By: Kevin Hansen
Six months ago, my colleague Sean Brooks and I had the fortunate experience of attending a meeting at 10 Downing Street, official residence and office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom–i.e., the British White House.
Due to security concerns, guests of No. 10 are not allowed to take their cell phones or laptops into meetings. Instead, you have to leave them in any one of a bunch of wooden cubby holes that look sort of like this:
For me, less important than the meeting’s specific conversation was its use of technology. Our GovLab team (then operating under the moniker “Opening Government”) was looking to make a statement about how technology could enable more transparency and collaboration in governance. As a result, I was asked to write a special request to the Prime Minister’s information technology and social media staff. In it, I stressed both the principle and value of enabling social media use during the meeting.
On principle, it would be pretty ironic (not to mention hypocritical) for a group called “Opening Government” to have a meeting at No. 10 and have it be cloaked in secrecy. In terms of value, it would be pretty cool if people anywhere in the world could join our conversation, and it would certainly help amplify our future audience (i.e., our number of Twitter followers).
A bit to our surprise, the Prime Minister’s staff honored the request. The social media team was actually thrilled by the opportunity–it sounded like they too were hoping to practice more citizen engagement, and we presented the perfect excuse for them to convince the security staff to allow it. Helping our cause, security was less of a concern that day (the Prime Minister was absent) and the meeting itself, though featuring several current and former executive officials, bore no direct connection to the political leadership (presumably reducing the resultant political embarrassment of any hiccups).
The outcome of this request was the first web-enabled meeting in the history of 10 Downing Street. The Number 10 team set us up with a temporary wireless network (charmingly named “welcomeopengov” and a couple of projector screens, which we hooked up to live Twitter feeds (see below).
With the Twitter board operational and many members of the group tweeting at #openinggov, something really awesome happened—the conversation around the table started branching off into multiple conversations online. There was the in-person conversation, to be sure, but some of the more interesting things being said were happening on Twitter–by both people sitting at the table and people sitting in their homes and offices. It was especially fun to see the perplexed look on someone’s face as they saw someone tweeting responses to the statements they’d made (many of which we were quoting and tweeting out from @OpeningGov) in near real-time.
In addition to being a cool story, I take a few things away from this experience:
- Most governments really do want to engage more with their citizens. After all, the closer they are to the pulse of what their voters want, and the more they make their voters feel listened to, the more likely they are to stay in power.
- Government’s fear of embarrassment and failure can be paralyzing. An elected official even creating a social media account used to be radical. Politicians are so used to gotcha journalism and negative campaigning that they fear openness. The logic goes like this: if I carefully control what becomes public, I can make sure that my constituents only see my best side. If I make everything public, I am simply giving my opponents and the press more ammunition to fire at me. Something so basic as letting people use Twitter during a meeting can become an ideological moat.
- We need to give governments more permission to fail. The cynic in me says that the press and opposing political figures will continue to use transparent disclosures of unflattering information and failures against them. As a result…
- Governments need to adequately communicate this dilemma. How can governments more clearly communicate their dilemma: carefully launch ten successful initiatives, or quickly launch one hundred initiatives–only eighty of which are successful? On the road to success, the fastest drivers are those who can tolerate the most speed bumps. Until the public is more comfortable with failure, government might as well call all new initiatives “pilots”, “tests”, and “experiments”, which help set expectations and minimize backlash.
Our meeting at Number 10 wasn’t exactly lawmaking, but it was a conversation about governance, and opening it up to the public certainly made it more participatory. Moreover, aside from the predictable trolling, we did get our share of retweets and we did achieve a significant degree of engagement.
For a roundup of the action, you can check out our Storify.
Note: This post was originally written for the blog CrowdLaw, and is also accessible here.