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Democracy in a digital age: how to keep an eye on your government

So Barack Obama has been voted in on a great wave of optimism. In his first three days he’s signed the orders to close Guantanamo, shut the CIA’s secret prisons, and banned torture.  He’s clamped down on lobbyists, introduced new transparency measures, and authorised his first military strike. Now that he’s getting on with the job, how are you going to keep an eye on what he’s up to?

white-house-siteHere’s the White House website, and the blog with all the proclamations. Obama’s pretty web 2.0 savvy, with a Myspace profile, a twitter page, and 3 million friends on Facebook – more than you, I think you’ll find. Then there’s his very own social network,

These were all useful on the campaign. Time will tell if they’re a good way of engaging with a government, but expect the White House’s Office of Public Liason to try out some new things on in the coming months. As commentators at PR agency Edelman have noted: “The social media programmes adopted by Obama’s transition team have foreshadowed significant changes in how Obama, as president, will communicate with – and more importantly – through the mass of supporters who were collected, cultivated and channeled during the campaign.”

number-10Here in the UK, I’m a regular at the Number10 site, which features all Gordon Brown’s latest propaganda. It also hosts live webchats with government ministers, has videos of all the Prime Minister’s speeches, and features Gordon’s twitter updates. It’s a good way of seeing what’s actually being said, before the newspapers and TV get to it and pick their news angle. We’re also privileged to have BBC Parliament here. For 95% of the time it may be the most boring channel on television anywhere in the world, but being able to watch your government in session is nevertheless a wonderful thing.

I also recommend, which has a variety of useful tools. You can find out who your MP is, if you don’t know, and you can see what they’re up to – what debates have they participated in, how did they vote on key decisions, and so on. You can email them from the site. One of my favourite tools is instant email updates. Anytime my MP, Margaret Moran, speaks in Parliament, I get an email. So far she’s been doing great stuff with women’s rights and social enterprise. If she was to suddenly speak up in favour of nuking Iran or something, I’d be able to write to her that same day and tell her that’s not going to fly with this particular constituent.

I also have updates for specific keywords. When the government discusses corruption, third world debt, or climate change, I get an automatic email with a link to the transcripts. TheyWorkForYou is run by a group called mySociety, who also run FixMyStreet, and a petitons site.

Does any of this matter? Yes it does.

Last thursday, while the media was fretting over the third runway at Heathrow, parliament took advantage of the distraction to do something rather sneaky. You remember that last year MPs were forced to disclose their expenses for the first time. The proposal was to change the law to exempt MPs from the freedom of information act, meaning that their expenses would be kept secret, days before they were due to be published.

TheyWorkForYou blew the whistle on this in an email to subscribers. Within 48 hours 4,000 emails had been sent to MPs, and 7,000 people had joined a Facebook protest group. The government were forced to drop the idea. Democracy has a new immediacy in the age of the internet.

  • Does anyone know any other useful tools or websites?
  • That’s the UK and the US. What’s happening in your country?
  • More about Obama’s use of social media in this rather fascinating (pdf) report from Edelman: The Social Pulpit (HT Johnny)

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