A few weeks back Latrobe Uni’s Hugh Martin took a dip at Victorian Liberal Victor Perton for being a so-called WEO – wired elected official. Today Victor hits back.

Introduction

First things first. Who or what, is a WEO, exactly? For those of you who find yourselves challenged by so many acronyms in an increasingly abbreviated world, a WEO is short for a ‘Wired Elected Official’ The term is attributable to Steven Clift, one of the pioneers of edemocracy,

Stephen Clift’s WEO is a politician who is adaptive to the internet and related technologies and who effectively collaborates with others on a global level.

Clift’s WEO’s are not just MPs with websites. They are politicians who see new media and new technology as the key to reinventing the traditions and the traditional institutional limitations, of industrial age parliamentary democracy. They see the internet as a new way of interacting with and representing their constituents, a way of becoming more collaborative with their colleagues and their counterparts in other regions and also as a tool of research and connectivity to up-to-the-minute and cutting edge information, news and views.

So Why This Article ?

The genesis of this article is simple. I was sitting in Shadow Cabinet in the elegant and decorative Victorian Legislative Committee room when a wired colleague, Helen Shardey, asked, “What have you done to Crikey?” Barely containing my trepidation all throughout the meeting agenda, an hour crawled by before I could dash to my office and, using my trusty Pentium laptop pc, accessed the internet through the Parliament’s wireless-LAN, to find myself the subject of a succinct little headline, “Wired Wankers – Pollies online.”

Having just been knocked from a pedestal I was hitherto unaware I’d been placed on and finding the comments somewhat offensive, I did what the old rule-book says you shouldn’t do. I rang the journalist. Heck, he was only a couple of suburbs away, so why not?

“Have we met?” I asked plainly. “No.”

Blood pressure on the increase, I managed to ask calmly: “Why do you want to call someone that you’ve never even met a wanker?” “Sub-editor’s fault.” “I never seen you write anything on multimedia before?” – “I’m a lecturer and I’m doing a PhD.”

“In multimedia?” – “No.” “Well, what else would you put on my website?”

The response dear readers?

“I don’t need to tell you that, I’m a critic!”

Yes, but not a very constructive one.

As it transpired, the journalist had subscribed to an internet e-demoracy mailing list He received an email from Steven Clift, who described Victor Perton, State MP in Victoria, the following way:

“Victor is one the world’s leading ‘Weos.’ Weos stands for ‘Wired Elected Officials’ – the idea is that they are a new generation of politicians who use the Internet themselves as their primary strategic communication tool. There are only a handful of WEOs on the planet.”

Essentially, the journalist had then gone to my website and asked the question so often asked by newbies to the web, “Is that all there is?” I’m surprised that he didn’t launch forth against Senator Kate Lundy, also nominated by Stephen Clift as another Australian WEO, Al Gore or George Bush.

I confess that until I’d read Crikey.com.au’s critique of me, I didn’t know myself, what a WEO was, or that I defined the epitome of what a WEO had to offer.

My feeling is that the proportion of wired politicians to politicians, in general, roughly equates to the proportions of wired people in big business, policy making, journalism and the professions. Victoria’s Alan Stockdale, the world’s first ever Minister for Multimedia, was a WEO.

A website

The current confusion surrounding my status, – wanker or WEO – you be the judge, prompted me to contemplate a few home truths.

What is it that’s ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ about my website?

What function does it serve, in the overall scheme?

The work of a WEO can’t possibly be confined to just a website. Politics, for the time being at least, is not that simple a business. As a WEO, I have my work cut out for me contending with the very real constraints imposed upon me by the tradition of Parliament, by the social nature of politics and the differing levels of conversion in the Parliament and in society, to new economy ideas. It would be difficult to say the least, for me to transact my business online, because it is the business of people interacting at local levels as well as at a distance in Real World time. The fact that I subscribe to global movements and that internet take up rates are phenomenal, is no answer to the reality that many of my constituents are simply not web literate and that of the 25% of Australians with connections in their homes, many will have browsers of the most simple and basic kind, will have 26K modems, congestion and incomplete and inadequate landlines to contend with, before they even reach the simple text and graphics which feature on www.vicnet.net.au/~victorp

Keep it simple is the most overused statement in discussions about slow and steady website construction. I confess I built my own website using tools that are crude and rudimentary by today’s standards, since at that point in time Intel and Sausage were just blips on a vague horizon.

Indisputably, the site was one of the very first politician’s websites in the world and certainly the first in Australia. Five years ago – many generations and a light year in IT terms, I taught myself HTML mark up. This perhaps partially explains my reluctance to abandon the language, for its more enabled and impressive graphical counterparts. It was an interesting journey of experiments, mistakes, startling successes and annoying failures and, for conventional critics. I admit, it provides many opportunities for cynicism and gloating deprecation on comparative grounds.

What I can say, though, is that I understand it. When it does not work, I fix it. When I learn something new I can do with it, I add it.

