FOCUS: INFORMATION SERVICES - Logging on to the political arena/Knowledge is power in politics but thanks to the major political parties’ acceptance of electronic delivery systems, almost anyone can gain access to Parliamentary information. Peter

Information is power and since power is the raison d’etre of politics, information systems play a crucial role in gaining the political edge.

Information is power and since power is the raison d’etre of

politics, information systems play a crucial role in gaining the political

edge.



But like all power tools, information needs to be carefully maintained and

controlled to be effective.



The flow of information in the political arena is becoming increasingly

frenetic and diverse and the internet is one tool which is transforming

its delivery. Philip Fraser, head of research at public affairs agency

APCO, says ’The internet really took off during the election. It’s a fast

delivery system, the Treasury is on the net and Gordon Brown’s speech to

the City was available within minutes on the internet. It’s not just a

novelty to have a web site now, it’s a prerequisite.’



So which are the hot political web sites to look out for ? Fraser says:

’The Central Office of Information web site is the best starting point for

Government information and gives you access to sites for the various

regulatory bodies. The Office of Fair Trading site provides all its

consumer information and has publications and press releases which we can

download.



’The Evening Standard site is always useful since the business page is

available at 10am and it’s updated four times a day. The US government web

site is always another good starting point and sites such as the US Food

and Drug Administration are useful to see what is happening in the US and

how it could affect our clients.’



Sophie Ludgate, account executive in government affairs at

Burson-Marsteller, says: ’I have my computer customised with favourite web

sites, such as Government departments, for their home sites and press

releases. I use the House of Commons site for information on order papers,

select committees and proceedings in the two chambers. The Parliamentary

Channel has a web site which gives news from Parliament on that day and

biographies of all the MPs. But it’s only basic information and doesn’t

give you details of parliamentary private secretaries or special advisers.

However, it is useful as a signpost for other sites. I use the internet

more like a library or a general reference source and use many other

diverse sources to get the facts.’



But web sites are only as good as the information providers which set them

up. Ludgate says that information on the internet can be out-of-date

compared with wire service information. ’We would like to see many of the

European web sites updated more often, and the speed of getting

information on there is one of the things I would like to see improved,’

she says.



Duncan Mackenzie-Reid, account director at Charles Barker Public Affairs,

uses web sites to discover interesting background, as opposed to purely

factual information.



’The Open Government web site on which Hansard appears is useful,

particularly the Government consultation documents. Others are the think

tanks’ sites such as Demos, The Social Marketing Foundation, the Institute

of Social Policy Research and the Adam Smith Institute,’ he says.



The growth of the internet has meant that professional information

providers such as Reuters and Financial Times Information are competing

with a relatively easy form of access which is generally available free of

charge. But professional services retain an advantage with their

guaranteed round-the-clock updates and now Reuters and Financial Times

Information are putting their paid-for systems on the internet.



Michael Pritchett, new media manager at Financial Times Information, says:

’Increasingly, we will be able to deliver through the internet so that you

can pick up information wherever you are. We can provide e-mail services

to customers, constantly updating them when there is something important.

We also have alerting services and each time you log-on you get an update.

But the internet is only one delivery method for us.



’Professionals require good, sourced information. It’s not the delivery

method that is important - you’re paying for the research that has gone

into it. For instance, not all countries have the same freedoms that we

do, and although governments of many countries are providing information

on the internet they are not necessarily providing the full facts. News

organisations can do that and people are willing to pay for it,’ he

adds.



Paul Waddington, marketing manager at Reuters Business Information, says:

’With a wire service you have direct private subscribers and the service

is guaranteed. We provide news by the second, just as it is breaking, as

well as customised services.



’For example, the Finnish Parliament takes Reuters Business Briefing which

is customised for them. They receive 50 different channels going to 650 of

their members of parliament and staff. They specify what they want on each

channel - one contains publications from around the world and another has

news on particular countries.’



Growing interest in matters European has resulted in greater demand for

Reuters’ EU Briefing service.



