Hansard Society report on Parliament and #futurenews

The Hansard Society has published an interesting report, #futurenews – The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World, that examines the ways in which Parliament can (and should) adapt to social media to enhance its communication and engagement with the public.

Future News: Can Parliament seize the opportunity to better communicate parliamentary democracy

The reports main findings are that:

  • Parliament needs to adopt to social, mobile, data and video-led digital communications
  • Parliament has the potential to play a crucial part as “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy” – but one which is largely absent from popular political debate
  • Parliament needs to spend time identifying key online communities and developing ways to communicate better with them (i.e. faster and using more granular, social content)

In order to step up and start meeting these challenges, the reports authors argue that the following actions must be prioritised and implemented:

  1. “Appoint a Community Team (for each House or on a bi-cameral basis) to build links with online communities with specific audience interests and an AV media officer to produce rich in-house content to populate the website and be disseminated to a variety of audiences
  2. Invest in its broadcasting and digital infrastructure to enable a wider range of online sites to take its material
  3. Produce contextualised video news releases and make video of up to two minutes’ duration available copyright free, with attribution for any user to download and embed
  4. Revise the  broadcasting rules, particularly for regional select committee visits
  5. Live-log, time-code, tag and key-word Hansard, and improve the website search functionality in order to enable people to access relevant material more quickly”

These findings and recommendations are interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that none of results and outcomes are particularly ground-breaking – at least if you work in a digital PR or social media agency. But it is striking that none of the, even fundamental steps, have yet to be considered let alone implemented by an institution described by the report authors as the “apex of our democracy”!

Secondly, a lot of this reminds me of the work I delivered with We Are Social as part of a project with Parliamentary Outreach, the marketing arm – if you will – of Parliament*. This project was focused on opening up the work and processes of Parliamentary committees – and as an aside, it’s interesting to note that the report intimates the ethos and perhaps some of the original actions from the project have filtered through to a practical level within Committee business (see p.37 and the #askgove example). One key learning from this project – and something commonly experienced across established institutions – was that while the recommended actions were widely recognised as imperative for engaging digitally and opening up the organisation, dominant cultures and stakeholders prevailed, limiting the potential of the project.

This latter point is one issue that the report needs to consider as a next step for ensuring its accurate recommendations become reality. There are, of course, many ways to embed social norms within traditionally hierarchical organisations but I think another factor that the Hansard Society and Parliament need to consider is the presumption of centrality and self-importance of Parliament and by extension, democracy.

The report itself describes Parliament as occupying an “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy”. But is this a risky start point for socialising Parliament’s communication (and by necessity, Parliament itself)? Based on both the disintegration of public trust in Parliament and democratic institutions as well as the empowering of ‘ordinary citizens’ through social technologies surely a more appropriate starting point would one of deference and a recognition that both in terms of political purpose and social media knowledge and practice, Parliament has a lot of catching up to with wider society.

 

* It always amused me that Parliamentary Outreach’s portcullis logo on We Are Social’s client page was consistently mistaken for Ministry of Sound!

Coalition Government to introduce epetitions that will influence parliamentary debate

It's been a short while since my last post, and in that time we've acquired a new Conservative-Lib Dem government.  So what better way to get back back to blogging than drawing attention to an interesting piece of Conservative policy that offers a major opportunity for campaigners (especially digitally active ones) to get their issue on the the government's agenda – and potentially have a real impact on legislation.

The policy in question is referenced in the Coalition's final Programme for Government in the section on Political Reform where it sets out the following commitment:

"We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be
eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most
signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to
be voted on in Parliament."

Pretty radical?

In essence it seems the government is committing to ensure that any petition over the magical 100,000 number will eligable for debate in Parliament.

Even more interesting is the secondary commitment to allow public petitions with the "most signatures" to also table bills. Now this second point is rather vague but I'm sure that I remember reading in Conservative policy documents during the election campaign outlined petitions with 1m signatures or more would be tabled as bills.

Two immediate thoughts spring to mind here.

The first, prompted by a Glen Tarman on the ecampaigning forum, covers the implications for campaigning groups – especially those effective at online mobilisation.

