Friday, June 27, 2008

The online impact of the US election - implications for Australian government

I've previously blogged about the impact of the online channel on Barack Obama's campaign and how it contributed significantly to his nomination as the Democrat presidential candidate.

There have also been broader implications for the US government scene, as captured in a Pew report released last week.

Pew has been one of my favourite commentators over the last six years due to the down-to-earth nature of their reports on online usage. I take their analysis as a prediction of where Australia will be in the next two to four years.

Their latest report, The Internet and the 2008 Election, surveyed normal Americans on their engagement with the 2008 US presidential election via the online channel.

What it found was that 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or SMS to get political news and share their thoughts about the campaign and
23% say they receive emails urging them to support a candidate or discuss the campaign once a week or more.

Now those might not sound like high percentages, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Three elections ago (in 1996 - when Bill Clinton became US President), those figures would have been virtually zero. That's the speed at which the landscape is changing.

Secondly, keep in mind that only 60.7% of Americans eligible to vote actually did vote in the 2004 presidential election - and this was the highest percentage since 1968.

While given that Americans who do not vote may still follow the elections and receive emails about it, the following figures do take on much greater significance in light of the number of 'active voters' in the US.

Pew found that 19% of Americans go online once a week or more to do something related to the campaign (one-third of 'active voters'), and 6% go online to engage politically on a daily basis (ten percent of 'active voters').

It also found that 10% of Americans (fifteen percent of 'active voters') use email to contribute to the political debate and that 1 in 10 of those using SMS (4% of the adult population) are sending or receiving text messages about the campaign or other political issues on a regular basis.

Obama supporters were much more likely to use online communications. They outweighed Clinton supporters by 74% vs 57% and McCain supporters by 65% vs 56% (comparing online supporters
that have gotten political news and information online).

Statistics aside, what does this mean for government?

The first implication is that online is now an important channel for electioneering. The last big shift in media use by politicians was more than forty years ago when Kennedy trumped Nixon in the first television debate - signalling a shift in politics from voice to image.

The online shift means that different values become important. Image will remain important in politics (in today's consumer-driven society how could it not), but consistency, substance and depth are also becoming critical.

When citizens can read or listen to a candidate's speech and instantly check their voting record and comments over the past ten years (such as via OpenAustralia) it becomes very clear to the voters when politicians are modifying their positions and dishonesty becomes a critical issue.

This isn't really new - one of the first well known instances was in 1998 when the Lewinsky scandal regarding President Bill Clinton was broken by the Drudge Report.

A second maor implication is on public sector management and governance. It's not only the histories and stories about politicians that become available online, it's also the performance records of government agencies and top public servants.

Where there are close ties between politicians and ministerial offices, politicians can be judged by how their departments engage and conduct themselves online. Individual senior public servants may also find their public comments or lack thereof also coming under intense scrutiny in a political sense.

Does this mean that government agencies and public servants need to hide under their shells and say as little as possible online?

I don't think so.

Firstly, this approach would not work. Citizens are very capable of creating their own websites, transcribing or recording comments and press releases and republishing or referring to them to demonstrate real or contrived inconsistencies in positions or behaviours.

Secondly it's not a bad thing to be held for public scrutiny. Without this scrutiny there's no point to having a democratic process. Politicians and public servants should be held accountable for their views and positions and, to some extent, their past choices.

Finally, online discussion is a benefit to getting accurate information into the public eye.
Once a conversation begins it becomes possible to contribute to it, clarify the issues and ensure that an accurate view is visible. This does require substantial agility - online conversations occur in real time and government doesn't have the time to consider, reflect and rework a statement over weeks before making comments. There is the need for rapid responsiveness, often within hours rather than days.

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