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GRAVE NEW WORLD

June 23, 2017

LET US take a look at the Welsh Assembly’s wonderful new report Creating a digital dialogue – How can the National Assembly for Wales use digital to build useful and meaningful citizen engagement?
The first question that springs to mind of course is “Do we care?” and the second is “Why are they so desperate for us to engage?” Other questions include “useful and meaningful, to who?” and “How do you define dialogue?”
Let us take a look at the report and begin by looking at the members of the “small and expert” task force (their words, not mine).
To ensure a Welsh Labour bias, Leighton Andrews, a man famous for his snide and corny “cheap date” jibe at Plaid Cymru, which eventually cost him his Rhondda seat, has been chosen to chair. So, not a brilliant start, then.
Around him sat these people:
Cath Allen who has 27 years’ experience in several roles at the BBC and is a former Board Member for BBC Cymru Wales and former Managing Editor of the BBC Wales political unit. She now runs Cath Allen Associates. James Downes, Head of Product at Companies House, has been deeply involved in the strategy, design, development, delivery and continual improvement of digital products and services for over 18 years and has delivered transformative digital projects in central government, charity, finance, membership, heritage, education and automotive sectors. Ifan Morgan Jones, who worked as a reporter and then deputy editor of Golwg Magazine, before becoming the editor of the Golwg 360 news website. He is currently researching the effect of communication technology on the Welsh language, with special attention paid to the periodical press in the 19th century and the digital revolution in the present day. Valerie Livingston, a public affairs professional and small business owner with extensive media expertise. She founded her own political research company in 2011. The company, newsdirect wales, reports on developments in the National Assembly and provides policy briefings to a wide range of private, public and voluntary sector clients. Prior to launching the company, Valerie was a senior press officer for the SNP at Westminster. She has also spent time working in the Scottish and European Parliaments and on several election campaigns. More recently, she has been a regular political commentator appearing on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Hannah Mathias, a Learning Technology and Resources expert and E-Learning Manager at Cardiff and Vale College. Building and implementing Moodle and SharePoint 2010 systems. Her specialties are Learning Technologies; eResources; Social Media; Mobile Technologies; Video editing; audio editing; HTML; SharePoint architecture; Moodle administration and design, and Web 2.0. Emma Meese, who manages Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (@C4CJ), a unique fusion of research and practice committed to developing a strong network of hyperlocal and community journalism in Wales. She is also running a series of short courses at Cardiff, giving everyone access to the highest standard of training in digital and social media. Emma also speaks at a number of conferences and events, including the Social Media Conference for Wales. Gareth Rees, a software developer at MySociety. He is currently working on Alaveteli – an open-source platform for making public Freedom of Information requests. He worked on applications for Box UK, World Vision, Cardiff University Students’ Union, The Wales Trades Union Congress and Havering Fabian Society. He founded and runs cardiffrb, a monthly meet up for Ruby programmers in Cardiff. He also created Cardiff Collective as a place for entrepreneurs in Cardiff to connect and share knowledge and works with Sam Knight to open Welsh politics with Your Senedd. Iain Tweedale, a digital entrepreneur, has worked at the BBC as Head of Online and Learning in Wales, and has held senior international roles at IBM and Sonera. At BBC Wales he was responsible for the Wales edition of bbc.co.uk across all connected platforms. His team also produced content for brands such as Doctor Who, Sherlock and Crimewatch. As Head of Learning at BBC Wales, he was responsible for curriculum-related content such as BBC Bitesize, through to archive development for education. Dr Andy Williamson, who works globally to support democratic innovation and effective civic participation. He works with a wide range of public bodies, such as the UN, the European Commission and the parliaments of the UK, Chile, Moldova and Serbia. Andy is author of the 2016 World e-Parliament Report and the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Social Media Guidelines for Parliaments and is a member of the UK Open Government Partnership Steering Group. Andy is the Founder and CEO of Democratise and a Governor of The Democratic Society.
Now, the descriptions of these people here are definitely not mine (I’m notoriously difficult to impress and very mean with glowing tributes) but come from a (yes, you guessed it) Welsh Assembly publication which habitually, tirelessly accentuates the positives for political purposes and always denies the negatives until we eventually come to believe that they don’t exist at all (Alistair Campbell was good at that).
Names that stand out for me are the ubiquitous busy bee Valerie Livingston – a Scottish Nationalist Party apologist who keeps popping up on the BBC to explain Welsh politics to us because the BBC doesn’t trust its more independent paid political journalists to do it and thinks us too stupid, and Emma Meese, who is not and never has been a journalist yet is spearheading Cardiff University’s bid to equip village busy-bodies with a good contacts book who own a PC and can read and write with pitifully meagre skills which she for some reason thinks qualifies them to become professional journalists able to report on local politics but not, of course, paid ones.
Professor Laura MacAllister, a former women’s professional footballer and a Welsh Nationalist Party apologist, (who also now very kindly often pops up on the BBC to explain Welsh politics to the masses) does not, perhaps surprisingly, feature.
It is twenty years since devolution was voted for in a wafer-thin majority of Welsh people – with some lingering talk of skulduggery around the voting procedure which still taint it http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/jack-straw-voices-concerns-inappropriate-9655436 – so it is considered by presiding officer Plaid Cymru’s Elin Jones an appropriate time for them to look at getting more prominence, support, engagement and, of course, money.
The problem they face is that there is no visible and overwhelming evidence that the voting public are actively engaged with them and see them as a force for good in the way they were actively engaged in, say, the confrontational and highly-charged European referendum and this is definitely not helped by the lack of a properly resourced, vibrant and healthy Welsh media which could give them valuable prominence day-to-day to portray them as active, functional and not just a pretty powerless glass-fronted talking shop.
Leighton Andrews begins by telling us in the foreword that their report is radical in that it wants the government to be “content creators” (now I’m starting to worry and feel fearful).
“Our starting point is that all Assembly communications should be designed with a citizen/user interest at their heart, with a presumption of open data, seeking to build long-term relationships with the citizens of Wales,” writes Leighton.
That, of course, is exactly where he sounds like an excited new editor of a new newspaper or online news organisation seeking to win new paying customers by offering them a package they might like and might want to buy into.
But hold on a minute, Leighton is a Labour politician, isn’t he, so how can he possibly offer us a presumption of “open data” whatever that may mean? (significantly, he doesn’t say).
He goes on to write that the, “Assembly is a content platform which captures facts, information, data, commentary, opinion, and analysis, both written and audio-visual, that leads – or sometimes consciously doesn’t lead – to action. Properly
organised, this is a profound, valuable and democratic digital space which reflects the nation’s conversations about the issues which are of most concern to it.”