Glen argues that a "high-visibility impactful campaign is not always [...] correlative to the numbers game" and of course he's right. But he also points to recent examples where significant numbers of people have 'signed-up' to social change causes far in excess of the benchmark of 100,000 set by the current policy:

  • Jubilee 2000 petition – 2,960,262 UK signatures
  • Make Poverty History – 500,000 petition signatures (90% of signatures were online)
  • Trade Justice Movement – 750,000 signatures
  • Downing Street Road Tax epetition – 1.8m online signatures

And that's what I find interesting with the 100,000 (and possibly 1m) signatures benchmark. In the age of email, social media and social networking it really isn't too difficult (although it's not *easy* either) to mobilise significant volumes of people around an important issue.

As the list above shows, even less-mainstream aid issues can generate enough signatures to secure a parliamentary debate. Compare this with the infamous road tax epetition example or this England/World Cup Facebook Page which has generated 140,000+ Fans in 48 hours.

So what are the implications for professional campaigners? One the one hand the policy taps into our digitally networked age where online sign-ups and 'Likes' lower the barriers to taking part in social change movements and campaigns.

Conversely, it can be argued that this will enshrine a culture of 'slacktivism' in our political system which in turn may lead to a de-incentivising and disenfranchising of real-life action and its corollary, an increase in disproportionate policing and political prosecutions

While I'm not suggesting this is definitively the intention of the policy, it is – in my mind at least – a possible outcome. Of course, this may also have the opposite effect. Who can say yet.

The other implication of the policy worth considering is whether a distinction will be made between public petitions and NGO-driven petitions?

As well as the likelihood of generating different petition topics (e.g. international trade justice vs domestic road pricing) it's arguable that NGOs or professional campaigns are likely to consistently mobilise 100,000 signatories on 'progressive issues', as opposed to the weirder – or 'self-interested' as Glen more appropriately puts it – ones.

Any decisions around implementing the policy will need to factor in these issues if the initiative is to be seen as credibie – especially to a traditionally hostile media when it comes to anything remotely disintermediating and web-based.

It will be fascinating to see how this policy issue will develop and play out as it's clearly an integral part of the Conservative's plans for parliamentary reform that aims to put citizen
empowerment at its core, e.g. the web-based Public
Reading Stage
for new laws.

Add to this EU plans to introduce a similar petition policy and we could start see a radical political agenda that involves and enfranchises citizens at the core of democracy. But then that might open another debate as to who and how criteria for citizenship are constructed. But I'll save that for another blog post.

Labour’s iPhone app mobilising supporters

Mzl.edgauvsh.320x480-75 There’s a great blog post from Stuart Bruce about Labour’s iPhone app that serves as a timely reminder that new media and the Internet isn’t primarily about ‘social meeja’.

Stuart’s post come as uber-Tory blogger Iain Dale writes in the Telegraph that this so-called Internet election isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, it was largely the media that set the standards for the ‘Internet election’ and Iain’s blog post seems to argue that because candidates aren’t blogging and Twitter is "useless as a campaigning tool" then the digital election is a failure. But let's not forget it's also meant to be the Mumsnet election as well but everyone seems to have forgotten that already.

As a timely rebuttal, Stuart observes that when it comes to creating virtual networks of activists, then the Internet is doing a great job, thank you very much.

In fact, many political activists I know argue that what really matters at an election is  feet on doorsteps, canvassing phonecalls and ultimately crosses on ballot papers.

And let’s face it, until we have some concrete evidence to prove otherwise it's widely accepted Twitter or Facebook aren’t necessarily going to deliver these – although that’s not to say they don't have other important roles to play too.

And this is the mistake the media and many others in the PR world seem to make. They look to Obama and say: "it’s social media wot won it" and make the logical progression that we aren’t seeing that campaign replicated in the UK in 2010.

Those in the know, however, are acutely aware that it wasn’t social media wot won it for Obama but rather email marketing. Obama’s team judiciously used huge volumes of targeted data to motivate voters ahead of polling day and mobilise them on polling stations.

Data protection laws differ in the US from the UK and while no UK political party yet seems able to replicate Obama’s email campaign, Stuart runs through some of the successes Labour has been having with it’s iPhone app in identifying and mobilizing voters.

The app has been designed and built using feedback form grassroots activists and is packed with functionality that empowers people to get out on the doorstep, make phone calls and attend events.

Specific features allow users to access the Labour manifesto in text or video format, use GPS to locate party campaigning events happening near them, read Labour Party tweets, call and canvas people using Labour's virtual Phonebank tool (crucially, it this works within the UK's data protection legislation – something the Tories failed to take into account recently).

