Trying to engage with the Taxpayers' Alliance

I usually let the Taxpayers’ Alliance stuff wash over me. No matter how valid their points often are, it’s getting to the stage where every news story about any government expenditure has to feature an angry quote from them. Maybe journalists really are using that online TPA Quote Generator.
Then today, in the widespread but entirely inaccurate press coverage of a ‘Twittercrat on £118,000pa’, I spot a quote from TPA’s political director Susie Squire: ‘Taxpayers don’t want more Web2.0. They want an end to wasteful spending.’ Oh really? OK…
I was interested to find out more about TPA’s view of ‘Web2.0’… so I visited their website. Or specifically, their Typepad-hosted blog. How very ‘Web2.0’ of them. I wonder do they know about the various government websites which have also used Typepad for its cheap hosting, instant availability and high degree of configurability. I haven’t heard them praising it, so maybe not.
Anyway, a ‘Non-job of the week’ post makes a passing reference to the Cabinet Office vacancy, but concentrates on a local council recruiting a new press officer – which, apparently, is a bad thing. Anyway, as the article reaches its conclusion, author Tim Aker writes:

However, another communications officer at the council, taking scarce funds from the frontline, isn’t the answer. The answer is to have councillors do more than canvass at election time. Were we to have a more open political system … then maybe the people would trust politicians more. But as usual, instead of accepting the blindingly obvious solution of cutting back on their profligacy and engaging more with their constituents, the council opts for the norm and throws money at a problem. Sigh.

So the TPA wants more openness in government and politics. More direct engagement between elected representatives and the public. But it doesn’t want ‘Web2.0’ – the use of interactive technology, most of it ‘open source’ (and hence free), to promote direct engagement.
Here’s the thing. Done well, ‘more Web2.0’ has great potential to meet precisely the objective set by the TPA, namely bringing an end to wasteful spending. (And I like to think Puffbox is doing its bit in that regard.) How precisely do you ensure it is ‘done well’? You get someone in who knows what they’re doing. Someone with external experience, and internal seniority. And if you can get them into the one department specifically charged with improving government generally, so much the better.
Do you see where I’m going here, TPA? Sigh indeed.
PS Full marks to the Cabinet Office for their online rebuttal of the pathetic media coverage. It reads like a blog post, but it’s in the press release section of their website. I particularly love the line about @downingstreet being ‘followed by more than 1.2 million people, more than the official White House Twitter and considerably more than the daily circulation on most national newspapers.’

Should Labour share the NHS love?

I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan since he was a writer on Irish music (etc) magazine Hot Press. On Wednesday, he stuck a message up on Twitter reacting angrily against ‘rightwing wackjobs in the US lying about the NHS’. He starts using the hashtag #welovethenhs and asks celebrity chums to help spread the word. Soon it’s one of the hot hashtags on Twitter. And two days later, it still is.
All of which puts the Labour Party in a slightly tricky position. They tried – and largely failed – to stir up similar levels of pride in the NHS for its 60th anniversary. Things have unquestionably got better since they re-took power in 1997 (at a price, admittedly). Should they get involved in this spontaneous ‘grassroots’ explosion?
Initially, naturally, the involvement was as ordinary Twitter users; then yesterday, showing commendable responsiveness at least, a big splash on the Labour homepage, easy ‘tweet now!’ links to keep the momentum, plus a Facebook widget. But there have been a few expressions of concern that the Party shouldn’t be seen to hijack a grassroots thing like this.
Personally, I think they’re handling it pretty well. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often; as the cross-party support for the hashtag demonstrates, there aren’t many opportunities to get angry about the NHS in UK politics – and if any party can claim the NHS as ‘theirs’, it’s Labour. So they’re entirely within their rights to make something of it. For the most part, they’re keeping it within Twitter, where it belongs. And to be fair, in bringing it over to, the treatment is relatively neutral – no Labour branding on the embeddable Flash widget, for example.
I’m already looking forward to hearing how the party leaders explain hashtags in their big conference speeches. 🙂

