Monday, December 7, 2009

Social Media and Political Action

Politicians are fascinated by social media, for several reasons. They are impressed by the apparent contribution of social media to the electoral success of Barack Obama (coordinating local initiative as well as fund-raising), and they are also attracted by the possibility of communicating directly with their supporters.

So I was interested to see the latest Conservative Party experiment in crowdsourcing. The Party has obtained a leaked copy of a government report on public sector IT, and has published it on a website called Make IT Better, with the following statement.

"We want to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed. In the post-bureaucratic age, we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies."

As it happens, I do have some reactions to the leaked government report, which I may cover elsewhere, but what I want to cover here is not what the next government's IT policy should be, but the much more fundamental question "how policy should be designed".

The production of policy is an inescapably political process. In several recent cases, we can see how ministers attempt to steer an uncomfortable path between public opinion on the one hand and expert advice on the other.

  • Bank bonuses. Banking experts insist that large bonuses are required to keep the banks operating effectively, but popular opinion is largely hostile to this proposition. 
  • Drug classification. Scientists argue that drug classification should be based on the evidence of harm caused by each drug, but politicians fear that this would be politically dangerous and would "send the wrong message". 
  • ID cards, databases and so on. At first, public opinion largely supported such schemes, in the belief that these security mechanisms would provide reliable protection against a range of social ills including illegal immigration and terrorism. However, several highly respected security experts have pointed out the flaws in the government schemes, and have indicated a strong likelihood that the costs will be far higher than the official estimates. Public opinion now seems to be shifting against these schemes.

It would be crazy to say either that public opinion should always trump expert opinion, or that expert opinion should always trump public opinion. And of course "public opinion" and "expert opinion" are not two separate worlds, but there are strong links between them. Thus opinion is rarely simple and consistent, but may contain vigorous disagreement. However, that cannot be an excuse to ignore opinion. Politicians cannot and must not abdicate from this arena.

What's the relevance of social media to this process?  There are two important points here.

Firstly, social media provide platforms for self-appointed experts of all kinds to share and attempt to mobilize their opinions. Sometimes these opinions can strike a chord with a broader audience, and feeds into a movement that subverts the established policy - whether by fostering popular suspicion about scientific issues (such as GM crops and mass vaccination), or by mobilizing local opposition to some central funding decision (such as closing a well-loved hospital).

Secondly, governments have traditionally received expert advice from a relatively small elite of professional scientists and businessmen. This has the result of pushing policy in certain directions, often to suit the vested interests of powerful lobbies. But these vested interests are increasingly hard to conceal from the public gaze (thanks in part to social media - think Trafigura), and public opinion can sometimes be roused against these vested interests (as we have seen in the case of bank bonuses). So some kind of crowdsourcing might conceivably offer alternative sources of advice.

There is an important trust issue here as well. Governments are not trusted to spend large amounts of money on IT; anyone who reads the IT press (Computer Weekly, The Register) will be able to quote lots of reasons for this lack of trust. This isn't just an IT issue of course: as Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's economics editor, puts it, "We all believe the savings are there to be had. We just don't trust the government to find them." (Efficiency Trap, 7 December 2009)

Crowdsourcing perhaps offers the possibility of forging a different kind of trust. So the challenge is not to find a better way of generating input for a traditional strategy report, but to find a better way of doing strategy. Politicians may wish to regard certain areas of policy as being purely technological (and not political at all, hem hem), and therefore be willing to delegate these policy areas to "friendly" technocrats, but this is essentially a Faustian pact in which the technocrats (generally senior representatives of the major IT firms) promise to solve all the technical problems in return for a shed-load of cash. Some politicians may have gone along with this kind of deal in the past, but there is an increasingly blatent history of project failure and cost over-runs. (Today it was announced that the NHS IT System is being "scaled back" [BBC News, 6 December 2009].) So there is a major strategic risk here that can no longer be swept under the carpet.

The political challenge for politicians in these situations is to forge a constituency that will support productive action. Not a small club of powerful players, but a broad range of stakeholders with varying levels of power, proximity and interest - and also a wide range of social ties to the people who will vote in the next election. That's the lesson of social media that politicians should learn from Barack Obama: use of the Internet not as a one-sided fund-raising mechanism but as a way to build a new kind of constituency.

And that's where I think the Conservative experiment in crowdsourcing should go - not just collecting negative comments from which to score debating points against the Government, but developing an entirely new way of producing policy out of a genuine conversation with well-informed public opinion. Not easy by any means, but (given the present situation) it has to be worth trying.


  1. This is absolutely right. Just to amplify one corner of the argument, my guess is that the major contractors all have a negative impact on the acceptability of a large public sector project. Just by their presence: they are the stinking hippo that no-one talks about. They are perceived politically as never taking responsibility for what they do, especially not for the side effects created by pushing things through.

