We’re in need of new era in how people consult with authority — campaigning and lobby groups have gotten so good at getting people to use e-mail or other messaging systems that anyone soliciting input needs to have a large staff and a good process for dealing with the deluge. MPs are cracking under the strain of response.

I commented on a post on Michael Grimes’s blog (about an direct-MP-connection iPhone app) recently (8/7/10):

“the problem with online consultation exercises isn’t the collecting but the bottleneck at the place where the comments are directed. Patient Opinion [for example] has a very different form of consultation — wide, ongoing, informal — to direct contact with MPs or any public figure. It’s much harder to see how they [MPs] can scale without the burden of feedback or any contact back becoming too much.

In more conversational consultation those receiving the comments need to have the skills to be able to deal with comments that are possibly not responses to direct questions, but may also be part of a wider conversation. There also need to be feedback mechanisms in place.

We’re already seeing MPs particularly complaining of being buried under the weight of campaigning emails — something will snap if we (they, someone!) don’t think about how to deal and respond with mass communication.”

The problem is no longer establishing communication, but managing it. Maybe we need to mature a little and be realistic (much in the same way the media need to) — if communication takes minimal effort then it must deserve minimal effort in response. Maybe we can’t expect the same response to an automated email (or a Tweet, or joining a Facebook group or signing a petition) as we would to a bespoke email or conversation — but how to make sure response is proportionate?

Petitions try to give a central point of contact and collate strength of feeling, but they are binary — you have to agree with everything the petition says, there’s no conversation or discussion.  And they can easily be dismissed, as we’ve seen on the Number 10 petition sheet.

How does someone in authority really gauge strength of feeling, how do they  respond — is conversation even possible at this scale? It may be, but new mechanisms and a rethinking of expectation are needed.

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