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Blears blogs the Home Office defence of data retention

Unconvincingly, of course. But hey, it's a start...

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Wiliam Heath's Ideal Government blog has scored a coup with a post in the name of Home Office Minister Hazel Blears, who as far as we know has now become the most senior UK Government minister to interface with blogdom. The content - a justification of Home Office data retention policy - adds little to the sum total of human knowledge, but in this case it's the medium, not the message, that's significant.

Pretend for a moment that the Home Office understands what it's doing, then consider the implications. Government policy is currently communicated, argued and implemented in a largely non-interactive, adversarial way. Government determines what it intends to do, puts forward its arguments and goes ahead. Its intentions and arguments will be questioned in Parliament, in consultations and in the press, but (as the experience of the past few years makes clear), it will usually respond to these by carrying on going ahead and repeating the same arguments as it does so.

Don't knock it too hard though - irritating as it is to to see the same faulty logic and discredited arguments trucked out over and over again, it's a viable mode of Government, up to a point. It gets stuff done, and any personal dislikes you may have of the stuff that's getting done only become material when enough other people hate it enough for stuff to be modified, or not to get done.

A politician "writing" (few of them really do) an article for the national press can be seen as an extension of this process. Policy is stated and arguments are made, but although there is scope for counter-argument (e.g. opposition responses and readers' letters) these are muted by the medium, and the debate remains largely adversarial.

But what happens when Government attempts to extend this process into more interactive media? While you could see an article in, say, the Times as providing a platform for a Minister to state a case without direct or immediate challenge, by posting to a discussion-led blog like Ideal Government Blears is more properly offering up a topic for debate. In the particular case of Blears' post, the other half of the debate swiftly arrived in the shape of challenges from Spy Blog and Ian Brown. These challenges have been made previously, but they have not been answered previously; if however Blears is playing by the rules, it's now her move, right?

There you see the difficulty. The Government currently has good reason to take notice of blogs, and to try to figure out what to do about them. But what can it do?

If Ministers don't answer questions, address points and develop arguments openly and honestly in Parliament, they can't rationally do so in blog discussions, and they'd get fired if they tried. They can certainly make announcements to blogs, but as these will tend to result in immediate rebuttals which the Minister can't answer without being sucked further into debate, getting involved probably hurts more than it helps (see Cabinet Office Minister Jim Murphy's bloggings for an approach which retains some control of the playing field while dealing with a less controversial subject).

So the Home Office didn't know what it was doing when it submitted the piece? It certainly knows what Ideal Government is, and it ought to know how it works, and therefore that by contributing it would be opening a debate rather than making a statement... But no, it quite probably it didn't. ®

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