Looking at the site today, www.vicnet.net.au/~victorp, young web-designers say, not enough movement. What is the answer to my unwieldy web-address? It’s old, you only need to look at it to know that. It was hosted on one of the first publicly provided ISP’s ever. But what’s the answer? Does a pollie go .com,? .org ? One of my failures as a webbie, rather than as a WEO, relates to perton.com – I was still thinking .net or .gov when a namesake in New York City nabbed the name and the opportunity to relay the story of early internet family feuds.

There are now great political websites to see – Al Gore’s campaign website is well-matched by that of George Bush – I suspect that the best internet strategists available have been at work on their sites.

In Victoria, there a number of excellent sites listed at http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/mps1.html

Most MP’s I think, would describe our forays into the medium of the web as something of a “work in progress.” Different approaches I have personally tried, include an electronic town hall, during a recent election campaign that attracted over 400 participants. I’ve also tried a local internet forum which, in contrast, has not been heavily used. The reasons for this are not clear cut, but I suspect that the plethora of other technologies, coupled with the human edge of a real time meetings and the nature of the topics that people want to raise, mean that many of the people who want to communicate with their MP don’t want that contact emblazoned on a website for all the world to see.

As I understand it, the site is a reflection, not only of what I have to say, but who I am as an individual. It is not specifically a party or governmental site. It is not funded as an activity by any organisation. It is certainly not the only means by which I communicate, nor for the moment, the most critical forum to which my energies are tied. It features my views on modern liberalism, several links to liberal, political and related sites, it has the Euology to Bobby Kennedy in Real Audio and it gives some indication of the sorts of things I believe in, the sorts of things that inspire me, the sorts of things on which you might be able to academically decide, whether we may or may not have empathy with one another’s ideas.

My audience is not the thrill seeker or the critic. It is the people whom I seek to represent because what I have to say, reflects their views too. I am sure I am not alone in saying that the principle purpose and key function of my website, is not to impress web developers. Aside from establishing a presence by which people may seek to get to know me, is that it is another means through which they are enabled to reach out, speak out or get in contact with me. At present, I receive anything between ten and 50 e-mails a day of a serious nature – easily encompassed in a working day, generated as a result of www.vicnet.net.au/~victorp

Despite its old hat address, people still seem to find it accessible.

I resent that my critic, a journalist and academic, designated me a “wanker” without bothering to e-mail Mr Clift, or utilise the web, to find out more about our 5 years of contact and collaboration, nor did he bother to use more conventional technology, such as the telephone, to ring me.

As I understand it, the telephone works both ways.

A Revolutionary Period

We live in a revolutionary period. The internet, data-mining, artificial intelligence, cheaper telecommunications are fundamentally changing commerce, companies and, dare I say, politics and government. However, those who hold power under any paradigm resist the new unless they can reinvent themselves and politics is similar, in that sense, to the media institutions.

In Australia there are many politicians working to come to grips with the internet and other technologies changing our working lives and those of our constituents. But, it’s not just their websites which demonstrate the depth of their thinking and the interesting innovations.

In my view, the internet and related technologies pose any number of challenges to the political system and to politicians themselves, as individuals and members of an established system:

  • Will the Westminster system be robust enough, or versatile enough, to cope with technologies which allow the constituents to become rapidly informed and rapidly respond?
  • How do politicians and their staff resources cope with escalating constituent contacts through email?
  • How do politicians and their staff resources cope with dramatically increasing volumes of information and data sent by lobbyists and community activists?
  • How do we make sure that both the constituent and parliamentarian get maximum value from their electronic contact?
  • Can we institute modern knowledge management practices and time management practices into a Westminster system, inherently old economy in its nature, that matured around 1750?
  • What makes a good politician’s website? Should the website capture data through cookies or other means? Or should we be raising awareness and opposing these things, for their privacy implications?
  • What are good direct email practices?
  • What resources should the government make available to Memebers of Parliament to adopt convenience technology – handheld computers, digital cameras, WAP phones?

There are probably hundreds of other questions that can be thrown around.

US President Bill Clinton states: “I believe in the Information Age, the role of government is to empower people with the tools to make the most of their own lives, to tear down the barriers to that objective, and to create the conditions within which we can go forward together.”

This Then Is What It Means To Be A WEO

I am proud that the strong legacy of the Coalition Government so far, remains intact – www.vic.gov.au continues to be one of the best government websites in the Wired world. It enjoys this status, not because of intense graphics, but because of the boring back-end re-engineering that commenced here earlier than it had anywhere else on the planet, enabling the citizen to directly transact business with the State,

24 Hours A Day 7 Days A Week.

How does one establish WEO cred? To be a true WEO you need to have some sense of the direction that democracy and our institutions are headed in. You need to understand the web as more than just an electronic soapbox for your views, or a convenient means by which you gain cheap publicity. You need to be a person who can see the value in a challenge to tradition and traditional ways of doing things.

No mean feat from within an institution as old and conventional as Parliament and when there are no easy answers to the way in which politicians around the world should best harness the power of the internet.

Email

It is not uncommon for an MP to wind up his working day, corresponding and conversing with constituents and citizens whose interest we feel we may assist with.

One of the more humorous aspects has been that people don’t believe that I – a real ‘live’ politician am actually making contact. They can be very surprised when I phone them or write to them to discuss their concerns. Sheer disbelief is a common response and if the email was aggressively written, sheepishness.

