Some thoughts on openness and trust in government

One of the things I’ve been taking an interest in lately is the slow progression of Internet technologies into UK politics – or should that be the progress of UK politicians onto the web?

We have a small number of Members of Parliament on Twitter (you can find them at Tweetminster), and a few have their own blogs too. Sadly some of the initial government moves to use social media were a bit of a disaster (remember David Miliband’s efforts in this area?). Things have improved as the individuals themselves are more savvy (increasingly true as new generations of MPs come into politics) – Tom Watson is a good example and I was delighted to be able to contribute to the open discussion he invited on the proposed Internet site classification idea.

Recently I was particularly pleased to hear Jo Swinson defend her use of Twitter on Radio 4’s Any Questions. I was also impressed with the tech-savvy she showed in a defence of Wikipedia, and her willingness to respond to people who are not even her direct constituents during a subsequent discussion on Twitter. I don’t want MPs on Twitter so that they can lecture me or send out press releases on their politics; and actually, I don’t see it as a gigantic waste of their time. It’s an excellent way to build relationships, and it can also make them seem more human too. Blogging and twittering encourages the use of more conversational language, and that is important particularly in the political sphere.

In an age of increasing distrust and apathy in democracies around the world, I’d like to see more of this. I’d like to see it extend to both the local level, and the international level, too. Local councils in the UK should be encouraged to make more use of social media. Larger bodies like the EU should be making better efforts in this space too – it’s all very well for them to stream proceedings online, but without a level of human interpretation of the jargon and dense documentation that comes out of the European Parliament, it’s very difficult for ordinary citizens to make sense of what goes on.

Pop quiz: does covering up a significant budget scandal in an intergovernmental body give opponents of that body less, or more, to complain about? Thanks to Google Translate I’ve been able to read a Swedish MEP’s blog entry on the subject

One of [my colleagues] argued for example that I should propose to discharge only to “avoid giving boost to European opposition before the European elections”. A hair-raising way of arguing, I think! This is exactly the opposite. If we do not take problems seriously and sweep justified criticism under the carpet, then we give arguments to the EU opponents!

I have to say that I agree – and more open attitudes like this would do a lot to improve public trust in the institutions that work for us.

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