Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Microsoft 'Ask a Pollie' site really Gov 2.0?

Microsoft Australia has launched a trial site 'Ask a Pollie' which allows citizens to watch and potentially participate in topic-based discussions around set topics between politicians and expert panels.

While the intent may be to promote dialogue between politicians and their constituents, as Ron Lubensky points out in his Deliberations blog, the site is more of a Dorothy Dixer 2.0.

While there is a 'forum', the design and approach of the site doesn't really support a Web 2.0 approach, with the following tag line in the site's summary,
Watch our panel of politicians and experts debate a series of topics over eight weeks – with a new topic each week, ranging from the economy, to online safety for our kids.
Watching is the antithesis of Web 2.0 - which is about user-generated content and interaction.

I think this type of site reflects the efforts of institutions and large companies to loosen some of their control over the debate and step across the line into a user-centred world.

While I applaud the attempted step forward, I think there's still a long way to go.

What would be a Web 2.0 (or Gov 2.0) approach?

Firstly the topics would be set through user-based participation (not by politicians or corporations), with citizens suggesting, commenting and voting on topics to prioritise them for discussion (potentially with central control over the topic area - such as

Next the discussion on the topics would be led by citizens - through their submissions and comments - with politicians and 'experts' providing a supporting role, offering facts and policies and participating in discussions.

The politicians or experts do not get centre-stage, getting to 'discuss' the topic while citizens are only able to 'watch' and comment. In fact the bulk of information would be supplied by citizens, with politicians responsible for 'watching' or 'listening' to the views of the community and then reflecting this back into policy discussions.

Examples of this approach now abound, with the US having conducted several discussions in this manner and other countries, such as France, also pursuing such an approach (via


  1. Hi Craig - really interesting points you have raised. The Ask a Pollie site is at this stage a test vehicle that enables the public facing component of the trial we are conducting on the making of political press releases by video.

    I have to admit that while we gave the construct of the site some thought in development it was not with an eye to the general democratic potential of Web 2.0. We always assumed that ultimately a political video press release platform would be something that enabled third party users - be that by the broadcast media or political engagement or reporting websites, politician's web pages or others with an interest in the content of policial videos.

    I don't imagine any such site would be proprietary as the business model for such a site would be precarious at best.

    I don't want to challenge your proposition that "watching is the antithesis of Web 2.0" however I would suggest that 'watching' in a digital world presents potentially a substantive change in the general experience of political engagement. This is not just about the wonders or possibilities of technology but also about the psychology of citizen-representative communications and engagement.

    Through Ask A Pollie I am hoping we will learn a little more about what makes a political video powerful (or not) and what it takes to make a powerful political video.

    Ask A Pollie is an 8 week trial - please do get on to it and give your views on the videos you see and feedback on the issues raised.

    Simon Edwards
    Head of Government Affairs
    Microsoft Australia

  2. Short answer: NO.

    For one, needing to upload a video is not exactly making it easy for those with slow (or no) connections, old computers, or even vision problems.

    Simon Edwards says one thing that struck me: "Through Ask A Pollie I am hoping we will learn a little more about what makes a political video powerful (or not) and what it takes to make a powerful political video."

    In other words, the admitted mission statement is primarily to assist the art of the propagandist (and I'd add, possibly benefit not merely political propagandists, but commercial).

  3. Craig, I agree completely with your post. I couldn't have said it better ;-)

    In the Netherlands the Home Office started a site to rate public services. The site started with: "This is a test site to see whether this is going to work." Of course, it didn't work ... why would you invest time and effort in a test site?

    I mean to say (especially to Simon, who I'd like to credit for participating in the discussion here) that you either start something (though it may be small) or you don't. Just starting a trial is not taking your idea or the people you want to support with the site seriously.

    The internet is a flat world, anyone can start a site and participate on it. You have to earn the status of 'platform' or 'expert'.

  4. Hi Simon,

    I appreciate your comments and what Ask A Pollie is attempting to do as a video release platform for politicians.

    However politicians are already using tools for this purpose, from YouTube and Vimeo through to simply uploading MPEG4 files online.

