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Transformational Government: The Ultimate Wired Cause

By Tom Watson on April 7, 2008No Comment

Most of the old Palace of Westminster was lost in a disastrous fire in 1834, and much of what was rebuilt to form the modern Parliament chambers of Great Britain by the Victorians was damaged or destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War. So the seat of British democracy is a mixture of very old remnants and more modern recreation. Yet there remains one grand public space that dates to the 11th century – Westminster Hall, constructed on the orders of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is covered by a brilliant wooden hammer-and-beam roof commissioned by Richard II. And beneath a corner of the hall, down a few stairs is the tiny St. Mary’s Undercroft, a hidden chapel that survived fire and blitz.

Widely credited as the first blogging MP, Tom has been named Minister for Transformational Government by Gordon Brown, charged with helping to reinvent British government through information technology. And he took full advantage the new cabinet position last week with a speech that was a rip-snorter, and has fired its way through the blogosphere on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few days. Here’s a bit, and I must, it’s tailor-made for my book CauseWired, which I’m working hard at finishing up this spring:

Any community organiser or activist knows just how hard it is to get people together to do something. Weeks of backbreaking work required to organise a campaign. My earliest childhood memories are of endless hours of turning the handle of a manual duplicating machine whilst my dad fermented revolution in the pub.

Social media has removed the requirement for my son to turn the handle for his dad. It allows people to organise a demonstration or a lobby at a single click, with global effect. This is profoundly democratising.

And profoundly challenging for politicians. It also means my son can spend more time on the CBeebies website leaving his dad computerless.

And it’s not just cheaper or easier for organisers. The personal cost in time and effort has diminished to a mouse click. With unsurprising results, more people take part. The maths is pretty simple.

Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition 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.

The challenge is for elected representatives to follow their customers and electors into this brave new world.

That is entirely the challenge. Tom posted a hyperlinked version of the speech on his blog, which is – of course – what every politician should do with a major speech; imagine if Obama had posted a hyperlinked version of his famous discussion of race, or if Clinton did a fulled annotated and linked version of an economic policy speech?

Media critic Jeff Jarvis found Tom’s speech through 10 Downing Street’s Twitter feed, ad thought he detected in some of the Tory reaction “the start of a liberal-v-conservative clash of worldviews approaching open, digital, social government and society.” Probably right, but the Tories particularly dislike my friend Tom – it’s the combative blogging nature, I suspect. Over at techPresident, Micah Sifry said Tom’s agenda “makes me drool,” and added:

Imagine one of our presidential candidates making it (even Barack Obama, who has done the most thinking on this topic.) You can’t. But maybe, if we pay more attention to our cousins across the pond, soon someone will.

Five years ago, Watson was one of the first MPs to blog, and notes that even though it opened him up to daily abuse, “the blog broke down the walls between legislators and electors in a way that interested me. So I persevered.” Now he says, “I believe in the power of mass collaboration…. I believe that the old hierarchies in which government policy is made are going to change for ever.”

I think Micah is right about something else as well – “This isn’t your father’s e-government, which has all been about making it easier for people to download forms from websites or file their taxes online.” It is about actually engaging people living in a democracy in the filthy business of running that democracy. And it’s also about the recognition that good ideas can start in the populace itself – with entrepreneurs and regular people – that government programs actually begin as causes to change something.

Tom will in town this week and I’m hoping to get together. But on a side note, his big move reminds me of just how prescient I was last year after our visit in Westminster:

I must be careful here, but I will attempt an observation on behalf of my Right Honorable Labour friend. It seemed to me, as we breezed about, that Tom Watson is seen by his colleagues as a man who will return to government in some prominent role in the near future. His resignation as assistant defense minister was quite the story last year – all intrigue and rumor – and it helped start the exit door opening for Tony Blair. But this old political reporter could see in the greetings, in some of the hints,handshakes, and by-play – and frankly, in the enthusiasm that greeted his American guest – that Tom is reckoned as a man to be reckoned with.

Nailed it.

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