Does it matter whether politicians who talk up the Internet's potential for re-inventing politics, education, employment actually use it hands-on for the purposes they present, and join in? Or should we just be grateful if they have a good script from their researchers, have met the right people, and can engage in sensible conversation about social networking? What coverage do they get with that good script, but no online presence? (Warning: heavy linking and deconstruction follows).
These questions were prompted by an event at the RSA, organised by Policy Unplugged, where George Osborne gave the second instalment of an earlier lecture Politics and Media in the Internet Age, that I and others thought pretty good last year. This time he was talking about open source politics and the three pillars on which we should build, as he put it, a political settlement for the digital age: equality of information, new social networks, and open source. The full speech is here, with a short version at Comment is free in the Guardian. After he kindly gave me an interview - video on the right** - I did some research on what followed.
The strongest coverage has been on Osborne's call for Government to switch to open source software, prompted no doubt by the Tories own press release:
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has promised that an incoming Conservative government would create a level playing field for open source software in the UK, in a move which could save taxpayers more than £600 million a year.
In a speech at the Royal Society of Arts, he also announced the appointment of Mark Thompson, of the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, to advise the Party on how to make Britain the open source leader in Europe.
That is covered here by ZDNet UK with a response from Microsoft (who are much favoured by Labour), and also here. More interesting, I thought, were Mr Osoborne's references to the scope for open source thinking here:
Open source harnesses the power of mass collaboration and to find new ideas.
This isn't some new fangled approach that may or may not take off. It's increasingly becoming the mainstream way that businesses are generating value and reach optimal decisions.
... and the potential for politicians to engage through social networking:
These bottom-up grassroots networks such as MySpace and Bebo bring people together on the basis of common interests, irrespective of geography or even language.
American politicians are well aware of the potential of these networks. Barack Obama already has 300,000 "friends" on Facebook alone. He's even set up his own social networking site.
I found it a pretty convincing performance, and others I talked to on the day did too ... on the rueful lines of "I'm not a Tory, I work in social media ... and he sounds as if knows what he is talking about". I then spent some time trawling the web for other assessments from those present. (More later about the hands-on bit).
Paul Miller, Demos associate, on Tories 2.0:
I went along to hear George Osborne speak at the RSA yesterday morning about the internet and was very impressed. Normally, listening to politicians talking about technology is a bit embarrassing. They fall into lots of very obvious traps and sound very naive.
But the shadow chancellor has met the people, read the books and obviously spends a fair amount of time online (using Firefox which earned him extra brownie points). The speech should be a real wake up call to Labour and the other parties. It made me realise quite how far behind they are.
George’s two speeches have been seeded with subtle references which build his credibility in this field. “When I met Eric Scmidt, Google’s CEO, he told me..”, “When I visited Mozilla’s HQ in Palo Alto” and the big takeaway is intended to be “George Osborne GETS the web and says Bring It On”. Personally, I was convinced, and the post-event conversation suggested to me that I was not alone.
The Conservatives plan to make OS a top priority if they are voted into power in the next elections. An interesting proposition... I am left wondering, though, how much of this 'knowledge' of Web 2.0 is from the copious script George had (and which his PA read in time next to me) and how much is genuinely him. He did have a good off-the-cuff knowledge of the social web, but his PA noting down the groovy catchphrases of "Open API politics", suggested by another speaker, will no doubt appear in yet another highly crafted speech.
An interesting fellow and one, I am sure, who would actually write a pretty damned good blog.
One of the online bars that politicians have to leap is that constructed by that most scurrilous and subversive of political bloggers, Guido Fawkes. You may recall his mischievous assault upon the DEFRA wiki. In Open Source Osborne, Guido is kindly:
George Osborne gave a talk this morning to a crowd of mainly public sector geeks assembled by the RSA - the notable exceptions that Guido spotted being Bryan Appleyard, Adriana Cronin-Lukas, the Doughty Street crowd and the WebCameron team. There is also, apparently, internal networking among the policy groups.
Osborne banged the drum for the government switching to Open Source and, although he didn't say it explicitly, abandoning Microsoft. The comparitive imagery is very potent, the Tories are the Google party ("Do no evil") to New Labour's Microsoft party ("Evil Corp.").
