Tom Steinberg, MySociety and the Tories

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Tom Steinberg and MySociety. I’m also a fan of the agenda that some in the Tories are pushing with regard to transparency, in particular, transparent budgeting.

But if it it true that William Hague is going to announce the appointment of Tom as a Tory adviser on Internet matters at their conference, then I think it is incompatible with his position as boss of MySociety.

Why? Well, ask yourself what you would have thought if David Miliband had announced Tom as an adviser to the Labour Party last week? There’d have been uproar. To allow yourself to become part of the electoral positioning between the two parties, is at best naive. And to announce his appointment at the Conservative Party conference, is about as partisan as it gets.

MySociety has built a great deal of trust with parliamentarians on all both sides of the House over the last few years. It wasn’t easy. They’re a non-partisan organisation who rightly, take a dig at all sides when required. Yet, despite Tom’s hastily published explanation on his blog tonight, the manner of his appointment will leave an air of mistrust between him and supporters of MySociety who are not Conservatives. That’s a very great shame for him, but more importantly, for MySociety.

20 comments ↓

#1 Tom Steinberg on 10.05.09 at 12:32 am

Hi Tom,

I’m genuinely sorry that the news probably isn’t what you wanted to hear. In particular it makes me sad to receive criticism from someone I’ve had such a good working and informal relationship with.

I would like to stress to your readers that mySociety will continue to be rigorously impartial, just as it was when I was advising ministers like you in the current government. Apart from anything else, I don’t have the power to make mySociety be anything else other than impartial – the staff and volunteers are way too independent minded to allow a dubious change in direction.

Lastly, on the timing of the announcement: I’m afraid I’ll have to go with your ‘at best naive’ analysis. I do not want to damage your party, and I hope you can see I have no interest in doing so.

all the best,

Tom

#2 lilly evans on 10.05.09 at 12:39 am

As a rebel at heart who nevertheless wants to make a difference, I understand the pull of becoming an advisor to likely next government,
However, unless Tom Steinberg suspends his directorship of MySociety it will not be possible for him to maintain that the organisation remains non-partisan. What is there to stop him from using the inside information from the website in advising just one political party?
Protestations that he used to work in the Cabinet Office before setting up the site does not redress the balance in any way.
About the time distinctions are made clear and boundaries remain in place. They are there for a reason, just like unambiguous rules.

#3 JackP on 10.05.09 at 6:28 am

There is a clear difference between providing advice to all parties, or even ‘to whomsoever is in government’ (although I’d be a bit dubious of that), which for me would fit with the ethos of a non-partisan organisation, and that of providing advice to only one specific party (and having a role as an advisor to that party) which very much sees you as being aligned with that party. I would have to agree that – to me as an outsider – it would certainly make me very sceptical about the ‘neutrality’ (or otherwise) of the things Tom runs.

However, as one of the comments on Tom’s site suggests, a lot of the problems could maybe be ameliorated if any and every bit of advice is published so that it is available to any and every political party.

Not that I have anything against people wanting to advise their preferred political party; it’s entirely their decision, and knowing people from the left and right, I don’t see the side opposite me as “the baddies”, just people who have a different opinion. Basically, I just think that providing advice to one party doesn’t really sit with being non-partisan…!

#4 The taint of politics | The Democratic Society on 10.05.09 at 8:13 am

[...] the Conservatives (on a personal basis) on Internet issues. Tom Watson, former Labour minister criticises the move on his blog, and says it’s incompatible with the non-partisan nature of MySociety. Tom on his personal [...]

#5 ismael peña-lópez on 10.05.09 at 8:16 am

There’re people that work for parties and people that work for people and ideas.

I think that, like myself, Tom belongs to the second group.

I personally have strong ideas on how some things could be improved, and have advised on them a political party that I’ve just seldom voted, and offered advise to another party that I’ll never be voting.

There’re people that work for parties and people that work for people and ideas.

#6 TimHood on 10.05.09 at 9:15 am

Tom,

I can understand why you are miffed – seeing the opposition getting headlines for an area where you have already made so much progress must be really annoying.

But I wouldn’t take this too personally. I agree Tom S needs to tread carefully but if he had turned them down, someone else would only have accepted. Then the good work that you and he started would have suffered once the Tories got elected.

I’ve just posted this on Tom Steinberg’s blog so thought I should post it here to…

Tom Watson wrote:

the manner of his [i.e. your] appointment will leave an air of mistrust between him and supporters of MySociety who are not Conservatives

I’m not a Conservative, I’m a My Society supporter and I have no problem with your appointment.

You’ve done a lot of very useful work for the current government, particularly on POI,and it makes absolute sense to me that you advise the next government too. Personally, I’m pleased that there will be an element of continuity.

It also makes sense that you start to give this advice well before a new government comes to power so that it can formulate a coherent set of policies and get to work straight away.

However, I suppose the problem lies in the fact that whether you intend it or not, your move may be seen as an endorsement of the Conservatives. And it is very likely that your ideas, indirectly at least, will be used to try to win votes.

I’m not sure what I would do in your place- who wouldn’t want to advise the party most likely to form a new government? Seriously- who wouldn’t?

The quote from you in the Guardian seems neutral enough too- there’s actually no sense of endorsement really.

I also can’t see that you personally advising the Tories gives rise to any serious doubts over the future impartiality of My Society. Anyone who knows the sites can see that impartiality is so ingrained that it would be next to impossible for you to influence their content and messaging.

On balance, I’d say you are right to accept the Tories offer but should perhaps consider making any data/recommendations that arise openly available to other parties. That may well be what you intended anyway.

Good luck with it- it sounds exciting stuff.