Twitter strategies: the boring bit

Anyone who finds Neil Williams’s 20-page Twitter strategy especially newsworthy clearly hasn’t spent much time inside Whitehall. Then again, with Parliament having just closed for its summer holiday, I guess the Westminster hacks had to find something to keep themselves busy.
So anyway, a week ago, Neil published a template for a departmental Twitter strategy on his own personal website, and on the Cabinet Office’s new Digital Engagement blog. Somebody in SW1 finally spotted it – the Guardian? Press Association? – then next thing you know, it’s everywhere. Incidentally, well done to the Daily Mail for inventing some extra details – it wasn’t ‘commissioned’, Neil chose to ‘open source’ the piece he produced for his own purposes for the benefit of colleagues elsewhere in government.
Yes, Neil’s document is lengthy; and he admitted from the off that it would seem ‘a bit over the top’. But if exciting new tools like Twitter are to make it through the middle-management swamp of the Civil Service, they need to be wrapped in boring documentation like this. Whether or not it ever gets read, mandarins need to feel that your Twitter proposal has received the same proper consideration as the other (weightier?) items on their to-do list. ‘Dude! This is so cooool! We should so be doing this!’ will not get you very far.
Getting government to do cool stuff is 50% actual doing, 50% creating the opportunity for things to get done. Neil’s document is aimed at the latter; and it would seem to have served its purpose already. Thanks Neil.
By the way… This provides an interesting case study in how news is made. It only becomes ‘news’ when one journalist notices. Then everyone else writes almost identical articles, usually based on the Press Association piece. Then it makes the broadcast media – starting with the Today programme. Expect the TV channels to follow suit later today.

Congratulations @downingstreet

It doesn’t matter how they got there, and it doesn’t matter if a significant proportion are spammy. The @downingstreet Twitter account hit one million followers on Sunday afternoon – making it surely the biggest e-government hit in a couple of years at least. At zero setup cost. And zero marketing spend.
The question is – still – what do we do with them all?
For anyone needing background, here’s an easy link to all the posts I’ve written on the subject. To anyone I met WordCamp who’s reading this: check out the URL construction. Did you know you could do that??

Breaking news: minister tweets

It’s just a small thing; but for the first time this morning, I noticed a Twitter message prompting a ‘BREAKING NEWS’ ‘strap’ on Sky News TV. Specifically, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw’s tweet about the Andy Coulson phone tapping thing (sent, I notice, from ‘mobile web’).
Now I don’t know if Sky were tipped off via conventional channels that the Minister was going to tweet something significant; or if it was picked up by the Press Association first… that’s usually where Sky’s breaking news straps come from. Sky’s Millbank studio should probably be keeping an eye out for precisely this sort of thing, but I don’t know if they are yet. It doesn’t really matter how it got there, though: there it was, word for word, on my TV screen, and being read out by the presenter. That’s the kind of media coverage press releases just don’t get.
Press officers in government, you’d better get into the social web thing before your minister does.

No10's Twitter status worth $250,000?

By getting involved early and enthusiastically in the whole Twitter thing, has DowningStreet earned itself $250,000 of free digital engagement? Well-known internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis (number of followers: 63,000) has offered Twitter a cool quarter of a million bucks – as I believe our American friends would describe it – to secure himself a two-year stay on their list of people you might like to follow when you open a new account. This is, of course, the same list which has done so much to boost DowningStreet’s follower count, now standing at 276,000.
There’s breathless excitement in a piece on TechCrunch:

[Calacanis] wants to lock in the price now because he thinks it is a great marketing opportunity. It is not unusual for people on the suggested list to gain 10,000 new followers every day. That comes to 3.6 million a year, and even if half unsubscribe, that is still a direct channel to more than a million potential customers. Those are customers who feel a connection with you because of the personal nature of Twitter messages.

There’s additional detail in John Naughton’s piece from yesterday’s Observer:

“I was only half-bluffing with this move,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter. “I was 90% sure Twitter wouldn’t take the money and I wouldn’t have to pony up …. However, if they did call my bluff … I would have gotten what I wanted: two to 10 million Twitter followers and the ability to drive one to two million visits to Mahalo a month from Twitter.”

This is a serious entrepreneur, a guy who has made serious money from the internet, reckoning that $120,000 for one year, or $250,000 to cover himself for the likely price rise in year two, was good value to buy something which 10 Downing Street already owns. One wonders, then, whether Francis Maude might want to reconsider his comments about No10’s experimentation with ‘the latest digital gimmicks’?

Putting Google geo-location to the Twitter test

Google’s javascript API has an exciting, and somewhat underreported little feature built in: each time a call is initiated, it attempts to establish where the browser is physically located – and reports back a town, ‘region’ (county) and country. I was wondering if it was accurate enough to be used to ‘personalise’ a website automatically: so I ran a quick experiment among my Twitter following.
I set up a quick test page on, which included a call to the Google API, and asked people to leave a comment as to whether or not the response was accurate. Within an hour I’d had 30 responses, from all around the UK.
The results revealed that the function is sometimes bang-on, sometimes blocked, sometimes curious, and sometimes plain wrong… occasionally by hundreds of miles. I can forgive the occasional placing of towns in the wrong county; but several people in the north of England, using the same ISP also located up north, were getting responses of ‘London’. So my conclusion, disappointingly, is that it’s not really good enough to make meaningful use of.
A wasted effort? Hardly. It actually saves me the effort of building something reliant on the geo function, only to discover it’s useless for large numbers of people. And it’s a nice case study for the value of Twitter: a crowd of good folk and true, located all over the country, from whom I could ask a 5-second favour… with a good expectation of getting responses. Thanks, team.

