This summer saw David Miliband, secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, launching the government’s first experiment with wikis, only for the move to be scrapped after the “accidental or malicious editing or removal of material” by pranksters.
But the wiki is now open again, albeit with tighter moderation and registration policies, and Miliband has promised to continue testing new ways to engage with the public via the web.
We talked to him to find out more…
Why did you choose to launch the wiki?
David Miliband: “I believe the wiki allows an open approach with the public and stakeholders to developing an environmental contract that provide an equitable deal between nations, a fair deal for UK business and an empowering deal for citizens.
“Wikis allow us to discuss with people the rights and responsibilities of the citizen and the responsibilities of the government and to allow co-production of a contract. This is the first time a government department has been involved in the construction and running of a wiki.”
Do you feel you have gained anything out of it? What lessons have you learnt?
DM: “So far there have had some really constructive comments and contributions from members of the public. The experiment is ongoing and we are learning lessons all the time. On the technical side, we are trying to find solutions which balance an open approach which allows anyone to contribute, with some controls to prevent abuse.”
Do you regret launching it, considering what happened?
DM: “No, we don’t regret launching it at all. It is good to be among the first to try new ways to engage and excite people in the UK about government policy development. The publicity and interest generated has shown that there are people who would like to be able to debate this issues through the wiki.
“There are risks to this approach as this is new territory for government and it involves a fair bit of trust. As anticipated, we have had some problems with accidental or malicious editing or removal of material. We would obviously prefer constructive and thoughtful contributions, rather than puerile humour.”
Do you think it’s inevitable that politicians and businesses that adopt wikis have to implement strict controls over them?
DM: “These kinds of attacks do mean that we have to look again at issues of registration, greater moderation and intervention particularly if the wiki community is not large enough to be able to police these kinds of websites themselves.”
Does that remove the point of them?
DM: “No. We hope that a simple registration process would not put people off from contributing to the website.”
Do you have any thoughts on how social networking tools, including wikis and web ventures like Youtube and MySpace could aid interaction between governments and citizens?
DM: “The world and the internet in particular is changing. Increasingly people get their information about the world in different ways and want not just to accept what they are told, but comment on it and help influence what is going on.
“We need to keep looking at the best ways of adding interactive aspects to government websites. The online approach will not be the answer to all government communications because not everyone is online, or wants to use these kinds of websites.”
Do you plan to launch another one and if so on what subject?
DM: “It depends on the outcome of the first one. We need to look at the best ways of securing worthwhile stakeholder engagement.”
Do you see them as a useful campaigning tool, as well as one for policy creation, and if so how?
DM: “Technology is now really opening up communication between politicians and the public. Through the internet, we can reach more people directly and faster than ever before.
“Blogging has allowed me to try to break out of the usual parameters of politics. It’s a refreshing way of finding out what people think about our policies and what we are trying to achieve.
“Internet campaigning already played a huge part at the last election and I believe that it will only grow in importance. Politics and government are changing in a fundamental way. We have to become more transparent and open. I believe that the internet, and interactive tools like blogs, are ways of achieving this. They are not without risks but, they allow us to connect with the public in a way that has never been done before.
“People all over the world are embracing new public technology and unless politicians do the same, we risk losing a vital link with the people we are trying to reach.”