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.
This is the ninth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the last in the series on Monday, and we welcome your comments.
According to How Stuff Works, the top five future technology myths are:
5. We’ll all be driving flying cars soon
4. We’re approaching the technological singularity
3. Moore’s Law will always hold true
2. Robots will be our friends
1. We can stop climate change.
In the case of policy, the equivalent myth is the inevitability of policy development and determination dissolving into some kind of ever-rolling 24/7 technology-enabled plebiscite, and that we will all feel perfectly represented. Of course, the future is not inevitable. Despite the obvious benefits to opening-up policy research and development (at least from our point of view), the future is something we make, and innovation is mostly about implementation. At the same time, and at the risk of falling into the myth trap, it also feels inevitable that policy research and development is going to change – for two main reasons.
Firstly, social change. Politics is changing and our political institutions aren’t changing nearly quickly enough to keep up. We’re in the middle of a long-term cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. This is often assumed to mean that we no longer want to be part of anything, that we’re all just self-acquisitive, selfish individualists. We hope it means the opposite.
We increasingly expect and demand that our voice is registered and (to some extent) listened to. We want to be involved – where institutions can demonstrate that they recognise who we are and that we have something to say. We want to exercise individual self-determination, but we want to do it together. We want to represent ourselves, rather than be represented. It’s not incidental that the President of the United States was a community organiser. Look also at the rapid growth of communities and movements such as Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, Citizens UK (London Citizens), and Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). We’re only at the beginning of finding new ways to mobilise people in order to change policy. Any existing institutions – from charities to companies as well as political parties – that don’t provide meaningful ways for us to participate will surely just fade away.
Secondly, technology. Many of the communities mentioned in the previous paragraph wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago; now because of the internet and social media anyone can establish a socially purposeful social network (which is what we’re doing here). These platforms represent the principles of community organising made digital, but our conventional political and policy processes haven’t begun to reflect these various forms of digitally enabled community organising.
Part of the public’s disengagement from politics is certainly about structural issues – the decline in the efficacy of the nation-state in an age of globalisation and transnational corporations, the increasingly widely shared view that whoever we vote for, the government we get is of, for and by the 1 per cent, and so on. But part of it is also probably due to the fact that our democratic processes are in the dark ages technologically speaking, on the apparent assumption that applying even twentieth century tools to the business of taking part would be tantamount to ‘letting light in on magic’. So we can vote instantly for something as inconsequential as a Saturday evening TV talent show, but we still trudge to an empty school on a week day to exercise our democratic rights. Institutions that don’t use the technologies we use everyday quickly seem out-of-date and out-of-touch.
From this perspective, the UK Government’s moves towards openness are welcome but limited. Initiatives such as open data, e-petitions and opening-up publicly funded research are innovative but, given the extent of public disengagement, also insufficient. Alongside open data and open services, the third dimension of open government – and we would argue the most important of all – is open decision-making. This isn’t about developing better forms of consultation, rather it has to be about cooperative problem-solving. The future of national policymaking, the only way we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, paradoxically lies in the ethos and practices of community organising.
In this project, this means developing new ways that policy development can be informed by providers of public and voluntary services, frontline practitioners and the public who use services. It’s their expertise and experience that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment, and policy is poorer as a result. The working title for the project is ‘new think tank’ (at least for the next couple of weeks), but it’s not really a think tank as commonly understood – rather it’s an open public platform for policy research and development. We’ve suggested here before how many think tanks neglect social media and how in particular they miss the opportunity to use it to host conversations. We think that a social network could be used to work with frontline practitioners and service users, in order to draw directly on their expertise, experience and insight to create better policy.
It’s not inevitable that our approach will work, but it’s inevitable that the way we develop policy has to change. In the future we might not all be perfectly represented, but we definitely need to be much better represented. This project is about what we can do right now to improve policymaking, but it’s also about anticipating and responding to this future – starting today.
No sector or industry is immune from the ‘open revolution’ – from software development, scientific research and publishing, to how businesses innovate more generally. Here are three experiments in ‘open journalism’ which also suggest how think tanks could work more openly.
1. Open sourcing
The Guardian newspaper has embarked on a programme of open journalism. As Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, has noted: “Journalists are not the only experts in the world.” ‘Open journalism’ is the Guardian’s name for the way in which it is attempting to involve its readership not just in commenting on stories, but contributing to and even determining its news agenda, as a way of creating a two-way relationship between journalists and readers.
As the Creative Review notes, this reflects the changing nature of media. Given the competition that has emerged from other forms of media, especially social media, newspapers are having to be less about relating ‘the story’ (as they see it) and more about acting as a platform for a topic to be explored by multiple participants, including readers, in real-time.