@downingst hits 100k Twitter fans

Entirely predictably, the Downing Street Twitter channel broke new ground at some time on Friday night, registering its 100,000th follower. To put this extraordinary growth in some perspective: one month ago, they had just 12,000. And just one week ago, they had 50,000. In relative terms, for now at least, they’re now comfortably settled into Twitterholic’s top 30 – ahead of MC Hammer, ahead of Philip Schofield, far ahead of Chris Moyles, and far, far ahead of Russell Brand (sorry Guido).
There seem to be two streams of criticism of Twitter, in terms of ‘serious’ usage: one, there’s no evidence of any tangible benefit (see Thomas Gensemer in the Guardian this week); and two, there’s no evidence of a Twitter business model. (Yet and yet, of course.)
Personally, I take a more positive view. Very few MPs have serious numbers of followers – there are only two political offices in the world with any kind of substantial Twitter following: Barack Obama and 10 Downing Street. The former didn’t do too badly out of it, did he? – although if you look back at the Obama tweeting, it’s frankly a bit rubbish. My guess is, it helped further his image as being hip to this sort of thing, and that was enough. Number10, meanwhile, do a surprising amount at a micro level – you might be surprised how many replies they send to ordinary punters, to their surprise and (often) delight.
And you know what? Even if there’s no future business model, we’re looking at a phenomenal opportunity here, today. The fact it may not be here tomorrow shouldn’t stop us exploiting it while it’s there. 100,000 people have signed up – actively, voluntarily – to hear from the heart of UK government. Now they’re actually listening, what should we be saying to them?

Barely a third of Tweeting is via the website

Some fascinating data published on Techcrunch reveals the usage patterns behind Twitter. Less than a third of updates (I think that’s what they’re measuring?), just 32% are posted via the web interface. The two leading Adobe Air-based clients, Tweetdeck and Twhirl, account for 23% between them; Twitterfeed‘s automated RSS postings put it fourth, ahead of (wow!) a paid-for iPhone app, Tweetie. And although Twitter doesn’t seem an entirely natural fit with most Blackberry users, Twitterberry is at no6.
I see all sorts of implications in this ranking: the fact that a clear majority of use of ‘a website’ isn’t via the web, showing what good things can happen when you offer an API; an endorsement of Adobe Air’s cross-platform approach, coupled (potentially) with Air’s relative friendliness to the less technical, more creative developer; and the fact that people really are prepared to pay actual cash for something like Tweetie, when there are perfectly decent alternatives (like Twitterfon or Twitterrific) in the iPhone app store. (And for the record: two of the top five are UK-based – Tweetdeck and Twitterfeed.)

David Lammy, Twitter expert

Lammy meets Brandreth
It came as a bit of a shock this evening, when BBC1’s The One Show started talking about Twitter, that reporter Gyles Brandreth’s first port of call was Kingsgate House on Victoria Street, home of DIUS and minister David Lammy. With traffic up by a factor of three this year already, Twitter’s certainly a hot topic at the moment – with the BBC in particular facing accusations of going overboard; but where does David Lammy come into all this?
To be entirely fair, Lammy did talk (some of) the talk:

For me, it’s almost a broadcast means of people knowing what I’m up to during the course of the day. It is about finding ways in which people can be clearer about what government ministers are up to.

OK, so it would have been nice if he’d described it as a two-way thing – and of course, he may well have done, but that wasn’t the soundbite we heard. But nice to get the potential for political transparency on the record.
The only niggle is that Lammy has been a member of the Twitter family since mid-December. He hasn’t even reached three figures for the number of tweets. Indeed, he’s only been using it with any head of steam for a month. One can’t help feeling it was a nice ‘soft’ primetime TV appearance for a politician with ambition: the caption read ‘Minister, Dept for Innovation’, and it can’t have done any harm to put a government minister in a story about something ‘cutting edge’ and ‘cool’.
Speaking of Twitter: I see @downingstreet has now reached the Twitterholic Top 50, and looks like going even higher – they’ve already passed the MarsPhoenix Lander, one of Twitter’s iconic accounts. Between you and me, I’m told they have MC Hammer in their sights.