    Politicians are also already using these platforms to source video feedback and questions from the public, further than Ask A Pollie has gone.

    So I'm not quite sure what Microsoft is hoping to add, other than increased familiarity with the approach.

    Given the vast expertise and product suite Microsoft can bring to the table, I would like to see more advanced concepts being trialed.

    I'd love to join the discussion, however the requirement to have a proprietary Microsoft Windows Live account, and the need to use Microsoft Internet Explorer to view the videos are a serious disincentive for me as an internet user and a serious concern from a standards perspective.

    I cannot view the videos in my preferred Firefox web browser and am not comfortable with any commercial organisation controlling how I can interact with my elected representative - limiting access to only via the technologies they control.

    Perhaps these views are not isolated - that may explain the extremely low level of participation in the site.

  5. Craig, Dave & Davied - a couple of responses to your comments.

    Dave you have identified a very real reality barrier in the uptake of video generally - the limitation of technology and infrastructure.

    Whether video will ultimately become a mainstream communication vehicle for politicians - directly or indirectly to the public - may well be determined by those same limiting factors. Many politicians I have spoken with do not believe they need to go online because they don't believe the majority of their constituents are getting their information through online sources.

    Right now most politicians put out text based press releases, most of which are never read or viewed by the public or the media. It may not always be so particularly if high quality digital alternatives exist.

    Yes we are looking at how those who communicate political messages to the public (your word Dave 'propagandists') use video and what might limit them using it more in the future.

    While many politicans already make use of video they do so in a variety of ways and part of this trial is to look at how and when and why they might utilise a video message in the same way they put together a text based press release. It is not about creating or establishing a new medium but about understanding how the communications channel may likely develop and what would be needed to make it happen.

    If resources were unlimited I guess we wouldn't need to run trials. Of course companies do trial ideas in this way because there is an expecatation about the final product/service we put into a public domain. To justify shareholder (or in the case of government, taxpayer) resources being spent on a product/service we need to be able to convince an internal audience first that our concepts have merit.

    For my part I am not a technologist and I can say I don't have all (or even many) of the answers around digital video. To advance the questions I already had however I took this opportunity to propose and sponsor this trial.

    As to a preferred browser Craig I can only say I hear you. As I said in my iniital response I wouldn't anticipate a fully operative political video press release site being hosted under any proprietary arrangement. A politician's need will be to get the attention of as many citizens/constituents as possible so anything that lowers that access would be limiting.

    I will say though (I have to) that as a Microsoft trial we chose to use our own technologies in this instance. For a trial I think that is defensible.

    I can envisage ultimately a repository of official video releases with file access to enable anyone to take a video, embed and view in their preferred way. If Microsoft, or anyone else, wanted their site to be the site of choice for viewing such videos they would certainly have to confront the limiting issues you have raised.


  6. Your last sentence Craig also raises an issue that is concerning me at a broader level - and which is not directly related to the trial but also has a connection to Dave's first comment. As the Head of Government Affairs for a technology company I do see several of the cross-over points between technology and politics. In that view I am curious about the extent to which online political engagement is broadly democratic or whether it is inherently limited to those with a technological engagement/bent/ideology.

    Too many people are already peripheral in their engagement to the conduct of our political society. We cannot allow technology (like much of mainstream media?) to become yet another turn off for citizen participation.

    I really hope technology can make political dialogue and practice more democratic and engaging. So whether it is through trials or continuous experiment I would like to think that what we are doing is NOT just supporting the 'propagandists' but learning how to enable a greater participation in the future of our country by all citizens.

    BTW Happy to have that discussion you refer to at a time and place of your convenience.

    Simon Edwards
    Head of Government Affairs
    Microsoft Australia

  7. Hi Simon,

    I agree with your goals and share your concern that technology may raise barriers to participation in civic affairs.

    My view has always been that you cannot replace other forms of public sector engagement with online engagement, however you can extend and enrich it.

    Online consultation provides an opportunity to enable participation by people who are less able or willing to attend physical consultation sessions or respond via telephone (such as working families, single parents, professionals, those in remote, but connected, areas and so on).

    So I prefer to see the online channel as a way to broader and deepen consultation across the entire constituency.