This post is about Mumsnet. We believe that sites like Mumsnet could represent the future of developing public policy. They point to the potential of mass membership online platforms to engage thousands of people in practical consideration of policy issues and so radically widen participation in policy – or as we call it, guerilla policy.
This post is also part of Blog Action Day, held on 15th October 2012. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. The theme for 2012 is ‘The Power of We’ – something ably demonstrated by Mumsnet and its peers.
Now in its twelfth year, Mumsnet was founded by Justine Roberts, a former investment banker and sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a television producer. The site is now Britain’s busiest social network for parents, receiving nearly six million visits a month. It is the 460th most popular site in the UK – much, much more popular than the Labour Party (5,057th), the Conservative Party (15,040th), or the Liberal Democrats (19,346th). With more than 600,000 registered users, it also has a bigger membership than all of the main political parties combined. In May last year, Mumsnet also launched a site aimed at grandparents, Gransnet, which already has 70,000 members and rising.
On the day I’m writing this, the most popular discussion thread (with more than 1,000 posts) focused on welfare reform, specifically the proposal from George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference to limit the number of children people can claim for as part of the Government’s aim of cutting £10 billion more from welfare (the thread was titled “to be fed up of George sodding Osborne and his Knobbish Ideas”).
As Mumsnet itself states, it’s a community, not a lobby group, and has “no particular political axe to grind”. Despite this, it has been highly active about issues it (or rather its community) feels strongly about. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns, and publicly supports a number of causes related to parenting, for example:
- ‘We Believe You’, a campaign showing the hidden scale of rape and sexual assault in the UK.
- A campaign for better miscarriage care and treatment, including the Mumsnet Miscarriage Code of Care, a five-point code that proposes a series of simple changes to current health service miscarriage treatment.
- Successfully challenging major retailers to ensure that lads’ mags are kept out of children’s sight on newsstands, and its Let Girls Be Girls campaign against the commercial exploitation of children’s sexuality.
- Monitoring how much money local authorities are spending on short breaks for families with disabled children.
- Opposing cuts to Legal Aid.
This compares pretty well to any think tank or lobby group, even though it’s not Mumsnet’s core business. As a result, Mumsnet has come in for some criticism, which really boils down to two main points.
Firstly, critics question how representative Mumsnet is. The site has been labelled “a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies” (by Toby Young, of course, in the Daily Telegraph) “…peopled almost exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women” – in stark contrast to the paper’s own readership of upper-middle class men. The site has also been called “smug, patronising and vicious” by the Daily Mail, of all papers. This reaction is seemingly motivated by competitive jealously, both because the Mail makes a business out of being vicious but also in umbrage that anyone else would dare speak for (middle class) mothers. This also betrays an old media take on new media, in that it completely misses the point. Mumsnet allows mothers to speak for themselves, in contrast to the Mail’s brand of misogynistic ventriloquism. And Mumsnet is just one site – if it’s not representative, there’s Netmums and many others.
Like any online community, Mumsnet doesn’t have to be – indeed it can’t be – representative of anything else but its members. Even though it doesn’t think of itself as a political organisation, Mumsnet realised that it would be remiss not to use its “authentic voice” to engage in issues its members care about, without determining on behalf of its members what these are. If its members didn’t support a campaign, it wouldn’t fly, the site’s leaders would get it in the neck, and its members would just go elsewhere. As Justine Roberts notes (in a recent New York Times article), “The power is in the democracy of it”.
In truth, Mumsnet is probably more representative of its members than the CBI or the TUC is of its members, but it doesn’t claim to be the “voice for employers” or the “voice of people at work” in the way that those organisations do – merely ‘for parents, by parents’. It might be much more illuminating if these organisations such as the CBI and TUC radically re-thought how they represent their members – away respectively from their committees made up of big businesses and conferences with their arcane voting rules, and towards the direct deliberation that online forums enable – so that their members can represent themselves rather than being represented.
The second criticism is the flip side of the first – that platforms like Mumsnet, because they are so large and hence potentially powerful, are somehow a threat to politics as usual (which is surely not a deal breaker). Some commentators (prematurely but perceptively) labelled the last election the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three main political party leaders took part in live chats on the site. Again, professional jealousy might partly explain this reaction – ‘how dare ordinary people be allowed to question policymakers, that’s our job!’ But it also indicates a recognition that the location of real politics is shifting, away from the Westminster bubble and empty town hall meetings, and towards alternative spaces including online platforms.
Should we turn away from people wanting to participate – or towards them? Politicians have to go where the people are, and that’s the way it should be. People don’t need to be ‘engaged’ – policymakers need to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged and go with the grain of these, using the same approaches and language that ordinary people use. The recent party conferences were indicative of the increasingly ‘empty stadium‘ of contemporary politics. Just like bank robbers and money, places like Mumsnet will increasingly be where policy takes place because that’s where the people are, and where people are is where the personal experience and expertise is that could be used to inform better policy. That’s the power of we.
