Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 11:40 UK

Moving towards Government 2.0

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Twitter website screen grab
Can social media help both government and citizen know more about what each other is doing?

The government has long aspired to reach out to citizens in a more engaging way and in the Twittertastic world of Web 2.0 it seems such a goal should be pretty easy to achieve.

But despite having a set of guidelines on how to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media, the government's intranet bans access to them.

Even in local authorities, only around half of the UK's councils allow employees access to such sites.

This dichotomy perhaps best sums up the current contradictory attitude in Whitehall and wider government circles when it comes to closer engagement with citizens.

Andy Williamson of political research group The Hansard Society believes it will take more than a few Twitter accounts to make any radical difference to the way the government deals with citizens.

"In order to effectively engage citizens, an organisation needs to believe that the voice of citizens matters and there is still a culture of 'I'd rather not'," he said.

"Web 2.0 is, by its nature, user driven and government isn't."

Plenty of politicians now blog and, while some do it simply to tick a box, there are plenty of good examples around too.

Mr Williamson is a fan of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blog, for example.

"It is written from a variety of points of view from the minister down to ambassadors and other staff and shows off the work they do in a very candid way," he said.

The government is aware that the numbers of visitors to its myriad websites is limited and is actively trying to concentrate on the most popular ones.

GP performance

Screen shot of NHS Choices
NHS Choices provides reliable medical information

NHS Choices has been identified as one of the government's so-called supersites which, according to NHS Choice programme director Gary Ashby, means "the ones that have been worked on the most and reflect where government has got it right".

The website gets 24 million hits a year, a pretty decent number for a government website.

The site allows people to check definitive health information as well as the performance of individual hospitals and even, if they so wish, the mortality rates for particular procedures.

This month it launches a new tool showing how well individual GP surgeries are performing and allowing members of the public to offer feedback on individual doctors.

For Mr Ashby this tool is an illustration of what digital engagement should really be about.

"It is about providing the public with the choices and the tools they need to access services in a better way," he said.

For patients it means they can vote with their feet.

"At the moment people tend to choose the GP closest to their house but it doesn't have to be like that," he said.

But it is vital that it should be a two-way process.

"It will be important that the feedback is taken on by GPs and hospitals and used to improve services," he said.

Challenging government

Downing Street e-Petitions
E-Petitions don't always tell government what it wants to hear

E-petitions are perhaps the most high-profile online way that government currently garners public opinion.

Originally started in the Scottish parliament as a way of allowing citizens to raise the issues affecting them, the system was adopted by Downing Street in 2006.

Just three months after launch the service registered its millionth signature with the public often voting in droves against unpopular pieces of legislation, such as Tony Blair's plans to replace road tax with pricing based on vehicle use.

Direct challenges to policy have, in recent months, got even more personal. Currently there are 65 signatures to a petition for Gordon Brown not to resign. And 71,764 for him to go.

Mr Williamson dismisses the Downing Street e-petition as "rubbish" but points to other places that have actually integrated the system into the political process.

"This has happened at the Welsh Assembly. They let people know what has happened and e-petitions don't work if you don't get a response," he said.

Councils take note; from next year it will be mandatory for all local authorities to have some form of e-petitioning.

Hooking users

Tentative first moves are being made within central government to consult with the public over policy.

One of the few departments embracing the idea of e-consultation is the Environment Agency.

The agency conducts around 300 consultations a year. In the past it was "lucky to get more than 100 respondents" according to Cath Beaver, stakeholder relations manager at the Environment Agency.

A recent e-consultation on the subject on how the government manages its fisheries attracted 900 responses from anglers and other interested parties.

The results are still being analysed - another problem with e-consultation is how to manage all the responses that are received in a meaningful way - but there will be scope to adapt the policy based on the submissions, Ms Beaver promised.


Redbridge i
Redbridge offers ultra-local information

At a local government level, councils are beginning to take on some of the applications begun by citizen groups., such as FixMyStreet and Pledgebank, websites set up by civic charity MySociety.

The London Borough of Redbridge has incorporated both these ideas in its new website, dubbed "Redbridge i".

The site grew out of a desire to make information even more localised.

"We recognised that things were increasingly geographically based and we felt people would relate more at their neighbourhood level than at a borough-wide level," said Eddie Gibb, head of marketing at Redbridge.

Using Google maps visitors can define their own neighbourhood to within 50 metres of their property.

From there, they can view planning applications, report problems such as graffiti or abandoned cars and set up a "pledgebank" to bring communities together on schemes such as planting trees.

Redbridge has also instigated an online conversation to get direct feedback from residents about how council money is spent.

More than 3,500 people joined the "Redbridge Conversation" online and it threw up some interesting points.

"People were prepared to see the council sell land and see car park charges increased if it meant more money for school improvements," said Carole Gayle, a web development consultant for Redbridge Council.

Redbridge i has become particularly popular with older residents.

"They feel more comfortable using this than more traditional social media such as Facebook or MySpace," explained Ms Gayle.

Reaching youth

Peter Gilroy, the chief executive of Kent County Council, is on a mission to reach out to younger members of his county.

Helping in that effort is Kent TV, an online TV station which is just coming to the end of a two-year pilot. It has an audience of two million.

It tackles "youth issues" such as bullying and sexually transmitted diseases via its interactive soap opera.

Its recent Battle of the Bands attracted 12,000 registrations within two hours.

But Mr Gilroy acknowledges that one of the biggest problems in engaging with the public is that they often don't want to talk.

"The public couldn't give a toss about the public sector. They are only interested in it when they need a service," he told a recent conference on e-engagement.

And for councillors too, there are some mountains to climb.

"They want to engage the public on some levels but when it comes to talking the talk it is very different. Getting Twitter into the chamber, now that was some journey," he said.

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