Why election promises may never be the same again.

by / Tuesday, 19 April 2016 / Published in Digital, Government

As we enter that quintessentially Australian “caretaker” period in the run up to the election, thoughts turn again to politics. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney yesterday ran a piece about ad agencies being the major benefactors of the rumored $100m spend on political advertising and the first ads ran on TV last night. For what it’s worth, with the media costs being about 80% of the total ad spend, I don’t actually agree that the ad agencies will be the major benefactors, but I digress…

It’s quite telling that despite the explosion in interest in community engagement in Government, I’m not aware of any website that’s being used to publicly canvass opinion on the policies each of the parties is going to take to the election. Odd, because the modern interweb is overflowing with discussion forums, questionnaires and even moderated focus groups inviting us to chuck in our ten cents worth on everything from chocolate bars to procurement policy.

While politicians seem slow to embrace the opportunity for public engagement, perhaps fearful of airing dirty washing in public, progressive businesses are seeing engagement as an opportunity to minimize the shock of the new. There’s nothing worse than finding out after the event that your game changing announcement is actually this years’ Marmite 2.0. Or that the millions of dollars promoting the benefits of work choices turned voters off, not on.

And if events elsewhere are any guide, in a few months time someone else will be doing it for them. In Canada and Argentina, that’s exactly what’s happening. And there’s nothing the Government can do to stop it.

The backstory is simple. As part of his pre-election campaigning, Pierre Trudeau and his team were unusually active in the sheer number of things they planned to address if they were elected. Within four weeks of his taking office in November 2015, an innovative new community engagement website  was launched to celebrate the arrival of the new Government.

But not by Trudeau. Or his people. The brainchild of independent Canadian developer Dom Bernard, the privately funded venture painstakingly listed 167 different pledges made by Trudeau and his campaign team, (today’s number is 219) helpfully grouped by themes including the economy, the environment, immigration, culture and security, each accompanied by a simple bulletin board.

In a real stroke of genius, members of the public were invited to become “promise trackers”, whose role was to ensure that the site was kept up to date by adding relevant news or announcements.

Now six months old, free to use and accessible across the World Wide Web, headed by a simple dashboard showing promises kept, the website takes the notion of “keeping them honest” to a whole new digital level. Within a week or two of launch, 700 people had commented on Trudeau’s promise to amend the “first past the post” system. Checking the site today, 29 promises are already complete. Trudeau might be very happy with that. The voters will decide what they think about the 15 promises apparently already broken.

Having spent a good chunk of time in the community engagement and performance reporting arena in Government, I’d say there are four key reasons why this website has changed things forever.

  • It is gloriously independent (of Government).
  • It unites voters in a shared collective responsibility in “keeping them honest”.
  • It costs (virtually) nothing to run, update, amend and publish.
  • It’s the best daily barometer of opinion that any Government has.

That last point may have surprised some people. Why would Government need external help to know how they are doing? Don’t they have researchers and opinion pollsters already?

The secret is in the detail. One of the brilliant things the website does is provide a live, real time barometer of people’s thinking. About which really important issues are actually really important as opposed to the ones that no one really cares about.

Clearly, during the fever of electioneering, someone in Trudeau’s team thought it was important to make a promise along the lines of

“Parliamentary committees will be given more resources to acquire independent, expert analysis of proposed legislation.

In hindsight, it may not be a big surprise that only two people have been moved to comment on this once important issue. And one of them was commenting on the other. If I was Trudeau, I’d have already shuffled this down the list of priorities.

Independent, authentic and changing every day. This is the modern world. And brilliantly, a version of the site has been launched in Argentina tracking the promises of newly elected Premier Mauricio Macri. By listing progress in real time, it’s a win win for Governments who are getting on with stuff. And it helps them manage priorities.

I wonder whether there will ever be another election that isn’t followed by a “trudeaumetre”. Probably more than one. One can only imagine what will happen in Washington DC on the second Tuesday in November.

Trumpmetre? Perish the thought. Turnbullmetre? Shortenmetre? I’ve already bought the URL’s.