Here to Stay?

It's already showing the signs of a classic break-up. While you should be enjoying the warm glow of the honeymoon period, you're already starting to have naggy little doubts. Is he still committed to this relationship?

He hardly calls any more and when he does, he wants to talk about completely different things than the thoughts you used to share. You're already getting the feeling that maybe it was the conquest that was interesting him, the thrill of the chase. Now he's got you, he's losing interest. You're not the first to be seduced and abandoned like this, but it's the thought that it could have been different this time that makes the hurt so peculiarly painful.

Over the last eighteen months, Barack Obama and his team have mastered the internet, raising unprecedented amounts of cash and raising awareness, enthusiasm and registrations amongst the digitised populace with a savvy mix of rich and social media. And in that media, he seemed to be listening. The comments button always had a tick in it and people cheerfully gave their support with varying degrees of coherence, but high levels of enthusiasm.

Of all politicians, Obama got it. Here was a channel where he could communicate directly, and not worry about being edited or misquoted. Those speeches on YouTube, those calls to action on -- all delivered just the way the Party wanted it, with no worries about how a piece of media commentary might slant it. And the recruitment -- one by one, neighborhood by neighborhood -- was exemplary and transformational. Here was a man who understood how to change the way politicians and the electorate communicated.

But mastery of internet campaigning is not the same as delivering government via the web. It's a different dynamic altogether.

Making promises in campaigns is easy -- someone makes a demand, you just grin and make a vague statement..


Make that same statement in government and it's "go on then, get on with it."

A promise made in government means delivery, and once you open a digital dialogue with electors, you need to have a mechanism to deliver. Otherwise, those promises become hollower and hollower and you end with disillusion. And does any government have the system to transfer digital dialogue into delivery?

And should it?

Now, I ought to place this skepticism into context. During a relatively short, if occasionally noisy stint as head of digital communications for the Prime Minister, there wasn't a lack of will to try new ways of directly communicating with the citizens of the UK. But it didn't necessarily lead to a higher quality of debate or better outcomes.

In some ways, this wasn't surprising, the digital door was eased open gingerly and never quite fully. There were petitions, and the first YouTube channel (for a world leader), iTunes, and, subsequently, Flickr and Twitter. Through these channels you can find out what your politicians are up to and you can watch and read what the policies are. And through some of those channels you can tell the Prime Minister what you think -- sometimes in great detail on very specific matters. We tried, we communicated to millions and, sometimes, people even liked the message. But then what? After the message, what do you want? Action?

Because if you want action, there's processes -- legislative bodies to go through, hundreds of years of democratic tradition to deal with. Just because there's a loud, well-organised campaign on the internet that has given you a headache, that doesn't mean you're obliged to do something about it. Millions have signed a Facebook page? Millions more haven't, so who's right?

And for some the people who embody the processes and benefits of the traditional structure, the internet and its noisy adherents can be an irritant, to be sidestepped as much as possible.

They look at the internet and they just see noise -- and often it's not as if the arguments are nuanced. It's more likely to be "stop it" or "start it," with no discussion of what to do after you've stopped it, or how you pay for starting it. Anything that tries to map out strategy or depth -- well that requires commitment and too many of us aren't very good at that.

The danger is, therefore that you're left with a channel without a place in the governance of the nation, and that's just going to atrophy into noise, a grouching culture. Fine for judging the mood of a certain sector of the populace, but not a way of legislating by plebiscite -- or of judging the will of the entire nation fractured by the digital divide.

And what does a president with 4 years ahead of him need of your opinions anyway? The technological feedback he wants is a cross in a box on a ballot paper. He's got that, so why should he want to hear from you again til he has to?

There may be grand talk of how, as a nation, you are in this together and how he needs your voices and your commitment, but when you start to disagree with him, do you think he'll still be listening? Like all politicians, Obama wants your approval, and when your approval starts to waver, so will his commitment to a system that allows you to express your growing doubts. And when you start to disagree outright, those Obama-backed discursive platforms might just start to slide off the front pages of his websites.

Now there's a counter-argument to this skepticism. It's true that for all the page impressions, videos watched, petitions signed and files downloaded, in my time in Downing Street the only times that the inner circles really sat up and noticed the effect the web was having - was when it made the TV news. But the internet is an increasing factor in the decision-making process, and while a long way from being the main driver, initiatives such as those championed by the Sunlight Foundation in the US and the playful experimentation of competitions like Show Us a Better Way in the UK, are glimmers of long term structural reform.

We have a long way to go though. At the end of a recent presentation to a senior group of UK civil servants about the power of the internet to connect government to the people and the use of social media for powerful two-messaging, I asked for questions.

A young man leaned forward and asked earnestly:

"The internet," he said, "is it here to stay?"

Well, Barack, is it?

Jimmy Leach is editorial director for digital for The Independent, in the UK. He came to that via his role as director for digital at Freud Communications. Prior to that he was Head of Digital Communications in the Prime Minister's Office, having worked at the Guardian for a number of years. He is married with two and lives in a very chilly house in south London.