So, he is now moving from a legislative and administrative body to a productive body which he thinks can not just discuss Welsh political issues and make decisions but also inform the Welsh public about those issues so that they feel in some way involved in the process. Now isn’t that exactly what Jack Straw was alleging happened in 1997? That Welsh Office mandarins ensured that their would be more jam for them.
Anything that “reflects the nation’s conversations” that emanates from government is, de-facto, biased, partial and compromised.
Leighton, however, sees it as “profound, valuable and democratic”. Now that is the deep danger lurking in this report. It assumes that we the public see our government as our partners and allies and want them to inform us about political issues when we know that our government in Wales is and always will be Labour-led propped up by Plaid Cymru because of the stasis due to the weakness of alternative parties and alternative mind-sets in the voting public.
It is also the first step on a long and dangerous journey to the destruction of independent guardians or gatekeepers who ensure accuracy, hold the powerful to account and probe wrongdoing and corruption in high places.
It will lead to a gradual and almost unnoticed transformation of political dogma and opinion into “fact” or “news” which will go unchecked and unchallenged and it will radically and cynically misinform and desensitize a gullible and largely disinterested Welsh public who long ago lost faith in politics and politicians.
“Awareness of the work and responsibilities of the Assembly is low, whilst interest in the subject areas that the Assembly is responsible for is high.” the report states confidently. “To help address this, the Assembly Commission decided to re-examine how the Assembly presents itself to the people of Wales, how the work of the Assembly is explained and demonstrate how the Assembly enables people to interact and engage with the organisation.”
Nauseating marketing mantras setting out idealistic and fantastic aims with ridiculous hyperbole of the “world leading” (how can anyone check if that is true?) “we aim to be a world class, open, democratic and easily accessed body” type are liberally sprinkled all over this report like sweet smelling talc on a day-old dead body.
“The Assembly should lead the way and establish an integrated content service using social media and other channels (such as dedicated email newsletters) to engage directly with the people of Wales. The Assembly should put people – rather than the organisation and its processes – at the heart of topical news stories and aim for an emotional connection with the public it serves.” it trumpets, sounding like every newspaper style book to guide its paid journalists I’ve ever read (strange that, isn’t it). An emotional connection, whatever next.
“The structure of the Assembly’s social media channels should be reviewed. Smart social media analytics should be adopted to identify online conversations and communities, and allow the Assembly to become involved in these discussions. The Assembly must exploit every alternative to the press release as a means of promoting its work. Maps, infographics, blogs and neat summaries all have the potential to articulate difficult messaging in a memorable way.” This reads rather like “We will tell you the news, whether you like it or not” with startling and alarming encouragement for Assembly staff to adopt new hitherto undreamt of down and dirty journalistic instincts and techniques (what, pray tell, is “smart social media analytics”?).
The words “trust building” (another strong and repetitive journalistic sales staple) appear so that we are left in no doubt about the depth of mischievousness and vaulting ambition in these Cardiff Bay Svengalis.
“The Assembly must develop a culture where people feel both able and empowered to try new approaches to delivering digital services without fearing the consequences of this not going exactly to plan. Creating such an environment relies on people knowing they can fail fast and fail safely. This is preferable to failing after months of expensive work undertaken behind closed doors. The Assembly needs to ensure digital becomes built in to all Assembly processes and develop an understanding that digital is not just about technology – it is a way of thinking and working.” So there will be no bollockings or sackings, then?
Now, here is another key feature. “Hyperlocal” websites which keep people up to date with local news (something paid journalists used to do) will be directly linked to the Assembly “content platform” (isn’t that a bit like district reporters all reporting to a news editor at headquarters and broadly writing what the news editor tells them to write to suit the editorial direction?)
“Content should be packaged so that it can be pushed directly to platforms that audiences are already consuming, rather than expecting the audience to come to the Assembly’s own platforms. This change in approach would also result in useful materials being produced for Welsh local and hyperlocal news publications, particularly those that require content packaged for digital platforms.” the report states. How very thoughtful and considerate of them to package content for them!
“New leaders in digital content and news management should be recruited and given the space and time to plan the Assembly’s news and promotional work effectively.”
