Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Guidance for a constipated culture

Tom Watson is asking for feedback on his draft code of conduct for blogging civil servants. And – fair play to him – he knows what blogs can and can’t do for a politician. He says:
“A clunky old blog is not the place for ministerial edicts. It is place to start discussions and seek views.”
For me, the whole question of whether or not MPs, Councillors or Civil Servants blog is a bit of an odd one. In most cases, given the constraints that are on them, I can’t see what it is going to achieve. One of the meanings of the word ‘politician’ runs fairly close to the definition of ‘diplomat’. Politicians have to use diplomacy to square circles, broker deals and occasionally to shaft someone who really doesn’t deserve shafting – all in the wider public interest. It doesn’t make for a full and frank baring of the soul.

Similarly, there is the whole concept of the ‘official secret’ – and the broader role of the policy-making bureaucrat. It isn’t really their job to be thoughtful in public. The opposite is often true, however, for public employees on the ground. Copperbloggers, for instance.

It is, however, the job of politicians to encourage the public to be thoughtful and candid about their experiences and their observations.

So, for most politicians and bureaucrats, I’ve argued (in Shane’s comments box) that there isn’t that strong a case for it. Generally, it can get you into a shitload of bickering with a load of people that you don’t personally represent, or that don’t have anything valuable to give you back in return for a finely crafted (or even a dashed-off) post. There are exceptions, of course. Some of the time, Tom Watson is genuinely interactive without being too cautious about it. Bob Piper is great at this kind of thing – mainly because he doesn’t take any prisoners. I doubt if a ministerial limo will ever be picking Bob up every morning though.*

What ministers and civil servants could do, however, is invite Mick – someone who has loads of experience managing a potentially explosive situation (a Northern Ireland political blog) over to their offices for a quick primer on how to conduct and moderate a valuable conversation. How to encourage people who have something worthwhile to say, to say it – and keep them talking. How to weed out trolls, and how to reward people for bringing content to the table. How to discourage ‘me-too’ comments and gratuitous opinion. How to encourage people to play the ball, and not the man.

These are the conversational skills that are actively suppressed in our up-tight, constipated political culture.

For what it’s worth, it means keeping a close eye on the blogosphere. Dipping in – under a consistent (but deniable?) pseudonym if needs be, and engaging with people that have something to divulge. It means spending time drilling down into other people’s arguments and rewarding them in some way for playing nicely.

There is an experiment about to take place (and it ain’t me doing it either) in which this approach is going to be tried by a few civil servants and politicians. I won’t say more about it yet because it’s still being finalised (it’s not a big secret, so don’t get excited) but stay tuned: It has some bearing on the questions that Tom is raising.

*In the unlikely event of Bob ever being given his own ministry, he'd have to hope that he doesn't get a Birmingham City fan as his driver. The headline: Ministerial limo reverses into a wall - nine times)

1 comment:

andrewkbrown said...

Oh, I don't know. Lots of time in local politics is spent bickering with people you don't personally represent, for some people that's part of the fun of it.

And given the other part of the time is spent in far too long meetings at odd hours of the night having a blog might well be far from the worst of your experiences.

My experience as a councillor blogger was that I got loads out of the conversations I had online and I hope gave constituents and residents a fair insight into what I was doing and interested in.

Didn't help me keep my seat, but there were other factors in play there.