Yesterday, I went to the launch of the Orange’s Digital Election Analysis, a report by Demos Associate Anthony Painter. A key, yet slightly depressing, conclusion was that funding matters. The Conservatives were able to run a ‘retail’ campaign (a point agreed by Rishi Saha, their head of digital communications) whereas Labour had to plump for a more modest approach, using existing social networking tools to get people speaking and get feet on the pavement. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems were unable to capture the wave of enthusiasm that the #LeadersDebates gnerated, because they simply did not have the digital infrastructure in place… again, due to lack of funding.
Another insight from Saha was how important Web 1.0 technologies still are. The Tories have a 500,000 strong mailing list, which dwarves the readership of most national newspapers, and it generated several hundred thousand pounds worth of donations in only a few targeted mailouts. Lynn Featherstone, whose website was declared the best of the MPs campaigning websites, agreed – she has spent a great deal of time building up a thick and detailed e-mailing list that helped her increase her majority on 2005.
As the report acknowledges, there was a huge expectation that digital technology would transform the 2010 election. The fact that old media stole the (specifically the TV debates) was therefore a little disappointing. I think the lesson here is that social media and online engagement is something of a slow burner. The high watermark for this sort of thing, the Obama ’08 campaign, was two whole years in the making! With such long lead times, comprehensive sites like Fight the Smears and remarkably sophisticated yet unofficial campaign videos (my favourites were Vote for Hope and Les Misbarak) could be launched, tested and tweaked. A four week campaign doesn’t allow for similar innovation.
A lack of money can also be alleviated by a surfeit of time. Thousands of large and successful internet communities and pressure-groups have arisen online in the past decade, which at first glance might contradict Painter’s suggestion that the Money Matters. However, all these shoestring projects took months, if not years to grow. MP’s like Featherstone who want to exploit new technologies need to put months, if not years into the project. Launching a Twitter feed three weeks before election day means you can never build relationships, or gain a reputation as a trusted source of information, in time for that to pay dividends.
I am reading James Harkin’s Cyburbia at the moment. The book charts how computers and networks change the way we think and interact, and how they have inspired new forms of cyber-realist art like Memento, Crash, 21 Gramms and Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden. The new conversations that politicians are having with their constituents might be the analogous development in the world of politics. However, these developments, which the Orange report chronicles, concern politicians, in particular politicans as representatives. This is different from government and legislation, which still seems rooted in an earlier age. Nick Clegg, during his leadership campaign, made this point in a speech to the SMF:
For young people don’t any longer just aspire to be in control of their lives. They expect it. They’re not waiting to be given the power to decide things for themselves. They’ve already got it. they’re already using it.
And choice isn’t something they hope for. It is something they are conditioned to – something they exercise instinctively, unconsciously, every hour of every day of the year.
Yet – and here’s the crucial point for the political community – this increasingly affluent, well educated, self confident cohort are still treated as supplicants when they knock on the government’s door.
The MySociety projects (like TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet) are changing this, but it ios noteworthy that these are not government innovations. Direct.gov makes an attempt, but this is largely about administration of existing services, rather than introducing a different relationship between the government and the governed. I have previously sketched how this relationship might look, the beginnings of a cyber-realist politics – rather than hold central records of all our comings-and-goings, the process might be entirely reversed, with each citizen granting access to our records (NHS, benefits, tax, MOT, &ct) to civil servants, should we want to take advantage of a government service. My own ideas probably need a little refinement, but it would be interesting to know whether similar approaches are being seriously considered outside of the groovy think-tanks like Demos.
Additionally, the formal lawmaking process seems rooted in the nineteenth century. Debates are cut-short or undermined by pathetic time allocations and the whipping process, and the actual legislation produced by parliament is all but inpentrable to the layman. A cyber-leglislative approach, on the other hand, might see each clause and sub-clause given its own hyperlinked web-page. Debates could be exposed via webcams and interactive archives, rather than being buried in Hansard, which even in its online incarnation is still clunky metaphor for the printed and bound document, rather than a living, interactive resource we can all access and understand.
The Orange Digital Election Analysis shows that the task of persuading MPs to modernise is already well underway. Now for the Lords, the civil servants, and the bewigged, stockinged clerks in the Palace of Westminster.