Tom Watson MP will be speaking at next month’s Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona. In this short interview we give you a quick run down on Britain’s first blogging Member of Parliament, the man credited with bringing digital engagement to government in the UK.
Who is Tom Watson?
That’s the deepest question of the lot! My life hit a crossroads at a young age. The early 80′s was not a great time to be a teenager. With mass youth unemployment, poor training and an economy on the skids, I joined the Labour party to change the world.
The path I chose not to take was the one where I followed a personal interest in coding – I spent most of my spare time on the ZX81, BBC Micro and later the Spectrum. I sometimes wonder whether I made the right choice.
How was it that you came to be the ‘blogging minister’ in 2003?
I’d come across these things called weblogs through reading the Guardian site. Rececca’s Pocket was the first site I visited and I realised that the technology existed to hold a conversations. I no longer needed to be on broadcast only.
What was your vision / dream back then and how has it changed or developed since?
To publish and stimulate a discussion, really excited me. Back in 2003, political blogging hadn’t really matured. It was a bit like being on the frontier – being shot at from all sides. To be honest, I was a bit sporadic in the way I approached blogging, so my six year experiment has only had limited success.
Whether we’re talking about We.Gov, Gov20 or digital engagement (here in the UK), what does it all mean to you?
Oh, that’s easy for me. It’s about wider participation. Simple as that. Governments listening – and learning.
What was your proudest achievement within government? And since?
Hmmm. I’m proud that the Power of Information Taskforce set and agenda that is still being acted upon. I’ve not had much of a chance to be a backbencher yet but I intend to be a very loud voice for our digital pioneers – that doesn’t just include e-democracy types but also gamers, open source campaigners and digital rights activists.
Is the bureaucratic culture the single biggest barrier to adoption and is it something that can ever be cracked?
Yes it can be cracked but It requires strong leadership from politicians and, in particular, senior civil servants. I’d give both party leaders an improving 7 out of 10 for their leadership right now. Senior civil servants score much lower!
Next year there will be national and local elections in the UK. What are the major opportunities and risks for politicians in taking part in this agenda? What would your advice to your colleagues be?
I think we’ll miss the great opportunities for web 2.0 in the next elections. Sure, parties will produce widgets to get their message out in clever ways. They’ll use digital tools to organise. But they’re not going to let go like they need too. The election after next will be the interesting one for this space.
Individual MPs and councillors are beginning to use the tools to engage and collaborate though. They’re the people we need to support and encourage I think. I’m most excited about hyperlocal communities finding their voice using social media tools. They’re the real pioneers.
Where next for both Tom Watson and the digital engagement agenda in the UK?
Oh, I’m going to be banging a loud drum from the back benchers. European copyright reform, global digital “wows” like every school in Africa getting a broadband connection, the global free expression movement, taking digital inclusion seriously. There’s a lifetime’s agenda to campaign for. I can’t wait.