#7 Lee Bryant on 10.05.09 at 9:28 am

Like Tom, I have never been a member or supporter of a party and I find them boring and unhelpful to progress. Luckily for us, the parties are slowly dying anyway, which is why the re-emergence of your New Labour ultra-loyalist stance is so odd. You should be celebrating the fact that ‘one of us’ is in a position to create positive change, regardless of who is in power.

Neutrality is not defined in relation to a UK political party axis – that gives the parties way too much credit and centrality in issues that are almost totally unrelated. Objectively, I think most people can see the Conservatives are closer to the Web than New Labour (you seem to be the exception that proves the rule), so why don’t you just wish Tom well and hope he can help make progress?

Whatever our personal views on the parties, there is a new government coming and, just like in 1997, this provides an opportunity to do things a bit differently. All of us who care about democracy and public services (rather than loyalty to a tainted party flag) should be open to helping the government in waiting make the right choices, rather than get dragged into the kind of unseemly election battle I suspect you and your colleagues will soon begin as part of your last stand.

Your are so much more interesting when focusing on the internet than on the party you represent.

#8 Whitehall Webby on 10.05.09 at 9:39 am

I don’t get the criticism. Tom S has been banging on about some of these ideas in Whitehall for a long time in the hope that they would be taken on board. If the incumbents didn’t listen closely enough to implement them, then what’s wrong with trying to persuade the next lot. Tom is no political animal, but he is clearly passionate about democracy and democratic systems. I don’t think that makes him partisan, just a good citizen.

#9 Francis Irving on 10.05.09 at 9:46 am

(I work for mySociety, but I’m one of the staff who would burn Tom Steinberg at the stake rather than make what we do politically partisan)

Tom is advising the Tories on policy relating to government IT and transparency. But then, he’s spent the last 5 years advising Labour (amongst anyone else who would listen) on the same.

Anyone complaining about this, if they didn’t complain about the No. 10 petitions site or the power of information enquiry, or the power of information task force, is themselves just being partisan.

#10 Tom on 10.05.09 at 9:50 am

mySociety are clearly happy with the announcement. I’ve expressed my views. There’s not a lot else I can add

#11 Tom Steinberg, Tom Watson et al | Mark Pack on 10.05.09 at 10:02 am

[...] For those just coming to this news: Tom Steinberg (of MySociety) fame is going to advise the Conservatives, as explained by him here and criticised by Labour MP Tom Watson here. [...]

#12 William on 10.05.09 at 11:13 am

It’s hard to express how encouraging it is when senior politicians are prepared to listen to the views and advice of outsiders who have no financial axe to grind and nothing to offer other than their expertise. Tom: you’ve always listened in that way, which is rare. Generally it is something that the Opposition (of whatever party) is better at than the serving Government. CIvil Servants see to that.

It is also hard to express how unattractive viscerally partisan politics are to those of us who feel we are not part of that world. It is particularly frustrating when partisan affiliation is used to determine whether one agrees or disagrees with someone or something, with a suspension of the respectful listening and measured self-expression which we need to be discerning.

I think you’re acknowledged as an exemplary political fixer Tom. You’re deeply partisan; you and I differ on that. Fine.

Your ground-breaking achievements as a switched-on Minister are unassailable. It’s also quite clear your work at that time commands a rare degree of respect both among the Opposition and in Whitehall.

I’m delighted that the Tories take Tom Steinberg’s advice, just as I was delighted your administration took his and Ed Mayo’s for the Power of Information. The feeling in my heart about both is the same.

The time may come when you too feel that the most important service you can offer is equally non-partisan.

#13 Will Government 1.0 Swallow Government 2.0? on 10.05.09 at 11:33 am

[...] explained his reasons in a blog post, and got a quite critical answer from Labor MP Tom Watson. Steinberg advised the current government and his move looks like a betrayal to Labor supporters. [...]

#14 MySociety’s Steinberg confirms advisory role with Tories @ Technology News on 10.05.09 at 12:15 pm

[...] decision has been criticised by Tom Watson, the Labour MP and former Cabinet Office minister, who commented of Steinberg’s new role that “I think it is incompatible with his position as boss of [...]

#15 Kenton Ward on 10.05.09 at 12:53 pm

Why is Tom S’s position untenable as an advisor to the Tories but not as an advisor to Labour. I think in this area it is easy to lose track of the benefits to society that Tom S has already achieved – I am positively encouraged that this type of thinking is being sought out by any political party.

#16 Tom on 10.05.09 at 2:46 pm

I think there is a difference, not between advising the Conservatives and advising Labour, but between advising an opposition party and advising the government of the day. The Tories will probably form the next government, and were Tom Steinberg to advise them then, that would be unobjectionable. But being announced as an advisor at their last conference before the general election does at least risk his being used as a campaigning tool (“look how committed to open government we are, we have Tom Steinberg of mySociety on board, vote for us if you want to see his ideas implemented”).

#17 Ganesh Sittampalam on 10.05.09 at 4:34 pm

I must be missing something. Have Labour got him signed up as an advisor, or not? If not, are they unable to do so if they choose?

#18 Jason Kitcat on 10.07.09 at 5:04 pm

Personally I can see a distinction between advising ‘Government’ and a political party. It would have been better if Tom Steinberg could have shown his willingness to advise all interested politicians (as I’m sure he is willing) rather than just the Conservatives. The announcement did come off as partisan but I think it’s PR naivety rather than something deeply partisan or sinister.

So knowing Tom S the little that I do I’m happy to trust his good sense on this but hope that in future he and MySociety can tread a little more carefully on the PR front!

(Disclosure: I’m one of those awful partisan people, being an elected Green Party councillor)

#19 Guido Fawkes on 10.11.09 at 11:29 pm

So when Tom Steinberg turned up at the LabourList meeting was he being naive?

#20 Tom on 10.12.09 at 1:07 pm

History seems to suggest he was, Guido :-)

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