The politics of interactivity

reboot_logoI’m currently convening a number of sessions at a Nesta conference on the 6th July called ‘Reboot Britain’, running a strand called ‘PICamp’ – Political Innovation Camp.

I’m looking for local government communications staff that have had any experience or thoughts about the changing relationships with the local media – and particularly issues around the politics of this.

I don’t mean the left/right/Lib/Lab/Con politics, I mean questions like….

  • the politics of neutrality and incumbency – if local government communications staff aren’t going through the filter of professional journalists, will this cause problems from a democratic point of view?
  • are local on-line communities – often very effective ways of communicating – suitable mediums to use to interact with people? Are such groups an effective substitute for traditional communications through the local press? Are they, perhaps, simply havens for unrepresentative sub-groups of local society?
  • is there a way for councils to use social media to improve the quality of local democracy – or is it a minefield that is best avoided? And would an unwillingness to engage create a vacuum of any kind?
  • how far are the local government rules on political communications being applied in an inflexible way? Does the uncertainly around this result in local government – particularly councillors – being unusually inactive in this space? And how can local authorities provide a leadership role in on-line communications without becoming de facto political press-officers?
  • the politics of decentralisation: The changing relationship between local government and the mass media may provide scope for councils to change the way they communicate and reassert the primacy of local government in addressing local problems. Is there a political opportunity to promote the ‘decentralisation’ that all of the political parties claim to want?
  • getting the obstacles out of the way. How can we remove the barriers that stop institutions from interacting?

These sessions have already attracted some great participants – the interest has gone well beyond my expectations with some real innovators putting their hands up to participate as well as a smattering of interest from prominent local and national politicians as well as mainstream-media journalists.

The schedule is still being finalised at the moment, but I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone with practical experience, or with considered views on any of these subjects – particularly from councillors or people working in local government communications / democratic services / electoral services?

If you have any ideas for sessions at this strand of Reboot Britain, please visit the PICamp site, register and let’s hear them?

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The lust for certainty – a sin?

Bless me Father, I've been certain about something...

Bless me Father, I've been a bit certain about something...

In a very good edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ programme towards the end of last year, the columnist David Aaronovich recounted a programme that he produced in the 1980s featuring the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood.

The Archbishop, as far as I can see, had the kind of views that would appeal to a Guardian reader rather that an Anglican traditionalist.

Jonathan Dimbleby asked him if it wasn’t the case that people needed a bit of certainty about big issues in order to live their lives. the response that the Archbishop gave stunned Dimbleby and Aaronovich. He said…

Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?

The whole programme is really worth listening to – I think that podcast subscribers get the option to download all of the archives and the transcript is here.

One of my favourite political bloggers, Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling has written a great deal about the curse that the apparent need for certainty places upon democratic politics.

Continue reading

How can politicians resist the pressures that stop them from governing well?

This time last year, Sir Christopher Foster – a long-standing government adviser on economic policy was much in evidence. There was this interview in the Telegraph, and I heard him on BBC Radio 4. The link to the programme is no longer available, but I made notes at the time. The Telegraph piece makes some very good points about micro-management, but this bit stood out in the radio programme.

Foster offered a familiar list of problems: They were … (and I paraphrase)…

  • too many initiatives,
  • too many reorganisations,
  • not enough planning,
  • many more pieces of legislation.
  • too much micro-managing by politicians,
  • the overconfidence of politicians in their own abilities

… and of course, the relationship with the media.

And that’s all well and good. But – again – why do politicians feel the need to constantly try new initiatives? Generally, if they aren’t being seen to over-react to almost everything, they can expect a well-organised personal campaign against them from any one of a few thousand professional pressure groups.

An unwillingness to either comply – or loudly denounce – any one of these initiatives – will rapidly result in that career-ending verdict: ‘Out of touch.’

And should the relatively small cadre of ministers in central government really be spending longer planning for difficulties? Surely, that’s what the professionals in Whitehall are for?

Certainly, it seems that the people that become MPs are often puzzled spectators on the whole question of public administration. They often seem to lack the basic grounding in good governance, and are prepared to be bullied by their party whips into a spiral of short-termism. They have no idea about how to get government departments to do what they are supposed to. Continue reading

MPs websites – politics on the rates?

As there are a couple of good posts in the mainstream political blogosphere touching upon the qualities that are needed to promote an effective representative democracy, today is a good day to start a blog on the subject. This post will focus on the most topical:

Both Puffbox and Spartakan are chewing over the fact that Labour MP Paul Flynn has had his parliamentary allowance docked for misuse of the weblog that he has established under that same allowance.

This scheme was set up in March 2007 with the express purpose of promoting a public understanding of Parliament. To my mind, it raises a number of questions that I will seek to answer here over the coming weeks and months. They are as follows:

  1. Do we over-fetishise political neutrality? Are the rules that preclude politicians from doing politics on the rates entirely sensible in this day-and-age? And do rules that are designed to stop this from happening actually pander to a highly anti-democratic and centralising agenda?
  2. Is this the old ‘Eunuch in a harem’ problem? Is there not something slightly distorted about going to people who are morbidly, obsessively and fanatically political people and saying “here is a budget that you can use to communicate with millions of people with an efficiency that you wouldn’t previously have dreamed of – as long as you don’t use it for political purposes?
  3. If you give an elected representative tools to communicate politically, are you necessarily giving them a political advantage? The public are increasingly turned off by political huckstering, yet politicians seem oddly keen to do it. Giving them the space to do it really effectively a bit like giving them a shorter rope and a longer drop?

I will return to these questions shortly – particularly the first one.