ICA, International Council for Information Technology in Government Administration
Highlights of the Hansard Society/Wegov event & Full Audio!

The joint Hansard Society/ WeGov event with the title “More heat than light? Can social media inform policy making?” took place on Tuesday 11th September, 2012 in Westminster, London (UK), and was Live Tweeted (#WeGov) giving the opportunity to interested stakeholders to follow the event and join the debate!

This fascinating event on social media and policy-making aimed to explore whether social media can inform policy making and the underlying issues that face this emerging field.

The event was chaired by Lord Toby Harris and high profile speakers from the political sphere, civil society and the media actively participated in the panel discussion. Speakers included:

  • Rory Cellan-Jones - Technology Correspondent, BBC
  • Deborah Mattinson - Director, Britain Thinks
  • Nick Jones - Deputy Director of Digital Communications, Prime Minister's Office & Cabinet Office.
  • Kevin Brennan MP - Social Media MP of the Year, 2010
  • Nick Pickles - Director, Big Brother Watch

The aforementioned speakers gave their opinions on issues such as: personal or public space (how do citizens feel about their views being used by policy-makers without their knowledge?); trust (do politicians need to be clearer about what they are using social media for?), and; representativeness (could using social media to inform policy advantage the views of the already privileged?).

At the same time the finalized WeGov toolbox was demonstrated to participants, which afterwards initiated a very stimulating discussion encouraging interested stakeholders “following” the event from Twitter to join the debate.

A BBC news article Why not let social media run the country?by Brian Wheeler, political reporter on BBC News, featuring the event also highlights “But could social media be harnessed by politicians in a more modest way to help them form better policies? […] The answer might be a piece of software, WeGov, being developed by computer scientists at Southampton University, with help from the Hansard Society and EU funding”.

Additionally, Kevin Brennan MP mentions via his article “Can social media inform policy-making?”: “The lively discussion highlighted the positive implications that the WeGov project could have for policy-making but also the issues that could arise with regards to an individual’s right to privacy online and the potential exclusion of certain age groups who are less likely to be social media users”.

Paul Walland of the IT Innovation Centre and Project Coordinator of WeGov gives us his reflections on this week's fascinating event that has sparked much debate within Westminster and on social media:

“Is it true that "user generated sites ... eventually begin to sag under the weight of their own banality", and is this the inevitable fate of any attempt to crowd-source policy discussion? At the Hansard Society event "more heat than light? Can social media inform policy making?" the debate was not over whether politicians can track on-line discussion over Twitter and Facebook, or even whether they should, but whether there is any value in them doing it at all.

OK, the whole idea of the twitterati being tracked and their tweets analysed by politicians might be a bit "creepy", as Nick Pickles of BigBrother Watch suggested, but is it actually useful? There was much comment about the quality (or mostly lack of quality) of the comments made on both Twitter and open Facebook pages, the content and polarisation of which appear to refute some commentators' claims that Twitter users are "an electronic left-wing mob". But are we leaving ourselves open to allowing mob-rule to override considered policy debate, as Deborah Mattison (Director of Britain Thinks) asked?

Nick Pickles endorsed the principle of engaging the population as a whole in well thought-out online debate, but all panellists questioned whether those who engage in such debate are representative of the population as a whole, or whether they are self-selecting. As Kevin Brennan MP pointed out, those who shout loudest are the ones whose voice is heard. But this isn't an exclusive feature of the Twitter-sphere - all communication routes favour some demographics over others. Kevin Brennan went on to observe that the principal users of Facebook and Twitter are young people, who traditionally don't get engaged in the political debate and don't vote, therefore there is no incentive for vote-hungry politicians to take any account of their views.

Nick Jones, Deputy Director of Digital Communications in the Prime Minister's office favoured interacting, asking questions and sifting the answers to get rid of the meaningless "noise" and banality, suggesting that the LinkedIn model is better than Facebook as a platform for informed debate, a sentiment echoed by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent of the BBC, for whom the quality of interaction is so much more important than the quantity.

Having many followers on Twitter does not qualify anyone as a leader of national policy. But what of the politicians, who bare their souls over social media sites? On the one hand they may be seen as more trustworthy and open, but on the other hand an ill-considered comment can turn into a media-frenzy and ministerial sackings. It is no wonder that most politicians' social media engagement is seen as boring - they are terrified of losing their jobs as a result.

As it stands at the moment a small non-representative sample of people are engaging in banal discussion of unimportant but sensationalised topics. But how will that change in the future? There are already serious on-line public engagement sites like Quora and mysociety's FixMyStreet and initiatives such as DemSoc to improve public participation in government. As genuine on-line engagement with politicians and policy makers becomes more prevalent, understood and accepted, so a wider range of people will start to join the debate, and who knows, maybe the noise will be drowned out by the thoughtful, considered opinion of a more mature digital media generation. Of course there will be the persuaders, the activists, the conspiracy theorists and the downright banal, but just maybe the kind of e-participation that WeGov is advocating and enabling will survive its fate and give a platform to those who genuinely have something of value to say. And ensure their voices are heard.”

Overall the event Hansard Society/ WeGov event was embraced with great enthusiasm providing a fruitful discussion on the ways which social media could be utilized in the policy-making process and was deemed a great success.