Online libertarians have a gut suspicion of the Microsoft/New Labour alliance, when Big Software meets Big Government one thing you can be sure about - we're going to get screwed financially. So Osborne is obviously hanging out with the right kind of geeks nowadays.
As you might expect, those commenting in The Guardian are less enthusiastic. For example:
"Recast the political settlement"
"Open source politics"
"Equality of information"
What the f*** does any of this mean?
I'm pleased to see that Mr Osborne is so committed to the principles of openness that he's actively engaged with his intelligent critics, rather than dropping the article on us and wheeling away like a crapping seagull..
... which is presumably a reference to the fact the Mr Osborne doesn't join in the online conversation there. Nor - so far - has be done so at The ToryDiary, a Party blog that has a video interview with Mr Osborne following his speech. The blog allows comments - and they aren't all positive, or on topic:
David is great but George is not the best choice for Chancellor. He is cute, but his voice is like a pubescent teen and makes us look silly. Theresa May would be a better choice.
That may be a Labour supporter, of course. Still, would a Labour blog be prepared to leave a similar quote on show?
Overall, I have to agree with Mr Osborne when he says in the interview that the Conservative family, as he put it, has a much greater online presence than the Labour party, with WebCameron and the Internet TV station 18 Doughty Street.
Anyway, back to my opening point. Does it matter whether or not Mr Osborne is doing some hands-on research, or mainly relying on his clearly very able research team? Probably not, at this stage, because it is all pretty broad-brush stuff - and in my view deserves encouragement: otherwise I wouldn't have spent as much time putting this piece together. (Doesn't it take time ... which is a deterrent for a busy politicians).
It will be more difficult as we move to the next stage ... or rather when politicians pick up on more of the detail of what is already happening. Oli Barrett adds in his piece::
The really interesting thing for me is what Part 3 of this conversation will sound like. Who will make the next big political speech on the future of the web and what will it sound like? Will it be a hat-trick for Mr Osborne? Will it be Gordon Brown? Ming.com anyone?
Saying “We Get It” is one thing, as is referencing the innovation of other countries. Part 3 will be truly exciting if it begins to touch on the wider differences that the web could unleash;
In Education (helping people learn from each other), in Health (as patients connect to share stories), in Crime (as neighbourhood watch schemes continue online), for the Environment (as wikis allow people to upload their energy-saving tips). If government once spotted, rated then replicated best practice, doesn’t the web super-charge all of this and force them to completely re-examine their role? Gordon Brown was reacting to the web’s ability to connect people back in this speech in 2004… Is it too far-fetched to imagine how a MySpace generation will use the web to combat loneliness when they are old, and how peer-to-peer giving sites will change the way we think about donations?
If you aren't close to what is happening in new developments, it is as easy to get it wrong as get it right in your enthusiasm. You need to listen not just to your favourite geeks (who have a vested interest in "selling" technology), but other people on the front line who may offer more challenging realities. In that spirit, I'll throw in a few references - please add your own:
- Digital Divide in the era of social networking
- The professional digital divide: 80/20 the wrong way
- Home truths about technobabble and social media
- Are you a Yes2.0 or a No2.0
Ahh - here's a really simple test for the apparently-online politician. Will you take that baby step and just add a comment somewhere out of the Westminster web-bubble? Your place, theirs, or mine, doesn't matter. Even better, start blogging like Labour Minister David Milliband.
** Apologies about the shifting focus in the video. I clearly haven't got on top of the complexities of my new Sanyo xacti and it is hunting for a fix between George and the wall behind. No jokes please, entirely my fault.
- Just spotted that George Osborne does have his own site. Latest local news: Christmas message. Oh dear.
- BBC coverage: Tories want open source Whitehall
- Andrew Brown offers an informed critique on Osborne on open source in Comment Is Free: Osborne's technobabble problems
- Sunday Times columnist Bryan Appleyard, who was speaking at the RSA as well, says Listen to the Luddites, you digital disciples and gets some sympathy from Ewan