A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.
As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. It has announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”. This post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.
6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy
One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.
7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)
This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.
8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices
Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.
9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly
Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.
10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back
Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from Change.org and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.
To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.
We’ve been blogging over the past couple of weeks about how various bodies – think tanks, commissioners, civil servants and trade bodies – can make better use of social media such as Twitter. In this post we consider how directly elected mayors can use social media in their work – and share some observations from a brief piece of work we have just undertaken to look at their Twitter presence.
Everyone knows that we’re witnessing an increasing democratic deficit, with cynicism about politicians rife and voter turnout at elections declining. It is increasingly urgent that we find ways to reconnect politics, politicians and voters. Greater localism and devolution is seen by many commentators as the answer to this challenge, with directly elected mayors as an important part of revitalising local political engagement (although it’s been a difficult birth, with the recent referendum in 10 cities resulting in only one switch to a mayoral system in Bristol). Social media has an important role to play in providing a means for directly elected mayors and other local elected representatives to engage in a direct conversation with the people they represent – so are they using it?
With one obvious exception, the answer is ‘no’. Directly elected mayors are largely missing out on the opportunities of social media. We looked at the 16 directly elected mayors across the UK and found that only eight of these have an active official Twitter account (in further two cases – Sir Peter Soulsby in Leicester and Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool – we aren’t sure whether the account is actually theirs, and in any case neither have ever sent a tweet).
In terms of total Twitter following, the winners are:
|Elected mayor||No of followers|
|1. Boris Johnson, London||332,580|
|2. Joe Anderson, Liverpool||2,127|
|3. Dave Hodgson, Bedford||1,364|
|4. Dorothy Thornhill, Watford||1,157|
|5. Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets||1,029|
The most prolific tweeters are:
|Elected mayor||No of tweets|
|1. Boris Johnson, London||2,096|
|2. Dave Hodgson, Bedford||1,132|
|3. Dorothy Thornhill, Watford||1,074|
|4. Joe Anderson, Liverpool||470|
|5. Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets||255|
Mayor Boris Johnson is the obvious outlier, due to his national political profile and the fact that he is mayor of the UK’s capital. Overall, the social media reach of directly elected mayors, at least measured by Twitter, is small.
Not only this, but it’s often hard to find some elected mayors on local authorities’ corporate websites, for example Mayor Tony Egginton in Mansfield doesn’t have any pages devoted to him on its website. Mayor Ian Stewart in Salford had a campaign Twitter account (@stewart4salford) which has now been taken down and not replaced. It is understandable that this account might be suspended to comply with electoral law, but over in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson is continuing to use his campaign account (@joeforliverpool).
We are particularly surprised that independent mayors and those from smaller parties are not making more use of Twitter to build their profile. Both Mayor Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and Mayor Peter Davies in Doncaster don’t appear to have an official account. Given that Twitter is proving to be an invaluable research tool for journalists, this seems even more surprising. Liberal Democrat mayors do however seem to be more fluent with social media compared to those from other parties.
The missed opportunity here is that social media offers significant benefits to directly elected mayors, for example to:
- Connect with voters using a cheap and easy way to communicate;
- Build their profile both in their local community and more widely;
- Engage in an open, transparent dialogue with voters about their concerns;
- Cut through traditional media by developing an independent news feed that they can control;
- Ensure that they are seen as accessible and open to voters.
Given that directly elected mayors are seen by the Government as a way to reconnect voters with politics at a grassroots level, we had expected to see much greater use of this medium as a way to engage in civic dialogue. The simple finding is that mayors are missing out.
As ever, your thoughts and comments are welcome – including via Twitter on @guerillapolicy and @newthinktankuk, this blog, and on our homepage.
Directly elected mayors on Twitter
The list below shows the elected mayor, the place and party they represent, their Twitter name, number of followers and number of tweets. The list was up to date as at 1st July 2012. Eight out of 16 elected mayors have an active official Twitter account.
|Mayor||City / Town||Party||Twitter name||No of followers||No of tweets|
|Dave Hodgson||Bedford||Liberal Democrat||@DaveTheMayor||1,364||1,132|
|Dorothy Thornhill||Watford||Liberal Democrat||@MayorDorothy||1,157||1,074|
|Lutfur Rahman||Tower Hamlets||Independent||@MayorLutfur||1,029||255|
|Sir Steve Bullock||Lewisham||Labour||@mayorbullock||955||199|
|Sir Peter Soulsby||Leicester||Labour||@SirPeterSoulsby||182||0|
|Linda Arkley||North Tyneside||Conservative||@Linda_arkley||67||38|
|Sir Robin Wales||Newham||Labour||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Peter Davies||Doncaster||English Democrats||n/a||n/a||n/a|
This is a summary of a presentation to the London think-tank summit ‘At the intersection of traditional and social media’, Europe House, 15th June 2012, by Mike Harris and Chris Sherwood.