  2. Yes, I was mulling over this kind of topic after Friday's EPG round-table. That was one reason; the other was that I got a copy of Edgar Whitley and Gus Hosein's new book, "Global Challenges for Identity Policies", and was reading the section on the abuse of language during the early policy debates on the NIS. The book is excellent, by the way...

    Two initial comments:

    1 - one risk of crowdsourcing for policy formation is that the contributors may be unrepresentative of public opinion as a whole. In other words, the input you get from a web-literate demographic with access to the forum in question may not represent the interests of the demographic which doesn't have that access. (This was one of my concerns with the Crosby Review, as I looked round the boardroom table of white, well-educated, middle-class, middle-aged, male participants...).

    That doesn't imply that crowd-sourcing is bad - only that it probably needs to be supplemented with input from other sources.

    2 - On your point about technocracy; I agree - things have not turned out that well, in many instances where the politicians have struck their bargain with Mephistecheles... but right back to Wilson's "white heat" speech, politicians seem to have been promising us that society's future is one of technology. We've gone from the age of technology, through the computer age, into the information age and - supposedly - the network age. That has happened over 40-odd years, and yet how far have politicians actually altered their modus operandi to reflect the change?

    How many politicians still don't use email, don't have a website, or think that cookies are something kept in a jar you occasionally get caught with your fingers in...?

    If they claim to be able to manage this C21st society of ours, aren't we entitled to expect one of two things from our politicians?

    1 - that they should be at least as au fait with the technological nature of our society as most of the rest of us, OR

    2 - that they should have made it their business to become, if not users, then expert managers of the things they can't understand?

    I think we're being short-changed. But then, I guess if you shake hands with a politician you should count your fingers, your cash and your bits...

  3. Robin worries that participants in a crowdsourcing exercise may be unrepresentative of public opinion as a whole. I can think of two answers to this. Firstly that it's a matter of degree - such an exercise may not be perfectly representative, but in terms of representing different viewpoints it may be an improvement on what went before. And secondly, it's not purely a question of representation but of trust - a broader exercise (even with an unequal demographic) should have many more connections to and from public opinion.

    I'm not convinced of the need for politicians to become experts in IT, any more than they need to become medical experts or defence experts or anything else, but it would certainly be good if they could engage more positively and authentically with all sorts of expertise.

  4. Sorry, Richard - I knew if I typed in haste I would repent at leisure. What I was trying to say was that politicians ought at least to be better at *managing* a technologically-mediated society/economy. In a large tech corporation, you don't expect the CEO to necessarily understand the detailed workings of all the products, but you do expect them to be able to (i) manage the company and (ii) understand how its products fit into the wider scheme of things. I can't but feel that our politicians are letting us down in that regard.

  5. "Banking experts insist that large bonuses are required to keep the banks operating effectively, but popular opinion is largely hostile to this proposition."

    In other news, turkeys insist that there is no need for Christmas, but popular opinion is largely hostile to this proposition.

    Yes, it would be stupid to run a country by listening to the public, but you can't run it by listening to the experts because you don't know how to moderate competing claims on resources. I don't know the answer either, but I suspect that by making the state _smaller_ so that not as much national output is subject to rent-seeking is a good first step.

    When it comes to IT, I think the example of Tesco is helpful. When Tesco was no.2 and Sainsbury were no. 1, Tesco decided that IT was a strategic resource and they built up an impressive capability (it delivered, amongst other things, the Clubcard). At the same time, Sainsburys decided that it wasn't a strategic resource and outsourced it to (if memory serves) Accenture.

    There is a peculiarly British layer of civil servant amateurs and management consultants that forms a toxic barrier between policy and implementation (in both directions).

    P.S. If you want to get to the heart of the problem, ask who has been fired because of the Rural Payment Agency billion quid IT disaster. Who? Exactly.

  6. The current unpopularity of banks and bankers makes it easy to accept the proposition that politicians should be suspicious of "expert" advice in this particular instance. But what happens if this suspicion becomes a general principle?

    Thatcher and Whitelaw were particularly robust in their suspicions of professional demands. Whitelaw was supposedly one of the few Home Secretaries in recent history willing to say a firm "No" to demands for additional powers from the police and security forces. And Thatcher herself often seems to have acted as if she saw professions such as medicine and teaching as conspiracies against the public (or at least against the public purse), so that professional objections to her reforms could be disregarded as special pleading.

    Where this approach seems to fail most egregiously is where the reforms call for some structural expertise. In the breakup of the railways, for example, it seems that those experts who understood structurally how network infrastructure worked were pushed aside in favour of those who had opinions as to how the finance should work. In the particular case of public sector IT, there are some structural questions as well as financial ones, so this is perhaps somewhere between the railway case and the banking case.

    The success of Tesco can be attributed to several factors, including IT. However, it is not clear what lessons can be transferred to the public sector, and it would surely be wrong to imagine that government policy should be based on the unrepresentative experience of a few outstandingly successful private firms.