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Watching LCC and WikiLeaks: a glimpse of the future?

By February 16, 2011One Comment

Dave Briggs’ blog post on the Watching LCC website has had me thinking. A lot.

For those who haven’t seen it, Dave has written about the first ‘WikiLeaks‘-style site to happen to local government, at least in this country. Watching LCC is apparently run by current and former staff at Lincolnshire County Council – according to this interview by Collective Responsibility with a spokesperson for the site (again, hat tip to Dave). Watching LCC offers council staff a place to share ‘leaked’ information about the council – and has already attracted a great deal of attention.

Dave prescribes better, more liberated, internal communications and a more open approach to the way that local government is changing. But he also makes a particularly telling point: we are no longer in control. I think it’s this point that really matters for local authorities – and is perhaps still not fully appreciated.

The Watching LCC site is a blog – which takes about a minute to set up. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below. Go on, it only takes a minute!

OK, I lied. It’s a minute and nine seconds.

Admittedly, talking about how easy it is to blog on a blog to people who probably blog is… well… hardly news. But I want to drive home the point of just how little barrier to publication there is. It’s also just as easy to hide your real name and personal information when you do this. In a matter of half an hour’s work you can have yourself a functioning false identity, website, Facebook and twitter and you can start posting about anything that you want. Cost free and virtually impossible to stop.

All this has been said many times, but the implications are harder to fathom.
In the past local authorities were able to speak to a handful of ‘channels’ about what they wanted, when they wanted. This could be breached occasionally (it used to be my job as a reporter), but – on the whole – all communication with the outside world happened on the council’s terms. Those days are gone forever…

A WikiLeaks-style site can publish information on its own terms with little interference. If that information isn’t available elsewhere – and is genuine – people will begin to trust the site as a source. If unchecked, it’ll be the place people visit to find out about the local authority – and, if the site also indulges in dangerous misinformation, that may be believed too.

Just as Wikileaks isn’t the only organisation of its kind dedicated to making leaked information public, I would predict that Watching LCC won’t be the last of its kind, either. And, given that all organisations, including the most well run, have disgruntled former employees this may be the first of many. In fact, on the forum for CityCamp Brighton there’s a proposal for something that sounds like it could be not-so dissimilar to Watching LCC.

What I think this means*

1). Organisations will have to re-evaluate what is public and what isn’t. If you, firstly, accept that some things are now more likely to leak on the web it is almost certainly the case that the local authority would be best served by getting the information out before someone else has the chance. It’s not a nice way of picturing it, but is it better to air your own dirty laundry than watch it being paraded round the streets by those who most wish to cause you embarrassment? I’d say the best people to ask about this are staff – and not just the ones at the top, but those throughout the whole organisation. People don’t just leak things to annoy those in power, they do it because they genuinely think things should be made public – and sometimes they might have a point.

2). By extension, I’d guess that sometimes the people who make a decision about whether something should be made public are the ones who stand to lose the most, rather than those best placed to measure what impact it has on the organisation. But I’m a former journalist. You’d expect such talk from me.

3). If you want to ensure in the future that people take responsibility for what they say then you need to encourage people to talk about your organisation using their own real identity. So, if a site that doesn’t respect identity is given equal access to your organisation as one that does, it will only encourage irresponsible posting – and, in particular, a dangerous mixture of truths, half-truths and pure fantasy. The implication of this, of course, is that if an organisation ignores all external voices it is effectively giving those with malicious intent as good a chance of success as a responsible site.

* I should stress: none of this is meant as a reflection on Lincs or any other local authority – but on the phenomenon in general.

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