In fact, the app is so good, even the acerbic Popbitch gives it the following praise:

“The ‘Inside the Campaign’ section is, surprisingly, not mind numbingly dull.”

Stuart tells us that Labour’s learning is: “if you want to mobilise large numbers of people in a network to do things for you then you need to involve them.”

And on that point he couldn’t be more right.

Two post-event analyses of the #DEBill by me

As you might have seen in my previous
somewhat splenetic call to action
against the Digital Economy Bill the past few
weeks have been spent with my blood pressure rather high.

Perhaps out of therapy – or merely because
it’s offered a fascinating case study of how social media can be used to
potentially open up some form of direct democracy – I’ve pulled together a
couple of blog posts on the subject.

The posts broadly cover the use of social
media to campaign against the bill and the – I argue – ground-breaking way Twitter
was used to report the crucial debates in real-time as well as engage with
politicians mid-debate.

The first post was published over on We
Are Social's (i.e. my work's) blog
while the second was guest posted over at Royal Holloway University’s
New Political Communications Unit blog
.

Enjoy!

The digital industry must act now to stop the Digital Economy Bill

The way the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was created by Lord Mandelson and the music industry was  staggering in its audacity and truly disgusting. There was no attempt to veil the fact that the legislation was patently designed to protect the content industries; support executive salaries (and don’t for one second think that this will protect artists’ revenues. It doesn’t and it won’t) and insulate industrial busienss models form the creativity and innovation opened up by the Internet. It was also clear that the Bill would directly impact on citizens and consumers’ personal freedom and rights.

Outstandingly, as this vile piece of legislation has passed through the democratic process (and having been party to some of the to-ing and fro-ing of amendments in the Lords, I use that term loosely) the application of corrupt, money-driven, corporate, executive-serving self-interest has reached even loftier heights of shame.

I won’t dwell on the passion Lord Mandelson has shown in seeking to drive the Bill through the Commons without democratic debate; nor the disgusting collusion shown by all mainstream parties to date in order to gratify big business by preventing a debate; not even the appalling silence from both my own MP, Stewart Jackson, and Lord Clement Jones, who tabled a catastrophic amendment in the Lords at the behest of his content producing clients for at his firm DLA Piper. Without any doubt he is truly a vile, greed-obsessed man more passionate about protecting his client’s interests and his personal wealth than individual, human right.

Instead I want to call on my friends and peers that work in the digital and technology industries and issue a call to action: stand up for democracy; stand up against authoritarian, corporate-driven legislation; stand up for what is right.

The effects of the Digital Economy Bill as it stands will have serious implications for everyone. Us digital media types won’t be able to stop off at a café for a coffee and check our emails because free, open wifi will be shut off. Our children won’t be able to do their homework or learn about the wonders of the wider world because the household has been disconnected without evidence after someone has been suspected of 'illegally' sharing a large file.

But simply, if the Digital Economy Bill is passed we'll be faced with a bleak future where the stupefied consumers of Huxley’s Brave New World are now being shown the Orwell 1984 treatment.

Please. Please. Please. Act NOW before it is too late. Wake up from your stupefaction and do something:

Mumsnet election: an analysis

The following was posted as a guest post at Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit blog.

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

Is this what cutting edge Internet and government research looks like in the UK?

Egov screenshot

Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in edemocracy, politics and the internet. In fact I'd go as far as to say I'm passionate about the ways in which social media and the internet ca be used to empower individuals and government to make our lives and the world around us a better place.

With this in mind you can imagine my excitement to see via Twitter that two towering forces of academia, Oxford University's Internet Institute and London School of Economics Public Policy Group had launched a website, Government on the Web, dedicated to:

"improving knowledge and understanding of e-government and the impact of web-based technologies on government"

"Awesome", I thought. An online repository for research, case studies, practical guides, etc.

Imagine my horror to see the site that has been developed. Take a look at the screenshot above. Yes. That's it. No, I've not searched the Way Back Machine.  That site was designed, built and published *last week*.

I won't list all the failings here – there's too many and it's too mean. But, holy crap, is this representative of the cutting-edge research being done by teams of UK experts in the field? Wow.

Back in 2007 I went to a one-day conference exploring the future of media at Goldsmith's University and blogged that the experience left me feeling that a lot of UK academics don't yet get social media.

