Government by Twitter

Well, how’s this for cool: I was reading 10 Downing Street’s Twitter feed and found a link to a speech by blogging MP Tom Watson establishing a task force to implement recommendations in a Power of Information report to open up government data and to involve citizens in government using the social web. Watson said:

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

Mrs Watson is a regular user of Netmums. It’s a great site. Parents chat, and offer, I’ve been there, advice on everything from baby whispering to school admissions. Except it’s not just a handful of mums and dads, it’s thousands of them, available in your living room, 24 hours a day.

Sounds like hell well, it’s a lifeline when your baby’s screaming at four in the morning, you have no idea why and you just need to know you’re not alone. But my point is, imagine if quarter of a million mums decided to meet at Wembley Stadium to discuss the best way to bring up their kids. Midwives would be there dispensing advice. Health visitors, nursery teachers, welfare rights advisers would be there. Even politicians would try and get in on the act. But when twice this number chooses to meet together in the same place online, we just ignore them. That’s going to have to change. . . .

We also need to look at the way Government talks to itself. Whitehall is arguably Britain’s most important knowledge factory, but we’re using out of date tools. . . .

To do this within the system I would like to see more use of techniques commonplace now in the wider world, internal blogs, wikis, discussion forums, shared workspaces, all still quite rare within the machine. . . .

Here are some of the ideas I put forward on — what should we call it? — social government, open government, Google government.

: As an aside, there’s an amusing and very British dustup in Watson’s speech over accusations that he stole the idea of open-source the Tories. But, of course, if it’s open, how can anyone own it and thus how can it be stolen? Note also that underneath this is the start of a liberal-v-conservative clash of worldviews approaching open, digital, social government and society. I think that debate is revolving around whether the center of this activity is inside or outside of government and whether the market of ideas and information is sufficient in itself. Anyway, here’s Watson:

I said that I don’t believe the post-bureaucratic age argument. It’s just old thinking, laissez faire ideas with a new badge.

The future of government is to provide tools for empowerment, not to sit back and hope that laissez-faire adhocracy will suffice.

A post bureaucratic age misunderstands the idea of an enabling state one that moderates collaborative activity for a shared social good. The collaborative state still requires leaders and enablers, doers and thinkers. It still requires public services but services with boundaries porous to external ideas.

I said that ideologies that fail to comprehend the power of sharing, where activity is motivated by non-market production or where, as Stephen Weber says the traditional notions of property rights are inverted – are doomed to extinction.

And I talked about the three rules of open source: One, nobody owns it. Two, everybody uses it. And three, anyone can improve it.

Two days later a political opponent sent out an email laying claim that in fact they are the ‘owners’ of these new ideas. I was accused of plundering policies from the Conservatives.

The irony that laying claim to the ownership of a policy on open source was lost to the poor researcher who had spent a day dissecting the speech. He’d been able to do so easily because it was freely available on my blog, a simple tool used for communicating information quickly and at nearly zero cost without the requirement to charge for access.

The point is, who cares? It doesn’t matter who has the ideas. It’s what you do with them and how you improve on them that counts.

But politics will still be politics.

: Note also from Watson’s speech the incredible uptake of epetitions.

Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition website [External website]. 1 in 10 citizens have emailed the Prime Minister about an issue. The next stage is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.