Research at the University of Westminster has come to the preliminary conclusion that proprietary social networking tools (such as Facebook and Twitter) are not sufficient to mobilise political activists, but that a mixture of open-source and proprietary tools is necessary to address their particular needs. Drawbacks to proprietary solutions include security concerns and the absence of features that are tailored to activists’ requirements.
(See E-Government Bulletin article.)
The research applies to non-state actors, and thus cites Amnesty’s “Save The Human” website and an open-source platform called “Crabgrass”, both of which have functionality that is tailored to the needs of organising activists. But does this also have implications for government organisations such as local authorities?
I think it does, because there are types of political participation that are less often initiated by grass-roots activists but instead usually organised (or commissioned) by government. Examples include participatory budgeting, which often requires software that is specifically designed for the purpose, and online spatial planning such as our own DEMOS-Plan, which is specifically designed to replace paper-based processes by integrating interactive online maps and plans. A further advantage of working with bespoke software is that amendments can be made to reflect users’ wishes. Nevertheless, the research mentions the effectiveness of Facebook and similar social networks for publicity purposes.
So I think it’s a welcome reminder that government isn’t always reinventing the wheel if it commissions bespoke consultation software instead of using generic social networking tools, and of the role that social networks can play in encouraging political participation.