A couple of weeks ago, Number 10 Downing Street launched their new website. The new website has a radically different feel from the old one; it feels much more informal, pulling feeds from Flickr, YouTube and Twitter, it has an embedded video channel (the catchily named Number10tv) and you can link news stories from the site to Delicious, Digg or Facebook. Perhaps most interestingly, the site is running in open source WordPress code and it launched in Beta, just to show how hip and relaxed Gordy’s new down with the kids website team are.
The new website is a laudable attempt to present information about the purpose of the prime minister’s office in an engaging format and to depict the centre of Government as modern and approachable instead of antiquated and remote. If the digital native generation are tomorrow’s voters then YouTube is a more appropriate platform for explaining policies than a page of text in a boring font. After all, the purpose and work of Government is a perfect subject for the Edu-tainment industry to play with. There may be many other conclusions that political scientists will draw from these developments about the personalization of politics and the importance of media savvy campaigning but these are not the issues that concern me.
My main concern and disappointment is that despite the website’s plethora of multimedia activity, an interactive tour of Downing Street and the ability to “Ask the PM” a question on YouTube (under one minute and with no party political comment obviously) the website does not allow users to post comment on the content. Currently, the only subject that is open to comment is reviews of the website itself.
In this section, one insightful blogger asked the question also on my own lips – why doesn’t the website enable comments? The crux of social media is the idea of user generated content and two way dialogue, by disabling comment the No 10 team have rejected the participatory approach offered by Web 2.0 for a traditional top down, heavily controlled approach.
To their credit, the No 10 website team replied to the post in a straight up manner. Their response was:
Comment and interaction is something we want to pursue, but we know from experience that this could quickly require an unmanageable amount of moderation. As you are probably aware, our site must abide by the Civil Service code in terms of its content (and that would include user comments).
We are always looking for ways to strike the right balance and allow user involvement (eg. twitter, Ask The PM, E-petitions, webchats) and will continue to do so.
It is not hard to see the phenomenal role that web 2.0 tools could play in facilitating greater democratic engagement and participation if harnessed correctly, in a context of declining voter turnout, complete mistrust of politicians and an anachronistic party system designed to support the clash of two great opposing ideologies. In a modern state with large electorates and lots of single issue voters, the ability to create a space where people can discuss political issues online, potentially vote in online polls and maybe even post comments on governmental websites could (and I stress the possible aspect here) facilitate a more accurate reflection of public opinion and re-engage the electorate with politics. Undoubtedly the capacity for social media to fuel a re-engagement with politics is greater at a local governmental level than a national one, so bring on a forward thinking Local Council to create an online community of voters or constituents and an experiment in some internet based democracy. In California, a petition of 600,000 voters equals a successful initiative, which if not enacted before the next election is put on the ballot paper as a question for resolution by referendum. The “initiative” process is one used by many states in the US (first by South Dakota) as a way of introducing elements of direct democracy to the political system. The potential to develop processes that resemble the principle of “voter initiative” in an online community of voters is massive.
Interestingly, Barack Obama may be one of the most forward thinking politician in terms of introducing social media to the realm of politics. During his campaign for the democratic nomination, Obama’s campaign team encouraged supporters, celebs and non-celebs alike, to publish content (such as YouTube videos) without consulting the campaign first. Lots of us will watch keenly to see if Obama can continue his decentralized vision of political participation over the coming months.
What is my point here? Essentially - social media opens so many doors and offers so many possibilities, and this is as true for the political arena as any other. The new Downing Street website is a good first step in incorporating social media into the realm of high politics, let’s hope there are many more following…