  • Government departments must be clear about the purpose of the consultation and the ways that participants’ contributions will be used
  • The right people – ministers and senior policy makers – must be involved
  • Evaluation is essential to ensure that departments learn and improve on the basis of experience.

Clarity, commitment, reciprocity – fairly predictable stuff. But as Andy Williamson notes: ‘I hope it will allay some of the fears and concerns and encourage more government departments to take up the online challenge.’ The report, and its predecessors, give us a portfolio of specific, real-life examples – some successes, some flops – to reflect on. And we need that.
I’m not at all surprised to see the Food Standards Agency’s blog and FCO Bloggers platform faring best in the reviews. At heart these were both straightforward blogs: personal expression, steady running commentary, nothing too clever. The projects which tried too hard haven’t done nearly so well; nor did projects which attempted to force artificial timeframes or tight restrictions. The report doesn’t shy away from its criticism.
For me, the most important single message comes in the core guidance:

Online engagement exercises require time to gather momentum; simply setting up a website in the hope that people will come to it achieves little. Sites might initially spark interest, but this is not sustainable enough to enhance public engagement and political efficacy.

Point your manager to the executive summary, which concludes:

  • ‘Moderators were not required to manage as large a volume of traffic as many had initially feared.’
  • ‘Distrust was overcome when moderators facilitated open discussion and provided information to website users. […] Some websites failed to gain traction because users did not believe that anyone was listening or responding to their perspectives; in such cases, departments were paralysed by a sense of risk and failed to harness the range of engagement opportunities at their disposal – responding only on topics deemed safe.’
  • ‘Websites that were disconnected from their policy or ministerial brief, or constrained by a long chain of command, engendered less user satisfaction (both among participants and the government officials running the exercise).’
  • ‘Where government departments were too fixed in their approach, they failed to capitalise on their investment; those with a reflexive and experimental approach were able to adapt to meet the challenges posed by online engagement.’

If that’s the last time we hear of Digital Dialogues: farewell, and thanks.