Chasing the digital wave, or chasing structural feedback loops?


A few observations following an event I went to at Parliament Week  

I pootled along to Parliament this week for the “Chasing the digital wave” debate – looking at some lessons learned from recent general elections. Mark Pack, the Lib Dem Blogger who knows far more about digital media & Westminster politics than most, managed to storify some of the key tweets from the event. Actually, I could have spent more than the lunch hour listening to Mark and Jon Worth (who’s very similar to Mark but Labour and more EU facing) discussing the merits or otherwise of the morning session.

Social media and general elections – the international experience

The thing that struck me about the case studies displayed (USA, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Italy with a little bit of France) was how much of the ‘engagement’ wasn’t really engagement at all. It was hyper-personalised direct marketing using data on a scale undreamt of until very recently. As I said to someone recently:

“I don’t want to know what my spending habits are so I’ll be damned if you’re going to have access to such information by getting me to sign up to a store card!”

With the US example, the 2008 election was presented as the ‘social media election’ and the 2012 example was presented as the ‘big data’ election. Yet much of the focus – certainly on the US side – could not get away from a problem that plagues the UK general elections: It’s the swing seats that matter. The analysis showed the democrats poured social media and big data resources into those swing states, trying to use new tactics to do an old thing: persuade people to vote. For example using social media to show activists and supporters which of their friends live in ‘swing states’ and perhaps they wanted to send a message to vote for a certain candidate, because friends can be trusted. If you want Puffles to vote for you, you’d better come armed with some jellybellies or pistachio nuts or it’s not happenin’! (I’m far harder to persuade).

The message from Denmark and Germany was full of complicated numbers and tables – the sort you’d need at least undergraduate level social science understanding to make sense of. It was that long ago I did my economics degree that half the time I was thinking “I recognise that but I can’t recall exactly what it means and why it should be significant”. Give me graphs and pictures dammit!

Don’t forget email

Actually, it was the Italian example that caught my eye – not just because the Italian guest speaker was one of the stronger speakers on the panel, but because he looked at an ‘old’ technology – emails. We take emails for granted these days, but in my first office job we didn’t have emails. Crikey…how did we message each other in those days? Actually, it was phone, fax and official documents filled in by hand. That was as recent as 1999. Less than 15 years ago. In a multinational corporation. Yes, that is how far we have come in such a short space of time.

In the Italian case study – or rather, done by an Italian university that covered a number of countries, they looked at what political parties did with people’s responses. The figures were astonishing – two thirds of emails sent to political parties got no response. The emails were very basic too. One was an offer of help, and another was a very basic question: “What is your position on taxes?”

This re-enforced my issues around feedback loops in political parties

A number of us wanted to know what impact such feedback had on individual candidates and political parties. Does such feedback have an impact on the political stances taken by politicians, and to what extent does such feedback impact on party policies? Because if such feedback isn’t having any impact (especially regarding political policy), what’s the point? You’re just shouting at a/an (electronic) brick wall.

Much as it’s nice for me to be proud of Puffles for having such a wide and influential Twitter following as dragon fairies go, does Puffles – or anyone who uses social media to engage with politicians – really have that much influence? Or is it really the case that you need to buy a seat next to a senior politician at a wealthy donors’ party dinner?

Dealing with the structures

I imagine this is just as much of an issue for political party activists as it is for political watchers and individual campaigners. How can you get your voice heard in a structure that seems to do everything to silence you? For example, are the grassroots of the Conservative Party more Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin than Cameron and Osborne? Are the grassroots of the Labour Party more John McDonnell and Diane Abbott than Balls and Miliband? Are the Lib Dems more Bob Russell than David Laws?

My point is that – even for a seasoned policy type like me – it’s not clear how political parties go about deciding what their policies are going to be. (Other than assuming the worst – for example this on media policy). Is it a case that the membership of a political party set the policies of a party or is it that the membership set a given set of (loose) parameters and boundaries from which the senior politicians work within?

What I’d particularly like to know for each of the main parties are where the start points and the ‘pinch points’ are that block an idea from moving further up the chain before becoming party policy? For example, is one start point ‘Dinner with the party leader at a small private event for mega-wealthy industrialists’? Is another start point turning up to a local party meeting? Or perhaps submitting/presenting a paper to a think tank event? What are the routes between the start point and getting a policy adopted – then implemented (if in government)? Who are the people/committees who get to say “No!”?