Either way, all this contact keeps me on my toes.

Legislation for the Internet Age

The opportunity to enhance our civic life through the web is exceptional. It is early times yet, but harvesting the ideas of citizens and applying them in government and commerce could carry our growth figures well beyond 5%. How many ideas are wasted because people do not have easy and accessible ways of communicating them to government? How many ideas are wasted because we haven’t had the resources to explore and test them?

WEO’s Are The People Challenging The Limits Of Parliamentary Ways.

Parliamentary mechanisms developed for the purpose of enabling citizens to participate and contribute to the workings of MP’s and policy makers in the past, been fairly hit and miss. They aren’t suited to meeting the time constraints and the needs of the average person in the street. The internet enables all of us to communicate more freely, more directly and more effectively about the issues that are important to us, without having to go to too much formality or effort.

Changes which we WEO’s have effected include outwardly imperceptible improvements to legislative drafting and publishing. We have sought to alter inefficient ways in which the Parliament conducts some of its business, (papers are no longer bound in large folios for examination for example – they are now simply posted on the web.) We have changed the way that submissions are received, and in what range of formats, even the fundamental way that committee business is conducted. Most importantly, politicians, from all sides are interacting and sharing ideas in ways that they have never done before.

Of all the roles a WEO plays, I think the role of the legislator governing the development of cyber law is easily the most difficult one.

In the Al Pacino movie, City Hall, the Mayor of New York (the Pacino character), John Pappas, says:

“Okay, Pappy. Think of it as colours. There’s black and there’s white, and in between there’s mostly grey. That’s us. Now grey is a tough colour. Because it’s not as simple as black and white. And for the media – certainly not as interesting. But – it’s who we are.”

These words really struck me as summing up where we are today at the end of the 20th Century, and how to deal with our new and ever-changing technologies and their effect upon society. One thing is certain – the challenges for the policy makers and legislators are more complex and ‘grey’ than ever. With the growth of Internet usage, the role of the legislator becomes more relevant and more immediate.

At the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology, Baroness Thatcher said:

The role of government, seeing that [the Internet] can be used for good or bad, is to try to implement a proper legal framework in which the restraints we impose are clearly defined and justified on the grounds of public policy, and they can be put into practice effectively. Now that is easier said than done.

First, there are uses of the Internet, which although offensive to many people, could not be made illegal because there’s not sufficient reason for so doing. There are things which you and I would call immoral. We would like to bound them. There’s not sufficient ground for us to make illegal, because that would be a constraint on freedom.

Second, as not all legislators are fully conversant with the Internet, their remedies are sometimes not directed to the specific misuse, but they tend to be of a wider, more general nature, not the specific fault which we wish to cut out. They cut out a whole class of things, and indeed make far too much illegal, which is wrong and the third difficulty, if you are trying to legislate for information technology, is it is many years some will say light years ahead of the capacity of law makers to comprehend and then address the problems.”

Recently I undertook an Intellectual Property in Cyberspace course, run by Harvard University, over the Internet. I was particularly impressed by the views of Professor Fisher, of the Harvard Law School, in relation to the problems facing law makers:

“Should the creators of electronic databases be able to demand compensation from users or copyists? What degree of similarity between two plots or two fictional characters should be necessary to trigger a finding that one infringes the other? Should computer software be governed by copyright law, patent law, or a sui generis legal regime? Should we expand or contract intellectual property protection for ‘industrial designes’ – the configurations of consumer products? Should time-sensitive information (eg sports scores, news, financial data) gathered by one party be shielded from copying by others? Many other, similar problems demand attention.

How much help to the lawmakers confronting such issues are the extant theories of intellectual property? Can one derive from those theories solutions to the problems of the day?

One implication of the division of theorists into contending camps is that a lawmaker will obtain no guidance whatsoever unless and until he selects one of the four approaches. In other words, he must decide at the threshold which of the four sets of premises he finds most persuasive. Assume that he has done so. He now finds himself surrounded by writers of the same philosophic orientation. Can he relax, listen, and learn what he should do?

The answer, regrettably, is no. Each of the four approaches proves incapable of generating determinate answers to specific questions. The reasons why vary, but none is able to tell lawmakers what to do.”

So this is why we seek to interact with our peers and constituents, our stakeholders and the people who choose to show that they care. This is why we establish a web presence and prepare to accept technical criticisms about their appearance on the chin.

We realise we are feeling our way down a corridor whose lengths are not illuminated, whose twists are unanticipated, whose estimate cannot be gauged.

The fact is that WEO’s are part and parcel of the development and emergence of the information age. WEO’s are answering the call to lead the way and provide support for business, to lead the way and provide support for citizen centred services, to reinvent government in significant and imperceptible ways. We have answered the call for improved accessibility, have added the notch of 24 x 7 online service delivery to our belts www.maxi.com.au and are planning for the democracy of the future. So what if it’s done using a graphically average web page?

Note from Stephen Mayne: Nice piece Victor. I think it was probably me who put the wanker description in but you have dealt with it well and we’re all richer for the debate. We’ll get Hugh Martin to give his thoughts on it next week.