Twice a day, every day, a small group of selected Fleet Street journalists gets together with some senior civil servants for what's known as the "lobby briefing".
The journalists are members of a club known as the lobby, entitled to closer access to the workings of Whitehall than most other journalists. They get to ask the Prime Minister's official spokespeople detailed questions about the issues of the day, and usually get pretty frank answers in return.
What many people don't know is that these briefings are part of the public record. Downing Street takes minutes of them and publishes them, every day, on the Number 10 web site.
Sadly these published summaries are not always easy to find among the mass of pages available on the site. There's also no easy way to send feedback about the issues raised.
A team of volunteers thought the daily briefings were important enough to be given a better home on the net, so they have created Downing Street Says, a web site that republishes the briefing summaries every day in a much more accessible format.
Not only that, but because the site has been set up like a weblog, people reading it can leave their own comments and opinions about what they read.
The site's creators say that the intention is to skirt round spin. Governments are usually accused of spinning the news to suit their political agendas, but the team behind Downing Street Says point out that (ssh, whisper it) newspapers often put their own spin on stories too.
Spin produces counter-spin, claim brings forth counter-claim. Downing Street Says is hopefully "a rather quirky attempt to break that cycle for the benefit of our rather quirky democracy," according to the team behind it.
The decision to turn the Government's daily diatribes into a weblog was because it was simple, understandable by most people, and convenient.
One of the Downing Street Says team, Chris Lightfoot, noted on his own web site: "I am not a crazed techno-idealist and I do not believe that weblogging and webloggers are going to change the world.
"I don't believe that simply sticking government documents into a web log will make any difference to the governance of the country. My hope, however, is that people will find the thing sufficiently interesting that they will write useful comments on it; some readers, with any luck, will be better able to do in-depth research of the issues behind the briefings than lobby journalists."
Apart from make Downing Street's official line easier to keep track of, the site allows ordinary people to add their own comments to each official statement.
So if you agree or disagree with the word from Whitehall, you now have the chance to make your feelings known to the rest of the world.
It's an intriguing form of low-key democratic debate, but one you can take part in without having to attend public meetings or be a member of a political party.
The site is a spin-off from another volunteer-run project called MySociety, a group that has attracted funding for a series of public-spirited web sites designed to allow people to help themselves.
MySociety's administrator Tom Steinberg, himself a former civil servant, explained that Downing Street Says is not one of his organisation's official projects, just a sideline that was thrown together in just two weeks by the volunteers because they thought it was a good idea, and knew it would be easy to do.
Downing Street Says proves that a weblog can be used for something more than just a series of personal rants about bad TV programmes and the weather. Despite some ongoing criticisms of the weblogging "scene", a site like this shows that there are practical, useful applications of the weblog concept.
Filed under: computers
(5th May 2004)