In our day jobs we work at existing organisations – a well-known think tank and a large national disability charity – that hope to inform and influence policy. We’re not representing these organisations today, but we think that how these types of organisations go about engaging in policy needs to change in a social media world – that policy ‘expertise’ and authority is being increasingly challenged, and that social media offers incredible opportunities to develop policy in new, far more open and collaborative ways.
In this presentation we want to explore how think tanks can better engage with social media in order to achieve their objectives. What are the key characteristics of effective organisations, and how can think tanks reap the benefits of this cheap and easy technology?
A few months ago we did a simple piece of research. We looked at the Twitter following of 40 UK think tanks and also at their individual staff, fellows and associates (comprising nearly 1,400 people in total). We used our blog to ‘crowd check’ the accuracy of our results by publishing the findings in installments. This was a quick, broad-brush piece of research so we don’t want to over-claim, nonetheless it did reveal some interesting findings. It seems that many think tanks are missing an opportunity to use social media more effectively to drive their objectives.
The total Twitter community around think tanks is actually quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows. In contrast, in lieu of resources and established media profile, a group of newer think tanks are exploiting social media more effectively – for example the Sports Think Tank (2,412 followers with three staff) and British Futures (8,583 followers with three staff). (This research has subsequently been updated and extended by the European Parliament Information Office in the United Kingdom).
Less than 40 per cent of people have a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate. Of these, more than 70 per cent have less than 500 followers, and 40 per cent have less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 individual tweeters and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about the ‘glass ceiling’ in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of younger think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media.
So how can think tanks make better use of social media? Forget Lady Gaga – think tanks can learn a lot from other organisations whose mission is to engage in policy. The ‘Global Go To Think Tanks Report’ from the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania rates only two UK-based policy organisations in the top 10 in terms of how they use the internet and social media – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What are organisations like these and others doing that we can learn from?
In the style of a Twitter headline, here are our ‘5 top tips for think tanks using social media’:
1: Share ideas rather than own them
Who likes being hectored? Top tweeters engage in open discussion about their ideas – that’s why it’s called ‘social’ media. Yes these organisations have a point of view, but they also engage in a conversation. What this reflects is a broader cultural change in how we engage with the internet – more of us want to be producers of content, not just passive consumers of content produced by others. For the ‘business’ we’re in, this offers the possibility of using social media for an ongoing open dialogue between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of research, across all phases of the research cycle. If you think it’s a battle of ideas, you risk sounding like a loser.
2: Promote others not yourself
Social media is about discovery – of people, organisations and ideas. People follow others when they help them discover other interesting people, ideas, facts and sources. We’re not interested in being told over and over what we already know you think – we’re interested in how you arrived at that place and what you’ve come across that you find interesting, provocative and challenging. You become seen as an ‘expert’ not in what you know so much as in what you hear about before anyone else does. From a research point of view, this also opens up possibilities for collaboration, connecting people who otherwise may never have met and secondly means that you stay abreast of the latest developments in your field.
3: It’s personal, not a press release
Individual tweeters are often more important than think tanks’ corporate feeds – and so individuals are critical to extending the reach and impact of organisations. Social media isn’t a centralised communications function – it isn’t about compressing your one-time press releases into 140 characters – it’s about expressing personality in under 140 characters again and again. Our observation is that most think tanks aren’t supporting their staff to be spokespeople in social media – and this is the critical respect in which think tanks are missing a massive opportunity.
4: Co-opt people in a mission
A lot of commentators assume that we’ve entered an era of passive disaffection and cynicism. We prefer to think that lots of people are waiting for something to believe in. Let’s give it to them. That’s what organisations like Amnesty International do – go look at their Twitter feed. It’s a conversation but also an invitation to action. Every think tank advocates for something – even if it’s just more research into their area of interest – why not invite others to advocate with you? Because social media offers the opportunity for think tanks to engage with a wide audience at virtually zero cost, it also poses the question of who think tanks think they are talking to – policymakers, the public, the press? It’s not clear that many think tanks have decided who.
5: Think without limits
Traditional media is about scarcity and exclusivity – there are only so many stories in today’s papers. Social media is unlimited and democratic – there is effectively no limit to going viral. Charities, think tanks, government could all usefully consider what we can learn from the Spartacus report from earlier this year, where a tiny band of disabled activists took the social media world by storm by organising, researching and promoting their own report against welfare cuts online.
Let’s also think more creatively. Compared to many other businesses and charities, think tanks have only just begun to consider how they can create resources that people would want to share with each other through social networks – such as pictures, video, infographics. As a result, think tanks are failing to reach out to broader audiences, particularly to engage the wider public in topical debates as a means of promoting their ideas and arguments – a missed opportunity for organizations many of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances, and which often seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.
