Friday, February 24, 2006

E-democracy: tied up in red tape

Or, why politicians should blog

Does it come as a surprise to anyone that I think our elected representatives should use modern technology to engage with their electorate directly? As a strong supporter of the principles of representative, Parliamentary democracy, and also of local democracy and local councils, reading this in the Guardian is disheartening:
Paul Evans, head of the scheme to provide elected members with a web presence, says only a tiny percentage of councillors use their sites to do anything more than list contact details.
Hmm. Paul Evans. I think I know what the problem here is. Councillors know that you should Never Trust a Hippy.

Engagement with the electorate is increasingly needed.

Some politicians do a much better job than others. Some have a very strong web presence, and are learning to use it effectively. Others? Well, improvements could be made. Not, necessarily, by blogging (although I think some sort of 'blog', whether updated daily, weekly, or monthly is good, not least for RSS feeds and similar), but definately by improving the layout and structure of their site.

Very basic web optimisation techniques, correct page titling, the use of Header tags, article pages rather than archive pages, etc. It's important to write for the web and, if republishing newspaper articles, edit them (or get a member of the team/a volunteer) to reformat them to be web friendly. For example, I've just written a dull paragraph about techniques, right?
  • Optimise your site for search engines and users
  • Ensure each page has full title tags at the top,
  • Break the text up using Header tags and ordered lists
  • Put every article on a separate page, don't just archive them all on one page
  • If republishing print articles from, for example, the local press, reformat them for the web, don't just print big chunks of text

Big chunks of text are dull and lose reader attention

See? Wasn't that better to read?

Most traffic to a website comes from search engines.

Search engine headlines are generated by the title tags at the top of the page. Ergo, every page should have a descriptive title tag to make the site more appealing to a potential visitor. This is especially important for news and opinion articles; search engines (let's be honest, we're talking Google here, the rest don't matter - at the moment) pay attention to header tags, title tags and page structure. Vary basic techniques can make your site and your opinion pieces much more search engine friendly.

By default, it also makes you more user friendly. I want to have a reason to visit your site regularly. You want me to come back regularly, else why have a site? The best bit of all of this? All of the things you need to do to make your site media, search and user friendly is pretty much the default in decent blogging software.

In addition, if you keep the site up to date and approachable, maybe you can cut back on the number of emails you receive asking the same question again and again.

Instead, you'll have a whole lot of new questions, mostly for clarifications.

Hostage to fortune?

Yes, there's a chance something you write can come back and bite you. Yes, there's a chance you can be quoted out of context. But then, you have that with any media.
  • "Did you threaten to overrule him?"
  • Mr Redwood, would you care to sing a nice anthem?
  • Is that an egg in the face
  • "Pauline had done her hair"
Every new media, every traditional media, even your choice of car ownership opens you up to attack.

But if people are used to going to your site, seeing your opinions, you can use that as a right of reply. Instantly, if you so wish.

You don't need to publish daily. You don't even need to publish regularly, although that does help. Promote the use of RSS feedreading software, email the updates out, or, better, just email links to the update. Engage in a debate with your voters.

I have a lot more respect for a politician who votes against what I want, but explains themselves well, than I do for lobby fodder aparatchiks, even if they're on my side. Talk to us. Engage with us. If you're not sure how to go about it, ask us. We'll, mostly, be happy to help.

Some blogs are written badly. Some are pathetic. Some are rabid attack dogs out for blood. Others are sedate, reserved, windbags. A bit like the mainstream media really. We don't dismiss newspapers across the board because of Rebekah Wade's Sun, or Paul Dacre's Daily Mail.

E-communication is increasingly the norm. When I started in my job, I spent most of my day on the phone, all over the world. Now, my equivalent in that role barely says a word all day, it's all e-mail. A part of me misses ringing Poland every day. But I welcome the ability I, and others, have, to influence opinion and discuss the news with anyone, anywhere in the world.

What's your local representative doing to talk to you

Reading this and don't know? That means they're probably not doing enough, after all, I'm just a lone nut in a small flat. They work for you, don't you think they should talk to you to? Write to them and tell them so. Politely, of course. More on this general ideal here and sometimes at Paulie's site linked above.

G'night all.


Paulie said...

It's worth remembering that Local Councillors don't have assistants, they are part-time, and the demographic profile is one that you could expect to be less web-savvy than, say, MPs.

MPs have a number of assistants and are full time.

Yet the legitimacy of MPs is challenged less than the legitimacy of local Councillors. That's the reason that I think that this issue is so important (and the reason that we set up the project in the first place).

Speaking as someone who has had his social life eaten by blogging, I think getting any more than a handful of Councillors to be active bloggers at the moment is a fairly unrealistic proposition. They COULD manage a basic 'brochure' site about themselves and their work though. We've started egging the more active managers of such sites to start blogging on the 'walk first, run later' principle.

But I'd like to think of ways that the public could gently egg Councillors into doing this - there are reams of statistics that can prove that there is a political advantage to them personally (as long as they have something worthwhile to say) and a general advantage to the cause of local democracy.

The big problem is that they are not, themselves, from a social group that uses the web in the way that other social groups do. And this is a matter of perspective.

Most people, deep down, beleive that everyone else is like themselves - and those that pretend not to be are just being contrary for the sake of it.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded that not all that long ago it became policy at Exeter Student Union for the Sabbatical members who run the union to keep a blog.

MatGB said...

Paulie, I agree in many ways, which is why I'm not specifically saying all councillors should blog; some probably should, but all should have a reasonable webpage of some sort.

Or, alternately, use your service. I'd be interested to see those statistics, would be a good tool for persuading the people I am/will be working on.

Regarding your assumption of normality? I agree, in a way, however...

My job involved a lot of contact with demographics such as retired old ladies, community spokesmen, etc. As soon as I started, I began asking applicants to host to give email addresses, those that have them can be contacted easily, etc.

We're now at over 50% providing them, including many people that I would never expect to ue a computer based on demographics. My most prolific emailer (I have 500+ unread emails from him in my 'silly jokes' folder) is a 77 year old.

The times, they are a changing. Besides, one of the councillors I knew in Exeter could be described, demographically and interest/outlook wise as "same as me", right down to the haircut.