A few agreed with my general theme – that it really wasn’t up to snuff – while some thought I was too harsh, and should be giving Number 10 far greater credit for even engaging with new web technologies in this way, because few governments – if any – do.
On Perfect Path, social media guru Lloyd Davis points out that a major part of the work on the new site has been to install “better plumbing” – WordPress. Simon Dickson, who’s behind the site, agrees in comments this was an early milestone.
All of which is fine – WordPress is a very fine CMS, and now much more than just a blogging platform. The geek in me says it’s reasonably cool Number 10 is using it. But platforms are, of course, immaterial to users – they only see the output – and it still leaves the question of the site’s purpose.
Part of the problem is that those of us working in the digital world view social media as a Very Good Thing. If you were around for web 1.0 you know it has brought the kind of interlinking of people and ideas we were dreaming of back in the day.
We see the values of Web 2.0 – of information sharing, collaboration and creativity – a unambiguously good and important, so it is hard to be critical of any site that claims to support those values, especially when it emerges from the highest echelons of government, even if the only evidence of that support is using the same tools as we do.
The drawback of this approach, though, is that not everything is a social media problem. Not everything needs to be bashed by the bloggy hammer. Being better at blogs than other governments is a doubly pointless measure of success; we can’t, after all, choose to be ruled by, say, Sweden, if it has a more enlightened approach to comment moderation.
So we need to ask if putting photographs on Flickr, videos on YouTube, and adopting a blog format for press releases really achieves anything, whether or not the comments are switched on.
What is this site’s purpose? Lest I be accused of being entirely negative (it’s been said) let’s look a something this site could be doing.
The government is not shy of complaining that its message is distorted by portions of the media. So one thing this site could do is allow access to briefings on what decision has been taken, or which position adopted, and why. That’s beyond a press release, or a press conference transcript, or speech text.
How exactly that explanation is delivered – through text, graphics, data or video – is up for debate, and is also where the space for innovation is (see MySociety). But what you’re trying to do is explain is the PM’s tactics for stopping knife crime, improving public health, reforming the NHS or dealing with Russia. I’d be fascinated to see more of Brown’s briefing material around these things (while accepting some, especially around foreign affairs, might be classified for good reason). After all, I’ve helped pay for it. I suspect many others would be too – not least Britain’s small but (finally) growing band of political bloggers.
This is the obvious social media angle here, also alluded to by Lloyd in his comments. It is not about building a social site at Number10.gov.uk. It’s about something much, much harder – something that runs counter to the DNA (even the interests) of all governments – being more transparent.
Maybe that’s the trouble here. As Ben Hammersley said in comments on the last post, “What bothers me is the mismatch between what they have to play with, viz a distinctly non-interactive, non-webby PM, and the choices they made.” Maybe this site really is just a roughly-executed Web 2.0 veneer for a very 1.0 PM, and without addressing that fundamental problem it can’t do things properly.
But as things stand, it’s neither starting a conversation, nor facilitating one.