Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Online Environment - Transforming Politics

Robert Colvile has produced a very interesting report for the Centre for Policy Studies entitled Politics, Policy and the Internet it makes a number of interesting claims:
  • Just as television and radio transformed the way politics operated in the twentieth century so in the future will the Internet have a profound effect on the language and conduct of politics and policy. This will be a gradual and inexorable phenomenon.
  • The Internet has already had an impact on politics. But in the UK, it is underdeveloped compared to many other countries, in particular the US.
  • In particular, British political parties have failed to embrace this new opportunity. The British National Party website has the same market share as all of the other major political parties combined.
  • The parties could reverse this by altering their mindset from “send” to “receive”, by learning the lessons of unofficial organisations such as bloggers, activists and campaign groups which have exploited the potential of the Internet.
  • The Internet will bring a far greater openness to politics. The power of search will enforce consistency and depth in both policy and communication of policy. And the tone of debate will, at least in many cases, remain lively, anti-establishment and original.
  • For the activist and the citizen, the Internet will increasingly be used to hold politicians to account and to enable like minded groups (such as the those opposed to road pricing) to develop potent single-issue campaigns.
  • The web could also re-empower MPs, by linking them far more directly to the concerns of their constituents. Most have, so far, failed to grasp this opportunity.
  • For policy development, the Internet will bring greater scrutiny; and greater access to official government data could revolutionise the way policy-making works.
  • Should the vision of leading thinkers on both the Labour and Conservative sides be translated into reality, then the Internet should become the key forum for proposing and organising support for new policies.
  • The most subtle, but perhaps most powerful, change, will be to the public’s mindset. As we grow used to the instant availability of information online, we will no longer tolerate delay and obfuscation in getting similar information from government. The individual, and not the state, will be the master in the digital age.
Share of voice online is an interesting statistic, Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale have 45% of the market share in terms of readership and so presence and perhaps influence: though there is no direct correlation between readers and influence some can be assumed. Sites such as LabourHome are far behind as are MPs blogs, but the total hits for party sites is minuscule: "Hitwise calculated that there was an online market share of 0.00012% for the Green Party website, 0.00018% for Labour, 0.00043% for the Lib Dems and 0.00051% for Labour. The Conservatives had double the visits, with 0.001% per cent – but the BNP was double their level again, on 0.0022%" (p. 13). While this is as a percentage of web users there is a suggestion in this that the parties are not offering the sort of content visitors find attractive.

But Colvile calls for the potential of the Internet to be harnessed in a way suggested by David Cameron in a paper entitled “Power to the People”, he argued that:

“I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote – so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them.”

This in essence is something that the web community has been arguing for and criticising politician's use of the Internet for. Given that the Internet is increasingly constructed around virtual communities of participation, who can debate anything from the highly philosophical to the mundane, there is clearly potential for politicians to build an online political public sphere. The problem is getting a wider public to join in. A review in PR Week talks of Boris Johnson using the Internet for borough-based campaigning, but will this translate into trust and support for him as a Mayoral candidate. Does the share of voice and hits identified mean anything in terms of share of vote or actual support?

While there is potential, politicians cannot just create a blog, build a website or join Facebook and expect to reap rewards. Perhaps Johnson's bottom-up approach is best for creating engagement but putting existing bloggers on party staff is not an answer, neither is appearing 'palpably human' online unless the image is consistent offline and via the media. There is potential but engagement with Internet user must be entered into wholeheartedly or perhaps it is not worth considering even as "repositories of press releases and propaganda".

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