Dragged into the digital age

Ten years ago this month, the first British MP entered cyberspace. Now hundreds of politicians have

One afternoon, in the summer of 1994, Dick Robinson, who worked as a researcher for Anne Campbell MP, received a telephone call. The caller asked whether Campbell would be interested in having a website. "What's a website?"asked Robinson. The caller explained and Robinson agreed to give the idea a try.

And so, ten years ago this month, the first British MP entered cyberspace. A decade later, nearly all of Campbell's parliamentary colleagues have joined her online. But has anything significant been achieved by the efforts of 600 digital parliamentarians?

The person who made the telephone call that day was Bill Thompson, a technology enthusiast who was employed at that time as an ambassador for the internet company Pipex. He had been tasked with making the web seem exciting to as many people as possible. It was his idea that his home town of Cambridge, Britain's most "wired" city, should have an online MP. He built Campbell's website in two weeks and also helped her to run the UK's first online constituency office hours.

Thompson, along with a number of web devotees, including myself, expected great things as more representatives moved online. We hoped that websites would allow politicians to reach out to new audiences, improve their communication with constituents and be part of a new style of politics fit for the generation that "grew up digital". But we have all been disappointed. Thompson is particularly sanguine about what has been achieved. "For an MP, having a website is now just a 'hygiene factor'," he says. "Not having one is embarrassing. But it makes little impact on citizens in the constituency, and there is no evidence at all that it helps win votes in elections."

Richard Allan MP, one of parliament's most enthusiastic proponents of technology, is similarly doubtful. "The sad fact is," he says, "that for most members of parliament, the most important thing about their first website is the opportunity to have their picture taken in front of a computer by their local paper."

It cannot be denied that initial attempts to drag parliament into the digital age have produced mixed results at best. A report published by the Institute for Economic Affairs in the late 1990s surveyed the websites of all MPs. Its author, Tom Steinberg, concluded that the majority were poorly designed, rarely updated and frequently embarrassing. Patricia Hewitt MP, the then e-minister, was singled out for her "comically inept" effort. While businesses came up with ever more clever ways to use the internet, the amateur efforts of politicians were largely experimental failures.

Today, most MP websites avoid such pitfalls. Emma Higginson of the political web design company ePolitix thinks that parliamentarians have learnt from their early mistakes. "A lot of MPs had their first website built by a well-meaning constituent but found that they couldn't cope with the workload of keeping the site up to date."

The vast majority of MPs now have passable sites built by professional companies such as ePolitix, or use "web-in-a-box" systems provided by political parties. But they are hardly the revolution that some of us expected.

Some members, though, are genuinely innovative. The judges in this year's New Statesman New Media Awards found that a number of encouraging developments have taken place in the past year. Certain MPs have been experimenting with weblogs and other new technologies, and other elected representatives, such as local councillors and regional politicians, have been doing the same.

One MSP has developed a system of chatrooms for online constituency surgeries. The judges admired a system, trialled by ePolitix, to help MPs run a "constituency mailing list" that allowed them to talk to local people about upcoming parliamentary votes and the issues in their area. Many sites now have good constituency information and content written specifically for the web.

Yet such sites remain the exception rather than the rule. Only a handful of parliamentary sites, generally those maintained by technologically able or idiosyncratic MPs, are truly innovative.

There are good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the hard reality that parliamentarians are in the business of votes. They see interaction with constituents as part of this process. And websites, regardless of what their proponents argue, remain an unproven vote winner. Without the motivation of self-interest, the only MPs who spend time on websites are those with a personal enthusiasm for technology, or those who are fortunate enough to have enthusiastic staff.

Justin Jackson, head of the political web designers Poli-tico's, thinks the attitude of parliamentarians is often at fault. "Most MPs expect people to come to their sites," he says, "but no politician would design a new leaflet and then sit in their constituency office waiting for people to pop by and pick one up." Jackson also suggests there is a problem with the type of content that parliamentarians decide to put on their sites. "MPs don't photocopy 50,000 copies of an early day motion or a parliamentary question and then put them through people's letterboxes. So why do they put them on their websites?"

Most MPs also suffer from a lack of time, expertise and money. Compare the situation here, for instance, to that in the US. During election time, US congressmen and senators run well-funded and relatively autonomous campaigns with the resources to invest in top-notch websites. In the UK, individual MPs run their campaigns with less than £10,000, barely enough money to photocopy leaflets, let alone invest in the internet. When in office, US politicians typically have around 20 staff who can develop and update good websites, compared to just 1.5 for each British MP. And because they have money to spend, US politicians can also buy in expertise from tech-savvy consultants beyond the budget of their badly resourced British counterparts.

It seems that British political websites are caught in a vicious circle. MPs don't think that websites win votes, so they don't invest in the type of sites that could win votes in the future. Even if they wanted to experiment, arcane restrictions stop them spending parliamentary money on their sites for fear that they might use them for political campaigning. And political parties concentrate on building their national sites, leaving local politicians with often unimaginative, "cookie-cutter" efforts.

However, the promise of political websites remains, as demonstrated by some of the candidates for this year's New Media Awards. We must hope that their lesson is absorbed and that, with similar imagination and inventiveness, the next decade of political websites will offer more success than the last.

James Crabtree is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and a judge for this year's New Media Awards