At the moment, this mainly means that reporters keep readers informed as they develop stories (usually via Twitter). Every morning the paper also posts its ‘news list’, the usually closely held plan of stories it is working on for the following day, partly in the hope that greater openness about the paper’s agenda will prompt information from readers. The Guardian has cited the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London and the resignation of the defence minister Liam Fox as two examples where readers helped to substantiate stories.
2. Open editing
In February Wired magazine published an article about GitHub, a ‘version control’ website that allows programmers of open source software projects to upload code and share it with other developers but also keep track of who made what changes and to merge these changes together. What was interesting was that the writer used GitHub to invite and capture suggested edits and amendments to the article itself (the GitHub repository for the article can be found here).
GitHub was designed for software development rather than collaborative editing, but Wired’s experiment shows how mainstream media can engage informed readers to produce better written, better researched reports – a form of Wikipedia for journalism.
3. Open agenda-setting
OpenFile is a ‘community-powered’ news organisation which operates in seven Canadian cities. Its journalists cover stories which start out as suggestions from readers. OpenFile works with hundreds of freelance reporters across Canada; once its journalists are assigned to a story they collaborate with readers to deliver their reports, typically on local news and issues.
This is rather different from ‘citizen reporting’ (or ‘participatory journalism’ – see for example the Media Trust’s newsnet platform), since the main journalistic activity here is still being conducted by professional reporters. Nevertheless, this public direction of a news organisation represents a highly disruptive model – more like ‘media-as-a-service’ rather than the traditional industrial model of media production.
We’ve suggested here before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why traditional media is being disrupted by social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Journalism is increasingly recognising the need to reinvent itself, including by experimenting with mass collaboration (as in the MPs expenses scandal) and even crowdfunding (though not yet at the level of individual stories). So what could think tanks learn from these kinds of experiments in open journalism?
At the conceptual level, think tanks could also try to create more of a two-way relationship with their customers and audiences. This would mean less telling people what ‘the story’ is, but instead acting more as facilitators who offer a platform for collaboration between interested parties in real-time, including the policy and decision-making audiences they want to influence. As we’ve suggested before, this is probably why think tanks such as Chatham House, which seek to act as ‘meeting places‘ for a range of experts rather than presenting themselves as the ‘only experts’, have been so successful and why audiences like them so much.
More practically, think tanks could consider:
- sourcing ideas, information and contributions more frequently using social media;
- experimenting with open and collaborative drafting, reviewing and editing of reports;
- microtasking their research (as in the MPs expenses scandal);
- inviting audiences to set their agendas;
- attempting to crowdfund their projects and programmes openly and transparently.
Economic and cultural changes have forced traditional media to respond with these experiments in openness. Faced with similar challenges, what will think tanks do?
Here’s the (updated) top 40 most well-known UK think tanks ranked by the popularity of their websites (according to Alexa.com). The number in brackets is the global popularity ranking of the website.
- The RSA (115,276)
- Chatham House (184,918)
- The Overseas Development Institute (224,804)
- Adam Smith Institute (245,629)
- new economics foundation (258,708)
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation (402,928)
- The Institute of Development Studies (407,307)
- ResPublica (519,065)
- The Young Foundation (531,207)
- IPPR (545,712)
- The King’s Fund (549,430)
- Ekklesia (587,949)
- Open Europe (596,395)
- The Institute for Fiscal Studies (750,728)
- Institute for Economic Affairs (793,598)
- Civitas (802,873)
- Demos (818,733)
- The Work Foundation (1,378,491)
- Policy Exchange (1,387,435)
- New Philanthropy Capital (1,409,356)
- National Institute Economic Research (NIESR) (1,601,702)
- The Institute for Government (1,724,245)
- Centre for Local Economic Strategies (1,965,958)
- Social Market Foundation (1,995,554)
- Runnymede (2,140,813)
- The Fabian Society (2,163,876)
- Compass (2,248,832)
- Foreign Policy Centre (2,393,283)
- Centre for Cities (2,411,640)
- Resolution Foundation (2,728,050)
- Centre for Policy Studies (2,785,876)
- Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) (2,866,152)
- Involve (3,006,163)
- Centre for Social Justice (3,164,534)
- New Local Government Network (3,471,930)
- Transform Drug Policy Foundation (3,863,400)
- Theos Think Tank (4,128,032)
- Policy Studies Institute (4,183,046)
- Sports Think Tank (4,594,213)
- International Longevity Centre – UK (4,616,285)
And: British Future (4,778,818); CentreForum (6,598,451); Reform (6,676,968); The Smith Institute (11,194,237); Race on the Agenda (ROTA) (16,803,917); Politeia (no data); RAND Europe (no data – in this case because the site is part of the US ‘parent’).
- If Conservative Home (125,821) was a think tank, it would be the second most popular think tank in the UK;
- Left Foot Forward (260,894) would be the sixth most popular think tank;
- And Mumsnet (10,158) would be the most popular think tank by a long way.
