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Parliament (and Congress): 'Transmitting and not Receiving'

BY Tom Watson | Wednesday, February 25 2009

British Members of Parliament are using online tools more than ever: but like politicians the world around, they're using more to speak than to listen. That's the major finding of a Hansard Society study conducted last summer and released this week.

According to its authors, the survey and focus groups "confirm that the internet is now a part of the day-to-day life of the vast majority of MPs." But the study also finds that the "MPs’ focus remains largely on promoting themselves through reportage of their efforts in the House or constituency and by linking to ideologically similar commentators or websites."

The survey numbers (and remember, the survey was conducted last summer) are unsurprising: 92 percent of MPs use email, 83 percent have a personal websites, 11 percent blog and 23 percent use social networking sites.

You can download the full report here.

Somewhat discouraging were the future plans of the 168 MPs surveyed: just eight percent said they were likely to become bloggers and only five percent said they planned to use social networking tools. It's part of their broadcast-centric view of online communications, clearly reported by the Hansard research:

The internet has had a demonstrable impact on parliamentary communication. Most MPs are now communicating online and many have websites, some blogs and a handful maintain a presence on social networking sites. Although the internet does clearly support MPs to become more independent, the primary paradigm remains rooted in the party model. The foregoing suggests that the internet is a tool to communicate outwards, self-promote for the purposes of re-election and to gauge opinion and it is not seen as a tool to aid representation or to enhance engagement: internet-based communication by MPs is largely about delivery and devoid of strategies for engagement.

Still, it was clear from some of the focus group quotes shared in the report that some of the MPs understand that social media can be a productive two-way street in politics - here's on MP's take:

"...we live in the age of anti-politics and as politicians we isolate ourselves in the Westminster bubble and we get what we deserve and the internet brings it home to us... I like the authenticity and the verve, it sometimes lapses into brashness and the occasional boorishness but blogs are probably a much more accurate reflection on what people actually think.

That tendency to broadcast but not to listen is apparent on these shores as well, as a perusal of Congressional Twitter streams makes painfully clear. Sen. Claire McCaskill, for example, has clearly embraced the short-message social media tool - of half of it, anyway. She tweeted from President Obama's congressional “fiscal responsibility summit” at the White House - and she ranks second only to former presidential hopeful John McCain in Twitter followers with more than 8,500, according to TweetCongress. But for Senator McCaskill, it's very much a broadcast medium - she follows only a single account, her own Senate staffer.

More than 70 members of Congress now have Twitter accounts, and it will be interesting to see just how two-way their messaging becomes. In Britain, it's clearly still rare. "MPs are transmitting and not receiving," Andy Williamson, director of the Hansard Society's eDemocracy program told the BBC. "They use the internet as a tool for campaigning and for organising their supporters, rather than opening up two-way communications with constituents."

[h/t to Steve Clift at Democracies Online]