Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Communties department to set up online community

Many will remember the farce that occured when David Miliband tried to introduce a wiki as a means to encourage engagement of the electorate on DEFRA policy. It got royally owned by people, some political activists, some just webmongs libertarian fruitcakes, who decided to have some fun.

The problem with all these forms of "engagement" by any Government is that you will attract quite a significant handful of nutters and just mischief makers (and I happily include myself in that). It's not just Government, but political parties in general where this will happen.

We saw it last week in America where CNN decided to set up a debates site on YouTube and ended up with all manner of crazies. Mitt Romney, a Republican nomination candidate summed it up succinctly when he said "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman".

The obvious solution of course is to try and do these sort of things under the radar. ConservativeHome and LabourHome are independent of their parties (I would include LibDem Voice but frankly it doesn't feel like that anymore) yet they garner their respect as a platform for discussion. Alternatively you use Think Tank organisations, or other areas.

Of course the problem that "Government" will see in that is that you're only engaging with your base. You're not engaging with real people but rather political obssessives. This is a reasonable point, but the obsession with engagement with "normal people" at all times seems to fail to acknowledge that "normal people" often don't have the time, or inclination to engage.

The reason I bring this subject up though is because the Department for Communities and Local Government is about to take another of those "eSteps" again. It's about to relaunch its website and it's decided that it's going to have a discussion forum. Why? What is the point?

Having a discussion forum will balance the department on the classic and irritating sword edge. Do they let freedom reign and end up with atypical Internet political discussions? Or do they heavily moderate, see traffic tail off after an initial surge, get accused of censorship and sanitisation and then can the idea?

I fear that the latter will be the end result, and Lord knows how much will be spent in design, maintenance and moderation costs whilst the project goes on. One only has to look at the traffic statistics that the Government has released for its main department sites to realise that very few people actually visit them in the wider scheme of things.

When you do a bit of dirty and assumed downward extrapolation from page impressions and unique hits, and then you factor in return visits, it's pretty clear that in a country of 60 million people, the vast majority never look at them anyway.

Having a discussion forum sounds wonderful, but it will just end up being the same political saddos and civil service wonks who are reading all the other blogs anyway, and even then they'll probably start getting bored.

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