Our new venture, Guerilla Policy, is an experiment – we want to explore what a think tank looks like for a social media age. Our hunch is that it’s open, transparent, collaborative, democratic and participative – and genuinely social. In the spirit of social media, let’s see what happens.
This project – Guerilla Policy – is about developing a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. Do we need to write a manifesto?
Our project is based on the critique that much social policy is made by people who have little or no direct experience of the public services and issues that policy relates to – and that this direct experience matters. We’ve put forward ten reasons why we think social policy would be better if it was developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services – that they have the necessary expertise, experience and insight that good policy development requires. Guerilla is a movement that we hope will serve to bring these people and organisations together in order to create better social policy.
It might sound somewhat portentous, but movements often start with and coalesce around manifestos. Most obviously, we think of political and social movements when we hear ‘manifesto’, but there could also be useful analogies in the manifestos developed by the proponents of open and free software. Here are some examples that in various ways could serve as inspirations for our own manifesto – we’d welcome your own suggestions for other examples, and indeed your views on whether we need a manifesto at all.
- The GNU Manifesto was written by Richard Stallman in 1985 at the beginning of the GNU free software project, and it became a key document in the free software movement. (‘Free software‘ is where the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software). The Manifesto put forward the reasons and aims of the project, why free software was so important and how it would benefit users, rebutted the objections to free software, and set out how programmers could support the project.
- The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the book of essays first published online in 1997 by ‘hacker philosopher’ Eric S. Raymond on the impact of open source software on technology and indeed the wider world. The title comes from Raymond’s analogy for two fundamentally different ways of developing free software: the ‘cathedral’ model in which source code is available with each software release but the code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; and the ‘bazaar‘ model in which the code is developed over the internet in full view of the public. Raymond argues that the latter approach is better – the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny and experimentation, the more rapidly all software bugs will be discovered. Raymond’s evangelism helped to persuade Netscape to release their browser as open source software and promoted Linus Torvalds and the Linux project.
- Out of Netscape came the Mozilla project. ‘Mozilla’ is the everyday name for the free and open source software project founded in 1998 to create a next-generation range of software for the internet, most famously the Firefox browser and Thunderbird email application. The organization was formally registered as a non-profit organization in 2003 as the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla’s Manifesto sets out the organisation’s principles which it believes are critical for the internet to continue to benefit the public good as well generate commercial activity – the project uses a community-based approach to create world-class open source software and to develop new types of collaborative activities.
Even if you’re not interested in software or in technology generally, these manifestos are worth reading for the revolution in thinking and practice that they represent, and which continues to affect our lives everyday. And of course they also echo and have inspired much of our thinking in this project on how we can collaborate in order to improve social policy.
So, do we need a manifesto? We’ll be discussing this – and exchanging ideas about what this manifesto could include – on our new site. If you haven’t already, register by clicking on the link on the top right, create your profile, and go into the group ‘Developing a Guerilla Manifesto’. We’ll see you there.
Today we’ve launched a new discussion forum on Guerilla Policy. It’s actually a lot more exciting than that, so give us a bit of time to explain what we’ve done.
Our new forum is based on StatusNet, the world’s leading open source social software. StatusNet is a microblogging application, similar to Twitter. As its developer says, StatusNet “enables [people] to collaborate, share insights, solve problems and build relationships in real time.” Here’s what you can do using our site:
- start conversations on issues that matter to you;
- ask questions to the rest of the community;
- invite others to participate in projects and develop collaborations;
- join existing conversations and share your thoughts;
- set-up a profile for you or your organisation;
- search for topics, people and organisations;
- send direct messages to people and organisations.
You can also set-up private areas if you’re not ready to share a project with the whole community.
Why this particular software? We’ve said before that we think the future of policy research and development is in collaboration rather than competition. It’s a discussion, not a war of attrition, because no single person or organisation has the monopoly on truth. Social software creates an open environment for collaboration, and this is what we’re trying out with our new site.
(You might be thinking that if the software is like Twitter, then why not just use Twitter? Firstly, the software we’re using is open source, which means that we can use it for free and tweak it to suit the needs of our community. Secondly, it means that the conversations we have here are owned by the people and organisations that participate and contribute to them – try asking Twitter or Facebook to relinquish ownership of your data and see what their reaction is. Thirdly, we think that the future of social networks is in communities focused on particular issues or purposes, whereas Facebook, Twitter etc are just too general – but let’s see).
We’ve put this together very quickly (we’re called ‘guerilla’ after all) – and if it doesn’t work then we’ll try something else. This project is also a conversation, after all – we’ll be led by what the people who join our movement say they want and need in order to create better social policy.
So try out the site and let us know what you think. Start a conversation, join a conversation – go to Guerilla Policy.