How can you keep track of what is going on in the Lords? You can read Hansard, you can watch BBC Parliament, there might be the odd article in the papers.
The Lords has been quite a closed shop, more by accident than design. Yet it is busy, bustling, important and relevant. The challenge is how to get the public to tap into that potential.The answer may be found online through blogging. This is the hypothesis of the ‘Lords of the Blog’ pilot launched by the House of Lords and the Hansard Society at www.lordsoftheblog.net.
At the end of 2007, I made some predictions about political uses of the web over the next 12 months. One was that the House of Lords would turn to blogging to encourage public awareness and participation. Of course, I was dealing on some insider info. Fundraising for ‘Lords of the Blog’ was one of my last duties at the Hansard Society. But finding the funds was no guarantee that the blog would see the light of day. The kudos for that lies with Barry Griffiths, the project coordinator, and Liz Hallam-Smith, the Lords Librarian for having the foresight to see the value in such an experiment.
I spoke to Barry on Tuesday a day after the public launch to find out the latest. He has sober ambitions for this first foray into the blogosphere by the second chamber, but was affording himself the chance to bask in a successful launch and a flurry of media and public interest. I asked him just to take a step back and explain what the goals of the exercise were:
‘The pilot currently benefits from having nine Peers who each bring their own area of expertise to the blog. Since January 2008, during the testing phase for the blog, it has been great to see the peers involved become more comfortable using the blog.
The Peers have come together from across the House to make short regular entries providing an insight into the business of the House of Lords and to talk about their own activities in and around the Chamber. Members will write and upload material and moderate user comments themselves’.
So on the paper this is an exercise 1) to inform the public, 2) to encourage the ‘right of reply’ but 3) to build up skills and capacity within the Lords. But I wanted to know how Barry sees things panning out in reality:
‘The blog will run for an initial 6 month period with the possibility of extending this deadline if there is sufficient interest from the contributing Peers and blog audience.
The contributing members have been posting content on the development site since January 2008 to get them up to speed on the nuances of blogging. The immediate goals for the project are using it as both an education and communication tool to increase public engagement with the work of the Upper House and its Members.
The group of contributing Peers will be added to once the blog goes live. Some of the original nine Peers may well stop blogging but we hope to continue to introduce new Peers to blogging in order to keep the interest of visitors to the blog’.
I think this is the right approach – iterative steps and flexibility will be key to the pilot’s success. And what of success? What will a successful ‘Lords of the Blog’ look like? Exact performance indicators are less clear but suffice to say an evaluation report will be carried out and published so that we can all learn from the exercise:
‘For the next six months the Hansard Society will evaluate the pilot, capturing data about the audience of the blog in order to assess its reach and value. This evaluation will take the form of pre- and post-engagement surveys completed by blog visitors, plus interviews with contributing members and the Lords authorities’.
I look forward to the report over time, but at the moment I’m just enjoying reading the entries and the insights they share. So good luck to all involved. So far so good!
Thinking forward, I can see three challenges facing the Hansard Society and the contributing Peers:
- How can the blog be kept in the public eye after the initial ‘welcome’ goes cold (less than a month away, probably)?
- How can the Peers interest be maintained to ensure regularly and engaging contributions?
- Can the Peers be encouraged to incorporate other media to prevent the blog becoming too text heavy?
These are challenges that every new public-facing blog faces in its first months of live. But when the blog in question belongs to an institution struggling to communicate its very important role to the public at large, the stakes are all the higher and all the more worth the trouble.