(The rank is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors and pageviews over the past 3 months. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1. A more detailed methodological note on how Alexa calculates its traffic ranks can be found here).
And this development blog is ranked 5,247,212 .
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is to act as an unpaid adviser to the UK government to support its “agenda to open up policy-making to the public.” His ideas on how technology could be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking might be very valuable, and government should certainly try to create better platforms for public participation. But let’s recognise that the main barrier isn’t technological. It’s political.
One of the ideas behind this project is that policymaking would be better (i.e. higher quality) if it engaged and involved more of the people with practical experience of the issues at hand (in the case of social policy, this especially means frontline public service practitioners and service users). But such is the widespread scepticism about government consultations that it seems unlikely that government (or the Government) will be successful in attracting many more members of the public to respond to such exercises, whatever technology it employs. Perhaps it will be possible over time to shift this scepticism, but trust (and so willingness to participate) can also be destroyed virtually overnight when any government is seen to ignore majority or professional opinion (as in the case of the NHS reforms).
It’s good that the Government is considering what ‘all this’ (wikis, social media etc) means for policymaking. But I’m not sure that what we want are savvier forms of government-sponsored engagement. I think what we want most of all is for government to listen when we do express a view, through whatever means. A wiki could be a great way to develop policy collaboratively and transparently. But if government wanted to more accurately and faithfully reflect and respond to public or practitioner opinion, then it wouldn’t need a wiki to do it.
We can recognise that government is difficult, that there are lots of conflicting and competing interests that act on policymaking, that there are times when policymakers actually think that much of the public is ‘wrong’ on an issue, and that politics – which is to say party political interests – is often the defining factor in decision-making. This means that the challenge isn’t ultimately about finding the right methods for participation, however important this is, so much as developing the right mindset about policy and politics.
Part of this challenge is that government is somewhat inevitably attached to a ‘consultation mindset’, where it sets out certain times and ways in which ‘we’ (by which it typically means respectable and ‘responsible’ organisations) are asked for their views on a specific proposal. But social media is not about asking for, or being granted, permission to voice your opinion. It’s about taking that ‘permission’ for granted (which is to say, not asking at all). Spartacus didn’t ask for permission. Neither did Occupy the SEC. If the Government really wants to explore how technology can be used to give the public a greater say in policymaking, why not just give a bit of money to 38 Degrees and a few other organisations and see what happens?
This makes me think that we don’t so much need better ways in which government can invite us to register our views (which it may or may not subsequently listen to anyway). Rather what need are powerful platforms that we own, that are ours. No-one needs official authorisation, or that much money really, to experiment with various kinds of platform to support collaboration around how policy could be improved. We could and should do it right now if we want to. In fact, we are.
One of the questions we’ve been asked most often is why established ‘competitors’ couldn’t just appropriate our idea. The short answer is that they could – we haven’t invented any proprietary technology – but we don’t think they will, at least not quite yet.
This question is part of any Need-Approach-Benefits-Competition (NABC) analysis. Why hasn’t this idea hasn’t been done before? More importantly, why couldn’t the competition respond? And most pointedly, what is the one ‘killer advantage’ that no-one else will be able to compete with? Of course this assumes that this isn’t just a bad idea that no-one in their right mind would want to appropriate, but to be fair that’s not the reaction we’ve been getting so far, so let’s proceed on the basis that we’re onto something.
First though, a recap. We’re developing a new think tank where the research and policy analysis conducted by the people who use and provide public services in an online social network. This idea derives from three (related) thoughts:
- Think tanks could be meaningful vehicles for public involvement in public policy – in an age of mass participation, the notion of closed, hierarchically organised expertise seems increasingly outdated;
- Think tanks could be open and transparent – from how they are funded and who sets their agenda, to how they conduct research and how they derive their findings and recommendations, and this could improve their work and enhance their impact;
- The internet and social networks in particular could help to achieve both of these things.
Disruptive innovations that prove successful often seem obvious in retrospect, so why hasn’t this been done before? In an age of social networks, we’d be the first to admit that it’s a pretty obvious idea. but the reasons that established businesses don’t develop or respond effectively to disruptive innovations often come down to money, skills or awareness, so let’s consider these in turn.
Disruptive innovation is obviously disruptive for established businesses. It costs money to shift from one way of doing things to another. Effectively we’d be asking traditional think tanks to make a fundamental shift from offline to online. Then again, social media and social networks are pretty cheap to experiment with, and this is a transition that a think tank could make over time – growing an online community while they gradually reduce their reliance on traditional (and expensive) offline ways of working, and introducing their existing customers slowly to the new approach as appropriate.
