- 1 Dec 09, 13:50 GMT
The Conservatives have obtained another leaked document, a government report on public sector IT.
This leak isn't likely to generate lurid headlines, as the report on transforming government by using "interactive (web 2.0) tools and processes, cloud computing technology and service-oriented architecture (SOA)" isn't exactly dynamite.
Still, the Conservatives have come up with quite a clever idea - they've put the document online and are inviting the public to comment on every part of it as they frame the party's response.
They've built a website called Make IT Better, and say their aim is " to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed".
They're calling this "crowdsourcing" policy - but how far is it likely to go and will it prove a major feature of political engagement from now on?
The Conservatives say they've already used this idea back in 2007 to enlist the public's help in shaping their manifesto, with a site called Stand Up, Speak Up.
Their online communities editor Craig Elder told me that experiment had worked well, with members of the public contributing all kinds of ideas which would eventually play a part in next year's manifesto.
But the government says it's already used the same crowdsourcing techniques. The Cabinet Office, having dismissed the leak as an early draft of a document that would be published before Christmas, insisted that it had already done plenty to get the public involved in policymaking.
A spokesman pointed to examples such as the Power of Information Taskforce report, which was put online for comments for three weeks before publication, and to The Show Us A Better Way competition, where people were asked to submit ideas for online services.
Politicians in opposition and in government are latching onto the idea of using the web to engage with the wider public.
But, as anybody running any blog will know, there are plenty of dangers inherent in an online conversation. What happens when, instead of helpful contributions from enlightened readers, you are bombarded with vituperative comments from single-issue fanatics?
Having said you'll listen, should you decide policy by the weight of comments you receive? And if you decide that you know better than Dave from Dagenham or Deidre from Dundee what's in the interest of the country, won't they end up feeling worse about you than if you'd never consulted them in the first place?
"You've got to take the risk," says Craig Elder, "you'll get a lot of good stuff when you engage." But he admits that, when it comes to framing policies, "at the end of the day you have to make a decision about what's sensible and what's not".
Next year's general election will see the parties determined to prove that they can use everything from YouTube, to blogs to Twitter to get their message to the public - and, in theory at least, to listen to what voters are saying.
Britain's first truly digital election may mark a profound change in the relationship between politicians and the public. Then again, we may end up finding out that the public would rather just be left alone.
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