Interaction of policy units and organisations

The one thing I never really got a feel for in the civil service was the interaction between political party policy units, (partizan) think tanks and civil service policy units – the last of which I spent several years bouncing around in. During an era of regular ministerial (and special adviser) turnover, the stability of any given policy was undermined because civil servants and beyond would have no idea how long the policy would hold for given the short lifespan of ministers and special advisers. The strength or otherwise of a policy rested pretty much on the strength and political life-expectancy of the minister. What I mean by this is that the policy relationship between political party in government and the civil service was a personal one, not an institutional one.

Is replacing the head of policy on a regular basis a good idea?

Obviously not. From a policy perspective I cannot think of a single good reason why this would be a good idea. From an insecure “I want to hold onto leadership” perspective a la Blair vs Brown, I can understand why either of them would want to have regular turnover – it stops an alternative centre of expertise and knowledge – and thus influence & power from taking hold.

What this means is that you have this tension between the civil service and political parties over what a given policy should actually be – with the person responsible for deciding having not nearly enough expertise and knowledge of the policy concerned being asked to make what are quite often very difficult decisions. How can you ensure knowledgeable policy consistency in an environment where ministerial turnover is an occupational hazard?

Politicising the civil service is not the answer

Not least because of the temptation to use the state’s resources for party political purposes. All that would happen there is that a greater number of special advisers appointed to senior grades would turnover whenever a minister/ministerial team came in – exacerbating the problem. (Not that senior civil servants are imune from regular turnover as Katie Dash’s analysis at the Institute for Government shows).

Is calling for transparent institutional links like calling for a contradiction in terms?

Possibly, but I’m going to throw it out there and watch people tear it apart in the hope that something better will emerge.

This is where social and digital media come back into play. Political parties, ministers and the civil service need to explain clearly to the rest of us how policy is made – and how best to engage so as to refine and improve the policies that are being made. It shouldn’t need people to spend years inside the Whitehall or Westminster jungles to get even a basic understanding of how it works. It should be much more understandable and accessible – at least that way you increase the chances of democratic legitimacy. For example, the Whitehall message on police and crime commissioners is that the latter have democratic legitimacy because they topped the polls in the election – turnout being viewed almost as a minor sideshow. As far as the policy team in Whitehall is concerned, job done. Elections over, programme completed. Yet as Catherine Howe said in her blog, PCCs have to acknowledge the low turnout when they start work if they are to have any chance of succeeding.

Would transparent policy making have made it clear how such proposals got into manifestos in the first place? PCCs are mentioned on p57 of the Conservatives’ one. How many Conservatives are familiar with how this or any other policy can be adopted as party policy? The same goes for the other parties. Are the wider general public – the other 99% of people who are not members of political parties – familiar with how ideas become party policies? It’s not a ‘party political point’ picking on the Tories in this example. My point is that political parties need to be much more transparent about the structures of their policy making processes just as the civil service does. Otherwise you really do run the risk of policy being made by groups that might otherwise be funded by a very small number of (wealthy) people who are able to generate a lot of policy noise.

Policy units formally outside of political parties – transparency there too?

For me, the same goes with policy making inside think tanks, trade unions, professional trade bodies, industry groups and – as is becoming increasingly the case – academic public policy units. In conversation with Dr Tony Wright at the 100 years of Cambridge Labour Party event, he predicted that competition between the growing number and size of academic public policy units will become fierce. That’s one possibility. Another one is that they could become collaborative instead – in particular on specific issues.

One of the areas where I think there will be fierce debate – and possible mud-slinging too – is how the think tanks respond. I’m thinking some of the very partizan ones. There will quite rightly be pressure on universities to be transparent both in their content and functioning. Will that same pressure be brought to bear on think tanks?

Just a final thought on ‘transparency’ and my understanding of it in a political context. It’s not just about putting your information ‘out there’ – whether on funding, policies, processes or whatever. It is just as important that people can understand and use that information when engaging in the political process.

Apologies for the rambling nature of this post. I had an idea what I wanted it to be about but got distracted by another train of thought!


One thought on “Chasing the digital wave, or chasing structural feedback loops?

  1. There’s a summary of the formal Liberal Democrat policy-making process at . It doesn’t go into the steps before a formal motion on a major policy is presented – typically a Working Party set up by the Federal Policy Committee invites submissions from members and, as well as the working party’s own deliberations, informal discussions sessions are held usually at two separate party conferences. Of course what can actually be achieved in a coalition is not necessarily what either party would enact if it had a free hand.

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