The UK Government's interest in using social media and external sites for public information and engagement has now surfaced officially in a press release from the Cabinet Office. It was previously trailed in the Guardian and elsewhere, with an emphasis on possible funding for civic online projects.
On reflection, what is just as interesting is that Ministers and Civil Servants are becoming aware that presence on the Net is no longer a matter of creating - and controlling - your own web space. It is a matter of going to the places where people already are, and so ending up in many places at the same time. Paul Caplan offers an excellent explanation of the implications of live rather than static web for communicators in work he is doing for Government.
The press release itself is fairly bland. (I've added links):
Minister for the Cabinet Office Hilary Armstrong wants Government to harness the phenomenon of internet advice sharing sites and empower people with information that could help improve their lives.
Hilary Armstrong has asked for a report to assess how Government can help citizens using this new form of citizen to citizen advice with better information from Government. It will look at how non–personal public sector information can be re–used and reinvigorated outside of government to generate public and economic value.
Websites like Rightsnet and NetMums are examples of how people are using the internet to share information, advice and help. Now, a review will look at the benefits such online communities are creating for their members, how they relate to major areas of government policy or focus, and whether there is a case for involvement at any level by Government.
Hilary has appointed Tom Steinberg, Director of MySociety and Ed Mayo from the National Consumer Council to take forward the review. They are being supported by a team of government officials from Cabinet Office.
There's a quote from Hilary Armstrong:
We know people feel, and are, empowered when they can access advice and help easily and directly online; the growth in web sites such as NetMums proves this. If Government can improve the experiences and lives of people using such web sites by providing information and advice through these channels, we should do so – but in a way that helps and not hinders this phenomenon.
There's some discussion in the E-democracy exchange, where Tom Steinberg is expanding a little on the review. Answering a query about reuse of existing information, and discussion on external sites "which could/should be looped back into government more actively" he says:
Well, I think you've hit the nail on the head yourself, Steve, it is about both. The review is about both traditional public sector information questions, like what's valuable and how it should be accessed, plus the newer ones of how people use online communities to fix things in their own lives.
Where the overlaps between the two halves happen is interesting, too.
Tom expressed keen interest in one story offered by Sophia Collins:
I told the story on our blog about accidentally being in Nepal for the revolution. I met a guy from the British Embassy who thought it was ridiculous that he couldn't post travel advisory information on the Lonely Planet forum. That was where travelers were discussing the situation, desparate for info and clarification, but it wasn't foreign office policy to join in.
If the review does lead to civil servants and politicians offering information and joining in discussions on "unofficial" sites it opens up lots of possibilities. It would be a welcome change from the usual ways of conducting public engagement, in which the power-holders generally insist on people coming to "their" events, and responding to their consultation documents. It might also give a nudge to nonprofit organisations and what social networking might mean for membership. If you are an organisation offering people online information and interaction, it may well be important in future to engage government in your spaces ... or find the action has moved elsewhere.
The big challenge for government is moving from a hierarchical, controlled environment into one where anyone can have a say.
In a follow-up message referencing the blog post, Sophia - who is Producer at I'm a councillor, adds:
I get the impression posting on forums is regarded with deep suspicion by older/more senior civil servants and the younger ones who get it aren't in a position to challenge that idea.
This creates a very artificial barrier between citizens and government. It must also create a strange disjunct for the staff concerned - who would use sites in a personal capacity, but have to pretend they can't see them at work.
MySociety develops terrific online engagement tools, so I wonder if we will see both more examples of Tom, Ed, and others getting "out there" to talk about the review, and perhaps a preview of the conclusions where we can add comments and further ideas. MySociety did rather a good tool for this on the Power inquiry - more here, although the CommentonPower site has now gone. It would be an interesting test of how open the Cabinet Office is feeling about all this.
Update: Tom Steinberg responds in the E-democracy exchange:
David, the review is being done so quickly that it won't actually have an interim findings report to put out. However, please don't assume that that means I'm not going to try out possible recommendations on you guys :)