The mother of digital parliaments

5 Nov

By Nick Osborne and Ged Carroll

The Internet has been changing every facet of modern life, even the mother of parliaments (at least to a certain extent anyway).  An exact state of affairs at parliament would be tricky to gauge, as innovation seems to be happening in different places.

Examples include the recent guide to Twitter, published by Neil Williams, head of corporate digital channels at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which outlined how the micro-blogging service could be used to share policy information and engage the general public around issues of interest.

The main political parties have shown enthusiasm in adopting social media as well, although this hasn’t necessarily translated across to their respective Parliamentary Members where there is the more familiar range of adoption patterns from early adopters to laggards to complete technophobes. Pretty much every Member of Parliament and election candidate not contesting a safe seat has a web presence of some sort, whether that is through a party backed website, or through extensive social media branding.  Most of these are run through constituency or Westminster offices however, there are few MPs who are leading the way in the digital space.

Amongst the social media front-runners are:

Apart from the lack of uptake of social media tools across the Parliament as a whole, the biggest area where there seems to be a lack of understanding about social media is that it is a conversation. Although Twitter lends itself nicely to sound bites there doesn’t seem to be that much political engagement going on. There also doesn’t seem to be that much awareness about the impact of what they can be talking about. For instance, one MP recently complained about the workload required to deal with constituents.  In another case, an automatic news feed on Peter Hain’s Facebook page prominently displayed an embarrassing piece of coverage.

Peter Hain's Facebook Feed

Despite the high profile digital campaign of Barack Obama, the US generally isn’t anywhere near the level of near universal digital and social media adoption that one would expect. For example only 29.5 per cent of US Congress members and Senators are on Twitter – 123 House members and 35 Senators out of a possible total of 535. .

But the fact is, the next election is going to be a hard fought campaign and this is likely to have a transformative effect on digital politics as a new generation of politicians come through.

So where is the opportunity in digital for parliamentary and public affairs campaigns?

The most obvious use of social media is for campaigning as it is easy to demonstrate support for a cause, through re-tweets or number of members in a Facebook group.  Social media both facilitates and reveals groundswells of popular support. Nixon’s famous silent majority, are no longer silent or invisible to politicians.

For electoral candidates, Obama’s secret was always to tweet asks and Calls-to-Action and this should be harnessed by MPs or PPCs. There is no particular need for an MP to tweet about what they are having for breakfast, although the ‘inane’ tweets do personalise the tweeter so they can be beneficial.

But the key is, actively engage and converse with users online by asking supporters, party members and voters to do something. Come to my rally, get one friend to help deliver leaflets, donate £5 to the party, come knock on doors with me. Tweets like these that actively call for support and include the public are far more likely to help the candidate get elected.

This method of personalised engagement and Calls-to-Action can also be harnessed for out and out public affairs campaigns. It isn’t something that will transfer well to asking for support for a bank’s or defence company’s campaign, because the public will always be wary of sinister motives. But it will transfer brilliantly to campaigns surrounding NGOs, charities, patient groups, green and sustainability projects, local engagement and welfare organisations due to the need to rally support through calls-to-action.

A second and underrated factor is providing content for researchers. Like the rest of the UK, parliamentary researchers will often hit Google as their first point of call when finding out about a new subject and developing a point-of-view for their MP. Providing the freshest, most relevant content around a particular area, particularly if it has an industry rather than a specific corporate slant is one of the best ways to influence from a digital point-of-view.

There has been an increasing level of political social media analysis in the recent months. Tweetminister essentially aggregates tweets by Members of Parliament, as well as blogs on interesting issues surrounding communication and an open Parliament while the Hansard Society has recently published a report into the use of Facebook by MPs.

We would love to hear your views on the matter, so please feel free to leave comments.

Cross posted with Ruder Finn Dot Comms.

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