Two years on and this site doesn't fill me with much hope that things have changed. The Oxford Internet Institute is twinned with Harvard's Berkman Center? Home to Doc Searls' and his ground-breaking work into VRM. But looking at this site you wouldn't get that impression.

I'll say it again for added emphasis: Wow. Really.

 

Mandelson’s Digital Economy Bill will switch off public wifi

Another amazing and appalling consequence of the Digital Economy Bill has been unearthed by the Open Rights Group (ORG) and it's digital law team.

In a blog post analysing the detail of the Bill it seems that anyone offering wifi will held accountable if someone uses it to illegally download files. This means they'll face criminal proceedings and disconnection.

From the ORG blog:

"An end to internet cafes and shared networks

The Bill appears to impose obligations on account holders for the
behaviour of other users. This will adversely affect many businesses
and stop the many people who currently extend their access to the
internet to people in their community."

Take action now to prevent this from becoming a reality.

This is an important announcement…

Those that know me may be surprised that I haven't yet blogged about the government's appalling behaviour to take a fat wad of cash from the music industry in return for turning a blind eye to the amazing power the internet is bringing every facet of humankind and instead amending British law so that we can all take a giant leap backwards in terms of digital rights.

This is purely done to ensure that the UK's moronic entertainment industry executives get to keep their fucking enormous salaries until they retire, upon when they can also cash in their even more enormous fucking pensions.

But that's not all: in case the government wasn't sure that this is a totally fucking stupid idea that might cost them votes, they're also criminalising young people (some might say the electorate of the future), potentially breaching individuals' universal human rights and into the bargain Lord Mandelson has also opted to award himself the personal power to amend copyright laws willy-nilly with the barest minimum of parliamentary oversight.

This (and a whole lot more evilness, such as the loss of free public wifi) is wrapped up in a nifty Bill announced in last month's Queen's Speech called the Digital Economy Bill.

If you want the biggest, most hilarious of laughs, take a look at what I predicted and indeed hoped might be in the Bill when the initial consultation phase was announced last year.

Here's what really happened:

  1. Lord Carter appointed to consult on Digital Britain 
  2. Lord Carter speaks with various people and turnsout a not-perfect but very respectable white paper
  3. Lord Carter moves on
  4. Digital Britain progresses
  5. Lord Mandelson meets David Geffen and host of other music industry chiefs
  6. Lord Mandelson reverses pretty much everything that made sense in the original white paper and announces plans to turn himself into the Digital Witchfinder General

Your help is needed…

Here's what you can do now to help:

  1. Join the Open Rights Group (disc: I'm on the board) to help them lobby for sanity to be amended back into the bill and protect your future online rights
  2. Sign the Downing Street petition, signed by the likes of Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, and loads others
  3. Adopt your MP to make sure they know about the insanity of what the Digital Economy Bill will inflict on the public

We need your help *NOW* – Mandelson is adamant that the Bill gets passed before they lose the chance to fuck us all up by shutting down the internet. Please take on one of the actions aboce and help spread the word by Tweeting, emailing or Facebooking this post.

Thank you.

General Election online campaigning hots up with Lord Ashcroft’s purchase of ConservativeHome

Labour's Mark Hanson makes two astute observations about this week's purchase of ConservativeHome by Tory non-dom and arch-funder, Lord Ashcroftover at his Independent (newspaper) blog .

Firstly, he observes that while the big debate has been about the purchase and subsequent predicted editorial direction of ConservativeHome, Ashcroft has also bought access to the remains of online political TV channel, 18 Doughty Street. Mark suggests that will give Ashcroft and the Conservatives a fully-fledged capacity to develop and deliver high-quality multi-media content in the run-up to and during and election – free from Ofcom's and the Electoral Commission's restraints of course.

Marks puts it more directly, suggesting the Conservatives will have "basically everything you need to make the kind of attack ads the Americans are famous for and that Tim Montgomerie et al have already dabbled with."

Secondly, just as Google paid $1.85bn for YouTube's community of users, Mark argues that Ashcroft has also paid a huge sum (£1.3m) for ConservativeHome to access its userbase – a community of right-leaning individuals active online. Invaluable for swaying undecided voters, some might argue.

Both arguments remain unconfirmed or unproven. But it certainly adds more excitement and intrigue to the way the general election will play out online.

You can also read ConservativeHome editor, Tim Montgomerie's, own take on the sale here

Tags: ConservativeHome, Lord Ashcroft, Mark Hanson