Correction Friday 7th: The site does allow you to comment and to withhold the comment from the public display.
The Obama campaign's use of the internet has been talked about a lot by people interested in behavioural economics. The Fine Gael website today has been more or less taken down and replaced by a website designed to elicit feedback from the population. As a strategy, this will obviously be more focused on active internet users but, as even the 2006 figures show, this is now a sizeable proportion of the Irish population. Users are asked to give open-ended feedback on three different questions - "What do you think of Ireland's current problems?", "How can we improve the country?", and "How can we earn your support?".
One little "nudge" embedded in the website is a comment feed, which rotates different comments as they come in, presumably to demonstrate that this is something many others are engaged with. It does not say on the website how these comments are selected. My sense is that they are more positive than you would expect, particularly as people tend to use open-ended boxes more to voice complaint than express admiration, but the positivity might relate to early adoption by people that are pro-FineGael rather than any filtering. It would be worthwhile stating this on the site as I think positive filtering would be "cheating" in terms of having an open forum.
One main function of websites such as this is to build a data-base for subsequent electioneering, something the Obama campaign did to amazing effect. In terms of the behavioural economics aspects of the website design, if you go on to the website, your email address is a mandatory field if you want to offer comments, and you are given the option of entering your mobile phone number. It is then assumed that you wish to receive communications in the run-up to the election unless you untick boxes that are underneath. As uses of defaults go, this is not so evil as it is pretty clear that you are being opted in and the mechanism of opting out is simple. It is worth checking how easy it is to subsequently opt-out given that you have opted-in but I would be very surprised if this was not simple to do.
A few inital thoughts I have about this new development in Irish politics are:
- The value of the feedback is somewhat questionable. Few scientists or market researchers would base a policy prescription on the output of three open-ended questions asked to a self-selected sample of the population, particularly with a 250 character limit. Having said that, I have made heavy use of open-ended questions in surveys that I have conducted myself and they often perform a very useful function as a basic sanity check or to elicit ideas that did not come up during design.
- I talked a bit above about the rotating comments section. Let's assume for a moment it is random. This means that anyone entering a comment could potentially have their name and location displayed along with their comment. My intuition is that this could deter a significant proportion of people. If you look at irisheconomy.ie or the Irish Times website or whatever, a sizeable proportion of people making public comments on websites tend to prefer to do so anonymously for a whole host of reasons.
- It will be interesting to see how many people offer their mobile phone information. They must have considered at some stage something like offering incentives like entry into raffles or prize draws to encourage people to sign up. It would certainly raise the prospect of negative publicity but if the goal is to build a big data-base and, holy of holies, go viral to some extent then it is not clear how this will be kick-started without some initial pump-priming. I have a vague nagging doubt about legality in my head but raffles are a very common method of raising finance for political parties so people should not exaggerate the difficulties of using incentives in this fashion.
- Compared to a blog feed or something like www.politics.ie, the actual scope for "conversation" is very limited as there is no interaction between commenters or with the site leaders. It will be interesting to see if anything like that develops. Without it, then it really has very limited scope as a tool for deliberative democracy and will ultimately be a way of harvesting email addresses and mobile numbers. In fairness, many TDs and Senators across parties have started using things like Facebook and twitter to communicate with people online and there have already been a few famous twitter incidents involving prominent Irish politicians. As a once fairly enthusiastic tweeter, my main doubt about its use is that it doesn't add to the deliberative nature of conversations between voters and politicians. Rather than trying to elevate both voter and policy-maker to a more considered level of conversation, it often serves to bring the policy-maker into the general scrum. Great fun and all that, but it often widens rather than deepens discussion. Tools of deliberative democracy such as citizen juries are much more cumbersome to set up and manage, but would serve to develop a more informed and reflective debate. Worth thinking about for parties like Fine Gael if they are serious about bringing in serious feedback from voters.
- Once they get the initial data-base, a key task will be to segment the different groups along the lines of key policy-issues, again something Obama's team did relentlessly. A second task will be to view each person as embedded in a social network and to attempt to use the people on their data-base to get their peers on board. The potential for 'boomerang effects' here will be interesting to look out for. Clearly, those who have signed into the website wont be too annoyed about receiving emails from FG but getting ten emails a week from mates of yours that have been converted could become pretty annoying pretty quickly.
In general, it is good to see Irish political parties trying to normalise the use of different communications methods that are now routinely used by a large chunk of the Irish population. Overall, I think the current FG effort as it stands works more as a data-base building mechanism than any real attempt to elicit feedback but, having said, one collects a data-base in order to then communicate further so it would be premature to dismiss it yet.