What about skills? There’s no doubt it would be a big shift in this respect as well, from ‘thought leadership’ and managing projects, to facilitating the thoughts of others and moderating communities. It’s not only a different skill set, it’s a different mindset – and probably therefore a different group of people. But again, the transition could happen over time. A think tank could establish a separate online operation, staffed with different people, and see how this develops (creating new ‘greenfield’ business units has often been critical to the success of disruptive innovations by established companies, because it gives the new venture the required autonomy to do things differently from the main business).
There could be a problem with branding here, but again establishing a separate greenfield operation could get round this. Some of the most well-known think tanks have quite strong brands (at least in the Westminster bubble), but this could also prove a barrier if they tried to set up a new, more open, more diverse online community. For example, the Institute of Economic Affairs has a strong brand but it’s for liberal economic thought, so it would most likely repel as many people as it would attract; equally IPPR or Demos might appeal to some audiences but not others. Less political (partisan) think tanks wouldn’t have this problem, but then again they don’t have very prominent brands to begin with, so this might not be an advantage overall. A small number of UK think tanks, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The King’s Fund, have both strong brands and non-partisan credibility but they are also sector-specific, which obviously narrows the breadth of their appeal if they wanted to develop a ‘full-spectrum’ online think tank that encompassed many sectors and issues (which is what we’re trying to do here). Creating a new brand, but one which is related in some way to an existing brand, might be the way to go (the Center for American Progress has in effect done this with the ThinkProgress comment site, although this reinforces the impression of partisanship rather than reducing it).
So it seems that established think tanks could do what we’re attempting to do. Why then don’t we think they will, at least for a while? The reason is that most think tanks aren’t driven to want to serve the market better (which is what disruptive innovations are designed to do), rather they’re focused on finding better ways to promote their own viewpoints, which is not the same thing. An open, public, online community might not help them do that; because it couldn’t be directed easily it might even disrupt their mission. Our ‘killer advantage’ might turn out to be think tanks themselves.
We’re beginning to think about what our website should look like. This development blog – nice and clean though it is (thanks WordPress) – isn’t our proper website of course, just our temporary home. But it’s got us thinking about think tank websites and what they say about think tanks themselves.
We’ve noted before that most think tanks’ websites aren’t that popular compared to other sites. Few of the most well-known think tanks make it into the top 50,000 sites in the UK (new economics foundation ranks 23,123rd, which is much better than most). It’s not that popularity is everything. If it was, we’d just stick a few pictures of cute kittens on the home page and watch the ad dollars roll in. But think tanks should be more popular than they are.
Think tanks engage with matters of public interest, from the distribution of wealth to welfare benefits, employment to the economy, conservation to climate change. This is the stuff of everyday news and talk radio phone-in shows. Since most think tanks aim to influence the ‘climate of ideas’, it might help if they were better known by the general public. So why aren’t think tanks more popular, specifically what can we learn about why from their websites?
Firstly, their websites are not especially welcoming or accessible to a broad audience in terms of their structure, presentation or language. Have a scan through the sites we’ve added to the links section on the bottom-right of this page. They’re broadsheet newspapers, which is fine if you’re a broadsheet newspaper reader, but not mass market. Further, they aren’t designed with a clear offer to audiences such as policymakers, decision-makers, professionals and practitioners, or just interested members of the public. They don’t appear to recognise and aren’t designed around their needs. They aren’t especially helpful.
Secondly, related to this, these sites are all about what they (the think tanks) think, not your views or experiences. Look at how they are organised and laid out. There are sometimes blogs prominently displayed (not always though), but they typically receive very few comments. These are not places of public debate – they’re editorials, not exchanges. The Centre for Policy Studies has a new ‘debate‘ series, but it’s set-up between two members of the great and the good (it’s also buried away in a menu). The Social Market Foundation has branded its blog ‘Market Square‘ – a “social hub” and “ideas exchange” – but there seems to be little dialogue going on there. Similarly, the Fabian Society established its blog as a separate site – Next Left – but there doesn’t appear to be much debate happening on it, especially when you compare it to something like Conservative Home or the comment/blog site established by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, ThinkProgress (103,000 Twitter followers – but we’ll consider think tanks’ use of social media in another post).
Instead, whether because of a fundamental policy elitism or not, think tanks seem to be much more interested in receiving your support and donations than they do in inviting your views. Given this, it’s not really that surprising that the public largely stays away.
Does this matter? It does if you believe that think tanks could play a more public role in improving public policy. Consider this point, worth quoting in full from a recent article by Felix Oldenburg from Ashoka on the Guardian Professional Network, and how it might apply to the future (or not) of think tanks:
“Consequently, much like organisations need a business model to attract investors, they increasingly need a “social model”, a reason why people should want to engage with them. Any executive without a plan to empower his staff, turn stakeholders into co-creators, and create hybrid value chains with social innovators opening up new markets may find himself a freelancer soon.”