Saturday, May 13, 2006

Maveric research by Miliband

Should Government Ministers get help from the Civil Service to aid their blogging activities? Is there a good case to be made for Government Ministers to have personal or Departmental blogs. There is definitely a need for research.

David Miliband is a senior member of the UK Government and a blogger. He began blogging when working in the at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and is now offering his view as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the same blog.

Mr Miliband says: “This blog is my attempt to help bridge the gap - the growing and potentially dangerous gap - between politicians and the public. It will show what I'm doing, what I'm thinking about, and what I've read, heard or seen for myself which has sparked interest or influenced my ideas. My focus will be on my ministerial priorities. The blog is paid for by the UK Government and is supported with Civil Servants providing expert help and assistance including, I discovered last week, editorial help.

This weblog is being evaluated by the independent, non-partisan Hansard Society, an independent, non-partisan educational charity, which exists to promote effective parliamentary democracy, as part of a Department for Constitutional Affairs pilot into use of information and communication technology by central government.

Researchers from the Hansard Society have been given permission to approach people who use this weblog - this will be through email and people who respond to the blog are not obliged to take part. This is not made clear in the terms and conditions you agree to if you respond to a Miliband post.

The pilot, we are told, will report in Summer 2006 and inform the way ICT is used to provide a platform for dialogue between citizens, elected representatives and political institutions.

There are a number of issues involved in this project.

The first is that is it right for a Government to sponsor a Minister? This has two parts. First is it right for a Government to pay for this research as a live experiment, as opposed to the normal channels that the Government uses for research? The second being, should the Government sponsor the promotion of an individual Member of the Government using a blog or would it be more transparent for the Government Department to provide the blog? In this case the blog followed the Minister as he changes roles in the recent re-shuffle. Will it follow him out of office? Is this, then the authentic voice of David Miliband.

The background to all this was provided by Ross Ferguson and Milica Howell in a Hansard publication Political Blogs – Craze or Convention?

Perhaps this is 'research' of the kind that is done by 'spin doctors' to attempt to make a point but without the normal and robust checks and balances one would find in the kind of academic research which would normally attract the governemen'ts usual research funding, ESRC.

Perhaps the reason that this 'research' has to be conducted by the Department/s and or Hansard is that there are no provisions for this kind or research available through ESRC.

I will stop beating arround the bush - ESRC parameters for research specifically exclude ant reserach into human commumication.

My be this is why research by the Communications institutions and academics in communications research institutions have not been included in the experiment. You see, if this is how powerful Ministries get research done outside the channels that most academic have available, can we envisage more research, paid for by the public purse but not accountable through 'the normal channels'.

A new Neuclear device for example.

Or, perhaps, just perhaps, the research angle is a smoke screen and this was a way that a Government Minister could run a blog. Its not as though politicians don't have blogs, it just that it is pretty difficult for Ministers of the Crown.

What, one might ask can a Minister in a 'transparent' government say in a blog that cannot be said by a Civil Servant in the press office? Do Mr Miliband's blog posts get cross posted to the Departmental 'official channels' if not why not is this a case of haves and have not's.

Indeed if there is editorial help, where does it reside? Is it among the faceless professionals (such as The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) whose name is available to the press but not the public and who could not claim to any understanding of 'transparency' it seems. So that is unlikely.

There are so many questions.

An interesting social and political thingy... but not research, I suggest.

I am much less sanguine about this initiative than others. On the one hand, it has a seriously heavy hand of not very well joined up Government about it and on the other, it looks like Ministerial glad handing.

Picture: David Miliband