Most politicians have a pragmatic relationship with democracy. They like to appear devoted to upholding the concept of government by the people and for the people but in practice are only interrupted by the reality once every four years. Elections are meant to be democratic theory made real, but a lot gets lost in translation.
So our elected representatives often get into trouble when confronted by free and open systems — think of pensioners berating the prime-minister during an inner-city visit. The restrictive and structured world of Whitehall provides far too good a barrier against the chaotic reality of openess. MP David Miliband got a hard lesson in what he didn’t know he didn’t know this week. The Environment Secretary’s attempts to expand his existing flirtation with blogging by posting an Environment contract via a Wiki ended badly — and predictably.
Around 180 contributors decided that the ability to tell the minister exactly what they thought of him and his department was too good to pass up. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a name in need of a Wiki edit if ever there was one, responded by shutting down the edit function of the Wiki — slamming the door in the face of guests and gate crashers alike.
Cynics would find it easy to declare ‘I told you so’ following Miliband’s sharp exit from his experiment with Web 2.0. But the lesson here is not that Wikis are a poor tool for government interaction. Far from it: their collaborative nature makes them ideal. Rather the message that Miliband and co, and anyone else thinking of using a Wiki for formal communications is, just like any public meeting, there have to be ground rules.
Defra does have a list of rules for acceptable use but they are little more than a guide. What is required is accountability. Forcing would-be contributors to register would provide a barrier to entry for most of the worst online hoodlums while hopefully reassuring serious participants that their feedback won’t be simply erased for the fun of it.
Defra deserves some credit despite the abortive result of this Wiki experiment but only because of the poor showing of its peers. Web technologies, considered by many of the voters of tomorrow as established and matter of fact, are still alien to much of government and business alike. The sooner that the power and potential of the interactive web is taken seriously by the establishment, the sooner they can expect a serious response.