’This is a customised interface, specially designed for enquiries into EU

issues. You can be very specific when using it to do searches. Keying in a

simple word search such as ’pollution’ can bring up all the EU information

on that subject which cannot be done so easily from other sources,’ says

Waddington.



’The service is integrated with Celex, the database of all European

legislation in its full text form. So you can get the latest news and also

refer to the full EU documents. You can also find out about pending

legislation because there is a diary showing what is coming up.’



Mackenzie-Reid says: ’We often use Reuters Business Briefing and FT

Profile to look at periodicals and national and regional newspapers in

order to build up profiles of politicians. They are also useful to see

what coverage clients are receiving in the press. When you want to build

arguments, for and against, on a particular issue it’s useful to look at a

wide range of publications. For example, a client might be considering a

merger and we may need to look into monopoly issues and see what

journalists are saying about it.’



He adds that programmes such as Today on Radio 4 can be important since

they often help set the political agenda for the day, attracting key

spokespeople with subjects often considered in depth.



CD-ROMs can be space-saving, quick tools for searching through detailed

historic information. APCO’s Fraser says: ’We use the Polis CD-ROM and

on-line enquiry system for present and past information on parliamentary

proceedings, early day motions, everything in the House of Commons. With

the internet you need to know where you are going first, so these various

systems can work in tandem.’



For those who prefer to have information fed to them there is a

proliferation of specialist television channels such as Reuters, EBN and

the Parliamentary Channel. The latter provides coverage of all the debates

in both Chambers, and a number of select committees. But the problem with

all of these sources is that there is a limit to how much information the

brain can take before succumbing to the audio visual assault and battery

of information overload.



As information sources proliferate, the problem is no longer lack of

information but identifying the channels that are most effective for your

organisation.



WEB WARS: LABOUR AND CONSERVATIVES FIGHT ON THE SITES



The last election gave the main political parties the opportunity to beef

up their web sites. Now they are considering the great leap forward for

these sites as they reinvent themselves for their new roles.



The Labour site is in a state of development and in June there was still a

lot of election material which needed pruning. The party is in the process

of switching from promoting itself as an Opposition Party to providing

information on Government business.



Jo Moore, Labour’s chief press and broadcasting officer, explains: ’The

site was specially designed for the election. There was huge access then

and we are continuing to see that, but now we’re examining the future.



Now we are using it for Government announcements and are discussing the

future of the site.’



The current site greets you with a colour picture of Blair with the

options of News, Views, Information, How to Help, Contacts and a How to

Join form.



It also provides information on Computing for Labour which pools the

resources of members who have a PC to develop the Party’s channels of

communication.



In June the Conservative party web site seemed unphased by the loss of the

election, and showed a smiling John Major, declaring: ’I look forward to a

bright Conservative future - happy web-surfing.’ The site outlines net

policy saying: ’The internet is an important new initiative to engage the

bedrock of the party in the development of new policies.’ Geoff Boon,

Conservative Party spokesman, expands on this: ’During the election we had

public information with manifestos, press releases and details of MPs and

an area where local associations and candidates could get the campaign

guide, research department briefs and daily briefing documents. We also

distributed information by e-mail to candidates.



’We will develop information delivery systems using more interactive

techniques. We will be able to access a greater range of the population

but the technology of getting connected remains difficult. The ultimate

could soon be a box on the desk, only then will the internet gain mass

appeal.’



Web addresses for the main political parties are:



http://www.lab.org.uk



http://www.conservative-party.org.uk



http://www.libdems.org.uk



HANSARD: PAPER V ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS



Despite the much-vaunted paperless office, we are destroying more trees

than ever. While offices are increasingly receiving, delivering and

storing information electronically, paper-based systems usually exist

alongside and more information is appearing on CD-ROM.



But Duncan Mackenzie-Reid of Charles Barker Public Affairs points out:

’Information on computer is useful for doing individual searches but often

you are considering many clients and you can think more tangentially when

looking at the paper edition, it allows more time to think.’



