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Elizabeth Truss: The new media politics revolution

Elizabeth_truss Elizabeth Truss, a councillor in Greenwich and Deputy Director of Reform, looks at the some of the ways new media is already changing our way of life.

In their book Wikinomics, Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams described “a new age of participation and mass collaboration… endangering the future of hierarchies as a mode of organizational structure”. In this new world individuals can directly select and contract with large organisations, leaders are spurred on by new collaborative technology, businesses are delayering and small enterprise is thriving.

Businesses are using open sourcing to improve the quality of their work. Expert individuals are able to put forward views and ideas, and hence have become used to influencing decisions in many different areas of their lives. The technological change has been accompanied by a greater capability of people to take decisions themselves and direct their future.

The generation brought up in the internet age has always assumed that they have this level of interaction, voice and influence. Their communication is characterised by open and constant self expression. Distinction between generations and authority are blurred; on-line you stand or fall by your latest pronouncement.

The Internet generation has less private space than before, constantly engaging through the incessant attentions of the mobile phone, Instant Messaging and twitter. YouGov’s Mobile Life Youth Report argued that “communication has become a constant, unending flow, never stopping, never static, never relenting. Kids live now in a virtual social network that it is almost impossible to escape from”.

This raises concerns in the minds of some who object to the porous, “always on” nature of modern communication and the way it has affected the internet generation. The Byron Review has produced recommendations about ensuring children “remain safe in the online world”. The IPPR is publishing a report describing young people who are “being raised online” as they spend in excess of 20 hours per week on social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and bebo.

However, these concerns should be outweighed by the almost limitless opportunity that this new technology brings. It empowers individuals, undermines privilege and extends choice and can therefore bring major benefits to society and the economy.

These opportunities have not been fully harnessed by political leaders. Although a number of the more superficial aspects of modern technology have been adopted, the wider cultural change it has brought about has not yet swept through political edifices. This is partly because politicians are unwilling to let go of power or even perceived power. There is still a strong desire to be seen as omnipotent, something that is becoming impossible in a world where expertise and decision-making is much more widely spread. 

Rather than see the full messy reality emerging, tight media management and message control has been deployed to preserve the myth as long as possible.  Activist politicians are testing the old “delivery” model to destruction, promising more and more against unreachable expectations. This has resulted in centralisation, targeting and increasing the number of layers to monitor the monitors. Indeed, many of the electors seem happy to enter a Faustian pact where they can “blame” a Minister for everyday misfortunes such as a train delay or a long waiting time at the doctor.   

The Power Inquiry suggests that this is a losing game and that new technology has created “the rise of a better educated and more socially and geographically mobile class…whose own expectations of public service delivery have risen to a level that the government seems incapable of achieving”.

This struggle to maintain the semblance of control seems to have created a less idiosyncratic generation of politicians – where is the new Widdecombe or Skinner? Perhaps they are bloggers.

A new breed of Ministers and politicians is required to redefine the rules.  At present, the default position for some Ministers is the “manager” and “deliverer”.  Instead the ability to lead and inspire will become central. There are of course areas where politicians and their appointees will continue to make the ultimate decision, for example in enforcing the rule of law. However, these decisions should be arrived at in a more open, transparent and collaborative way. 

The modern political marketplace is a competitive, open environment for ideas where previously business, government and other groups occupied their own spheres. Political leaders need to see themselves as wider influencers and be porous enough to exploit the competence and skill that is embedded in the system, both within and outside Government.

There is now far more capability to deliver in the voluntary and private sectors and the communication tools to make it work. Often though, there are informational and access problems with these services. Rather than focussing on provision, Ministers should act as an enabler or guarantor of access for all. 

Personal expression has been freed up by the engaging nature of new technologies. Although extensive concern was expressed about David Cameron’s family being filmed at the breakfast table, the presentation enabled Cameron to express his own personal values.  Many will lament empiricism and logic being replaced with snapshots and fast moving opinion. But modern media culture places a premium on values, integrity and self expression.  Kitchen sink politicians are here to stay.


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