What politicians need to know about social public information pt3: Breaking public sector info-monopolies

We’ve seen that it’s possible for manufacturers to rely upon social spaces to do their marketing for them with minimal input from themselves – and how the benefits of doing so can outweigh the advantages of the controlled message.

But can this model be applied to government information provision?

The short answer is ‘in most cases, no.’ The longer answer is ‘not in the same way, and certainly not yet.’ Government has legal issues of confidentiality, trust and accountability that don’t apply to the private sector in the same way.

However, let’s not be downhearted here. This is a problem that is already being solved in lots of small ways. There are already very effective lively communities of citizens with specific needs who can be shown to rely upon each other more than the official sources when they need to interface with government.

Active citizens: Social capital on tap – or self interested monopolisers?

The obvious examples (as previously noted) include the Mumsnet community website, providing all kinds of distributed wisdom about everything from childcare and education to entitlement and access to governmental services.

As these services mature, governments are moving from a rational fear of their rivals to a recognition that this is the feedback loop that they’re looking for. They are not without hazards either though.

Mumsnet is a great source of human advice on situations in which parents need the help of the state, the voluntary sector, commercial players, their neighbours and friendly knowledgeable individuals who are hundreds of miles away. It is certainly an improvement upon the sensationalism and scaremongering that is found in some parts of the mainstream media.

But Mumsnet sometimes becomes a political force in itself. Mumsnet recently gave the coalition a hard time when it decided to remove child benefit from high earners. It’s not impartial. It’s not a partner in government.

If it were in a monopoly position (and a withdrawal of direct government information channels would make this more likely) its current downsides – that it amplifies minority voices rather than reflecting the concerns of what Rousseau called ‘The General Will’ would be exacerbated.

Between ‘hack’ and ‘flak’

There is a breakdown in trust between government and journalists. On one side,  when public servants expect the response to all statements to be ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ , journalists – the hacks become impatient with the defensive evasion and obfuscation – the flak – that underpins the legendary ‘never apologise, never explain’ motto of bureaucrats and politicians everywhere.

Yet between these increasingly nihilistic poles, there are a countless number of narrowly focussed forums and information activists meeting more esoteric needs in an intelligent and compassionate way. Forums such as those found on the Parkinsons Disease Society website (among many other similar commuities) provide peer-to-peer human interaction in their forums to be a useful supplement to the precious medical contact-time that the NHS offers.

There is a burgeoning movement around ‘open data’ where activists seek to take information that is in the public domain and use it to create new, informative illustrations of how society works – to spot solutions that may exist outside of the box. Clever data-mashups offer the potential to describe problems in new ways and suggest new solutions, though – crime-mapping aside, the project that illustrates this potential well remains elusive.

But again, transparency campaigners and geeks are problematic. In an ideal world, open data facilitates Evidence Based Policy-Making. But it’s not an effortless activity. Where it isn’t voluntary, it will often be one that is driven by vested interests. Selective use of open data can actually facilitate Policy Based Evidence-Making.

Often, with open data, the only agents that would take up the offer would be partisan interest groups, wanting to lobby on behalf of commercial or ethical lobbies. Ones that are not always in tune with the interests of the general population.

Anyone who has ever worked on public consultations will be aware of the hard-to –reach problem. How do we involve people who don’t actively engage in public life? And, more to the point, how do we limit the uneven influence exercised by the hard-to-avoid ‘active citizens’?

The hive mind of the Internet  steps in

On the other hand, there are projects like Patient Opinion and MyPolice. These seek to offer better help on aspects of the Health Service or local policing than messages is provided by government information professionals. In each case, these aren’t crude ‘have your say’ exercises. They are, instead, projects that aim to seek out feedback where it isn’t always easily forthcoming. Again, more developed examples can be seen in the private sector. In the US, the Get Satisfaction website is a third-party site that steps into the relationship between customer and supplier to build communities around products.

They don’t press self-interested policy outcomes. They involve a lot of people in describing the problems.

In the next part of this essay, I’ll look more closely at some examples of this and try to outline what the implications are for policymakers who want to loosen their grip on public information without allowing the democratic baby to be thrown out with the bathwater.

About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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