The traditional directories such as Vacher’s Parliamentary Companion and

Dod’s Parliamentary Companion are likely to continue to have a role to

play. But whether on CD-ROM or paper, some information soon becomes out of

date and has to be backed from more current sources.



The old boundaries between paper and electronic systems are becoming

blurred rather than the latter replacing the former. For example, back

copies of newspapers worldwide are increasingly available electronically

from service providers. Hansard, the daily report of Parliamentary

proceedings, presents an interesting example of change as it is expanding

rapidly electronically while maintaining its paper edition.



Editor Ian Church explains: ’Last October we started putting proceedings

in the Chambers on the internet. When the various standing committees get

going again we will be including these and we are looking at putting Bills

on the internet.’



The printed version of Hansard costs pounds 5.00 and comes out a few hours

before the free internet version each day. But Church is more concerned

about disseminating information widely than maximising the return from the

paper-based edition.



Hansard proposes to build an archive of up to two years of back copies on

the internet. A more extensive range of back copies of Hansard are

available on CD-ROM. Church is sure that the printed version will

continue.



’I think we will always want paper. It has advantages so there are no

plans to discard it. So far sales of the printed version have not dropped.

With the internet it appears that we are gaining new readers.’



The traditional place for the public to find Hansard was in the local

library although funding cuts have meant that many have now cancelled

their subscription. However, libraries are increasingly offering computer

facilities and access to the internet.



Church says: ’The general public does not have much access to the Internet

yet. But we are making huge investment in the future and I think that in

ten years’ time it will be very common. For the House of Commons this is a

pretty revolutionary move.’



ANALYSES: POWER TO THE POLLSTERS AND MEDIA ANALYSTS



During elections, maintaining an accurate, up-to-the-minute flow of

information becomes critical.



Jo Moore, Labour’s chief press and broadcasting officer, says: ’During the

election there was a team of six, along with volunteers, providing us with

information on how things were appearing in the media. We were able to

take action if we were not getting coverage or if we needed to counter

attack, depending on the issue.



’Polls were done on a private basis. We had an unrivalled in-house team

and used Broadcast Monitoring for our regional service, looking at the

broadcast media and reporting to us throughout the day.’



At Conservative Central Office Alex Aitken, head of the press office,

says: ’We looked at all aspects of our communications strategy, news and

broadcast, evaluating day-to-day and polling when required.



’We responded to the agenda of the day, for example John Major highlighted

the position in Europe in response to the media agenda.’ When asked if he

believed that the key messages had got across he would only say: ’We are

reviewing this in the light of the election result.’



During the election, media analysts issued regular updates on coverage of

the campaigns to private clients. Peter Christopherson of media analysts

CARMA says: ’The parties themselves had to react on a minute-by-minute

basis so such media evaluation is not enough for them. But for our

clients, media analysis can show which issues are driving coverage and

which parties are proactive. For example, were issues on say, education

initiated by Labour and reacted to by Conservatives?’



Media analysts CMS/Precis tracked the entire election for the first

time.



Joint managing director Fergus Hampton explains: ’Last time we only

covered short periods of the campaign, this time we focused more strongly

on areas such as personalities and issues and were better able to see the

trends driving the campaigns.



’Half way through we saw a big change for Labour: it was fighting on more

fronts than the Conservatives who seemed to get stuck on Europe.’ The

pollsters had a better election this time round. According to Andy Brown,

director of research at Gallup, the 1992 election, when nearly all of the

pollsters got it wrong, ’was a big turning point and everyone had to

re-evaluate. Now we make more use of the telephone which gives a far more

accurate sample.’



This is because in 1992 many people refused to admit to being Tory voters

when asked face-to-face, but this is not such a problem on the

telephone.



While the parties always profess not to take any notice of the public

opinion polls, Brown counters: ’They say that but they do their own

private polling and are always the firstto want to get hold of our polls.’



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