Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 12:35 UK

Whitehall chases the chattering classes

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

"I don't think of this as an IT project".

Gordon Brown
The government says it wants to connect with families

Given that "IT project" has almost become Whitehall shorthand for "expensive disaster" in recent years, Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson is probably wise to choose his words carefully.

He may also need all of his diplomatic skills to persuade voters that the government has their best interests at heart when it begins monitoring popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Netmums, Fixmystreet and MumsNet.

Ministers are keen to get in on the social networking act - seeing it as a way of by-passing traditional media to communicate directly with the users of public services.

The initiative is part of a wider Power of Information Taskforce, aimed at helping government departments make better use of the internet, led by Mr Watson, who was among the first MPs to blog.

They may even employ media monitoring companies to find out what the users of popular sites are saying about them.

They might not always like what they find.

Privacy concern

A quick search on MumsNet under "Gordon Brown" throws up little in the way of praise for the prime minister.

"The only thing I'd like to feed Gordon Brown is a knuckle sandwich," says one member in a discussion on nutrition.

Another poster - in a discussion on lookalikes - compares the prime minister to "Javier Bardem, the serial killer in the Coen Brothers' brilliant No Country For Old Men".

David Cameron meets members of Mumsnet
The Conservatives are also keen to get involved

The government's plans have also sparked concerns about privacy.

Mr Watson sees nothing intrusive about the government using open, commercially run sites to dispense advice and information.

"Having 100,000 mums on a social network like NetMums sharing ideas about how you bring up kids or what it's like to give birth can be useful to government because they can talk about the services that they provide.

"Government can be useful to them to give them advice on what's good and what isn't good.

"If 100,000 mums met at Wembley stadium there would be welfare rights advisers, clinicians, midwives, even politicians would get in on the act.

"But when 100,000 mums meet on an information community online like NetMums, you don't get a politician talking to them."

'Personalised' services

Some have argued there is a whiff of "Big Brother" about the plans.

Mums congregating at Wembley is one thing, but how would those "mums" feel if they were chatting with friends in a coffee shop - an experience that has more in common with being online than visiting a football ground - while a government official hovered nearby taking notes and butting in with helpful suggestions?

For Mr Watson, it is simply a question of following the voters.

"We have got to go where our citizens are congregating," he says.

If members of a social networking site were discussing which food additives were safe, for example, an NHS official could step in to offer advice.

Gordon Brown is the first prime minister to send out e-mails to his ministers
Tom Watson
Minister for transformational government

"Someone in the NHS has a job, whose job it is to give advice about what additives kids can have and what they can't have," he argues.

It is all part of Gordon Brown's much-vaunted plan to "personalise" public services, he argues.

New guidelines

All of the main parties are trying to get in the social networking act - David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both taken part in web chats on Mumsnet and have a presence on Facebook.

But Mr Watson's biggest challenge may not be the activities of political rivals but the slow-moving, inherently conservative nature of the government machine itself.

A recent report suggested the Whitehall culture was hindering the taskforce's plans to encourage greater use of social media.

The rigid hierarchies of the civil service were at odds with the more freewheeling world of social media, where moderators and discussion leaders emerge by building up trust rather than being appointed, it found.

Mr Watson is hoping a new set of guidelines to be published shortly will help square the stuffy civil service code with the spirit of the internet, without landing everyone in court.

He also wants to get public servants using internal wikis and chat rooms to discuss policy formation and swap tips on "best practice".


But he is taking things slowly.

"I'm the lead minister on this, but what I can't do is wield the big stick on it. If people don't want to use these simple solutions for communication then I can't make them."

The main message he wants to get across, he says is that "it is genuinely so easy to set up a Wiki or a chat room and that it's useful to help people do their job and share ideas".

Has he been helped in his task by having a few younger faces around the cabinet table under Gordon Brown? (some members of Tony Blair's cabinet - including Mr Blair himself - were self-confessed technophobes).

"There is a generational thing with a lot of this technology and that's as true in government as it is in the private sector.

"But Gordon Brown is the first prime minister to send out e-mails to his ministers."

"I never got an e-mail off Tony Blair," adds Mr Watson, who was famously forced to quit government over his alleged role in a plot to topple the former prime minister in 2006.

Does he receive many e-mails from Mr Brown?

"I don't get many, but when I get do get one I respond to it very quickly," he laughs.

Call to open up public data use
08 Jun 07 |  Technology

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