“They should also be afforded the freedom and trust to prioritise editorial content according to organisational objectives. Delivering engaging digital communications on behalf of the Assembly is not solely the responsibility of the Assembly’s Digital and Media team. Internal partners, including committee clerks, researchers, the visitor, education and outreach teams, must all play their part in this process.”
And that’s an order!
“Associated with the rise in social media is the new phenomenon that ‘the audience has an audience’. In other words, by reaching some users who have large social media followings (social influencers) it is possible to get content to large numbers of people with the audience themselves acting as the content distribution network, this socialisation of content distribution is a powerful medium for persuasion.”>
Mmmm….now, if I was a “social influencer” the first thing I would do is distribute content for the Welsh Assembly government for no pay, wouldn’t I? Errr, not on your nelly, Carwyn. “Let’s turn our citizens into persuaders” is the aim and what a nakedly offensive and deeply disturbing aim for a public body to have.
“Rather than absorbing ourselves in the pessimism related to the lack of media plurality in Wales, this new mind-set opens the door to exciting new opportunities for the Assembly to reach audiences directly. We think the Assembly should lead the way and establish an integrated content service to engage directly with the people of Wales. Headed by an experienced, impartial editor we suggest establishing a small team of journalists focused on producing content about the stories coming out of the Assembly, packaged in a way that is suitable for digital platforms.” How small a team exactly? Maybe four people rushing around like headless chickens writing propaganda on the hoof all day long, eh? I wonder if this small team will contain anyone who discloses even slightly right of centre attitudes or allegiances?
“If the Assembly itself is a content platform, it makes less and less sense to think of the established media as requiring support that is different from other audiences. Our argument is that the Assembly as an organisation should bolster its direct reach to the wider public. Creative packaging of Assembly information at source would benefit the established media as well. While established and well-resourced media organisations such as the BBC and ITV will capture most of the material they need themselves, other smaller outlets will need additional, targeted support.
“Responses to our media survey, limited to Welsh regional and national media, have identified a direct need for clear, concise, inspiring copy that provides an at-a-glance summary of comprehensive reports. In some cases, visual data (maps, infographics and animations) to illustrate the findings and access to “real people case studies” were also requested. The survey responses suggest that while the production of video content may be crucial for the purpose of promoting the
Assembly’s work on its own channels, network news organisations in Wales will simply not use it if provided.”
Thank God there are still some standards left somewhere.
“The Communications team needs to possess other skills such as content production. It may be that they will need to divert time and resources from supporting those who already cover the daily ‘churn’ of Assembly politics – committees, etc. – and refocus the bulk of their resources on attempting to reach the majority who have a limited understanding, access and interest in their services currently. In order to support the diversification of the role of the media team, other staff need to see writing for publication as part of their role, beyond report-writing itself, with training for writing in different formats, including blogs, articles and social media content.” What, free training as well?
“This is our report, today in mid-2017. Technology is changing and will develop further, with advancements in augmented and virtual reality, in artificial intelligence and machine-learning, in new platforms, in voice and image recognition and many other ways. Consequently, the recommendations in our report should be kept under active review and there should be a specific lead commissioner responsible for driving these forward.”
The report then features opinions from “citizens” who are not named. “There’s not many countries that allow you to access this kind of data and then readily invite you in to their home to play with their data and see what you can do – it’s been amazing to work with the team and see what we can build.” says one particularly gullible and dense one.
Another says: “Speaking as someone who doesn’t have any tech ability, just ideas and the will to talk to people, I’ve found that the Assembly today has been so open and giving, and so willing to make sure that everything is open for us – not just data but people and the physical building – everyone’s experiences has been so enlightening, for example before today I didn’t feel particularly engaged in the Senedd and what the Senedd does but now I feel like I’ve got a better understanding of what you do, who does it, why you do it and actually how the public can be engaged in that – I’m a member of the public and I feel more engaged.”
I wonder if there was anyone who said: “Do I have to be a member of the Labour Party?”

 

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