How Politicians are Being Taught to Engage Online

The political world seems to be in a similar predicament to that of advertising. People have been bombarded with so much spin and deliberately ambiguous language that they have simply stopped listening to political messages. Less people now vote in the UK elections than they do for TV talent show contestants. People have simply lost interest in responding to political campaigns that appear little more than contests between marketing and PR departments.

But over the last year we have witnessed the impact of the connected internet world on politics. Political bloggers have been able to set the agenda, by pushing stories onto the traditional media, and we have recently seen an unprecedented 2 million votes being cast in a government e-petition. The time is ripe for the political world to start understanding the changing mindsets that the internet is creating, and to be aware of the possible repercussions of failing to engage with their voters online.

I was notified of a research project, to teach political bodies how to engage with voters online, by a post from Stephen Davies aka PR Blogger.

The Digital Dialogue study was launched last year to assess how the internet could be used to improve and promote communication between politicians and the public.

The study observed various government departments as they got to grips with blogs, forums and webchats. The aim is to assess how they could be incorporated into the political process and assist politicians to become more responsive and more in touch with public opinion.

The study is being carried out over two phases of six months. The results of the first phase were released last December. These were some of its key findings:

  • Government departments found they were able to interact more closely with the public, rather than maintain the ‘stand-back and watch’ approach of traditional communication channels.
  • Senior managers were keen to push the projects forward recognising that “the public has been a silent partner in the development, delivery and evaluation of policy and services for too long.”
  • Learning how to most effectively utilise the new communication tools at their disposal would take time with the need to assess the budget requirements, time management and how to incorporate with the existing channels.
  • The response of the public had been “enthusiasm tempered with a healthy scepticism.” People were keen to have the opportunity to be able to engage with policy makers, but had serious doubts as to how genuine the invitation for their input was or what influence their opinions would actually have.
  • The government policy teams felt that the input of the public had been valuable and incisive. It will, however, take time to quantify what impact their input has had on policy decisions.
  • Overall the exercise “benefited government to explore alternative routes, develop new skills and send out a statement about its commitment to better engagement and more transparent decision-making processes.”

The second phase of the study is now in operation and due to be completed by the end of spring. The study’s organisers will be aiming to further develop the practices explored in phase one, and expand them into using wikis, podcasting and audio-visual blogs.

It remains to be seen how seriously senior politicians would absorb the input of the general public. The complexity behind many government decisions would make it irresponsible to decide policy simply based on the public clamour.

The Digital Dialogue study does, however, demonstrate how more businesses and institutions are learning to get to grips with the new mindsets being created by the connected online world. One way communication is dated and dying. Two way engagement, transparency and responsiveness are on the rise. Now anybody in a democratic society with an internet connection can have their own soap box to say what they think. And now more politicians are learning that they have to be able to listen, as well as to dictate.   

5 thoughts on “How Politicians are Being Taught to Engage Online

  1. Well said, Matt. I’ve “digged” it. My take is that there is just too much noise out there for anyone to listen. Mainly because so many of the media turn every issue into a deadly battle between opposing forces. And the din of battle can be terrifyingly loud.


  2. Thanks for the Digg Walter.

    More transparency and honesty definitely seems to be the way forward instead of negative point scoring. But I think this might be a bridge too far for most politicians.

    Its a shame because abandoning spin would be a great way of reinvigorating interest in politics and gaining people’s trust. Unfortunately, in the sometimes murky world of politics they have too much to hide.


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