My recent frustration at various conferences and unconferences over the last few months has been compounded by the fact that I am already struggling along the path of setting and helping embed a digital engagement strategy in the Home Office. I have to admit to being a little fed up of the endless hectoring – as it is seeming to be now – about how we *must* do this, we *must* engage properly where the communities are already collaborating. I think we all know this now – and many of us attending and speaking at these events are facing the realities of actually making this happen, and we need to do more to support each other. (I am particularly rubbish at this, not through belligerence, rather through busy-ness and actually struggling to find the time to share – hence my use of this blog and twitter account to do this in my *free time* rather than formally sharing the work we do).
What we are up to in the Home Office
In the Home Office we are about half way through the website rationalisation work, converging and migrating content slowly but surely to the decreed websites: Directgov, businesslink.gov.uk, corporate sites and the Police portal. Although this policy has not been welcomed with open arms necessarily, it has been an absolute boon in enabling the digital strategy to be embedded throughout the organisation – rather than being a *thing* that a group of people in the e-comms directorate do. I am not sure how it would have worked otherwise. (This sounds like I am far further along the path than I am – this is still in principle, but the path seems finally clear).
Ignoring the actual development of a digital strategy in a department – really not too much of a challenge as the Cabinet Office and COI have set out extremely detailed and good policies for us to work from; and really it is simply a matter of tailoring that guidance to the work of the department and its agencies – making it something that is integral to all digital communication takes all of the effort and talent of a major change management and internal communication programme.
Thus my gratitude to the work already mandated to take place with the convergence and rationalisation of all government websites: the first giant step has happened.
How we are embedding the principles of digital engagement
In the Home Office we will be drawing the strategy of digital engagement down through every part of the department: policy, strategy, marketing, press office and the communications directorate. The disciplines separated into:
Policy: listen, monitor and engage (broadcasting consultations through all available channels as well as commentable documents)
Marketing: monitor, broadcast and engage
Press office: broadcast, listen, monitor and engage (as they would currently with online and offline press)
Communications directorate: broadcast, monitor and educate the rest of the department in appropriate use of social tools (by social tools this year I mean blogging, micro-blogging, commenting, creating commentable format documents, wikis and networks)
It is not quite as linear as this, Press Office and Comms will alert Policy to anything that may require intervention/response; and collaboration across the piece at timely intervals will enable the department to quickly learn how to use the internal and external community to do its job better. Nor is it as defined, we are working on this and need to learn more, from other departments.
Where are the current pressure points?
Press officers seem confused as to how they should best utilise any digital engagement strategy, bringing in expert advice – absolutely right IMHO – as some of the social tools are broadcast mechanisms as much as they are for collaboration. This is something we are working through, hence my previous post about what is currently happening across UK government departments, specifically Press Offices. The common tool being twitter. Our latest thinking is:
- use a dashboard to monitor online conversation, trends and influencers
- be the owners of departmental tweeting – twitter is definitely a broadcast medium and the press office should be experts in its use and be aware of all tweeters in the dept (professional tweeting only, not those who have their own personal accounts obviously)
But this is something that is still being explored and I would love to have a conference/unconference specifically around press office and digital engagement
Education of communication teams
With the best will in the world, those who are working currently in online communcation are not necessarily totally up to speed on everything that is happening in the digital engagement space – but they need to be. For a start, they should all have a twitter account; read blogs or at the very least use rss feeds to keep abreast of news that interests them personally; be sent to conferences that talk about this stuff as a part of their job; be given access to the sites that they need in order to ensure they are confident in advising the rest of the department on what works best in which online communcation challenge.
In the Home Office, we have now finally – and only just – added a permanent agenda item to the weekly meeting on recent developments in digital engagement; and we are going to be setting out some simple things for people to do as a part of their current jobs to enable the necessary skills to be developed. (This does not mean going on half day courses on how to use twitter). It does mean following, reading and learning from people such as Steph Gray, Dave Briggs, Neil Williams, Julia Chandler, Stephen Hale – to name but a few (and probably annoy the rest) – who are doing this brilliantly in departments across Whitehall, almost daily developing new tools and methods for collaboration/engagement.
Again, this is work in progress and something that we are just beginning to address.
To have a digital engagement strategy that does not include having a single entry point to all of our raw, non-personal data would be frankly bonkers. We are working towards this but the issue is not an unwillingness to do so; rather no single ownership or knowledge of all of the data sets we are currently publishing across the corporate and agency sites.
We have now drawn together an informal team across the department, whose job it is to gather bits of this picture – and we are in the process of deciding whether to crowdsource the information with the digital community as well as this *team*, or to create the single entry point and just add data sets as we find them (which will take longer).
We are seeking help from Andrew Stott, director of digital engagement in the Cabinet Office, and the power of information taskforce to nut this one – and I will post on this separately when we have a plan.
Devolution of trust
This was the most interesting thing that has come out of recent discussions: managing the risk of having devolved broadcasting and engagement – this seems to be one of, if not the, biggest concern. No longer is it as simple as marketing doing the broadcast ‘sell’, press office managing the influencers and being the corporate voice and e-comms sorting the websites, with policy and strategy units setting the priorities and requirements. Now everyone needs to re-evaluate their role in an ever-changing consumer market, and trust that – with education and a certain amount of live testing – all colleagues do have the skill and nous to operate in this environment.
We are nowhere near resolving this one – and we are actively looking to other departments and governments worldwide for guidance.
This is not something that is new, nor something that requires a ‘unit’ dedicated to *doing* it. It is simply a discipline that needs incorporating into current working plans and practices. In order to make it work well, it is necessary for digital engagement to be just an alternative method of behaviour that in time becomes the norm. Hence why it requires the principles of change management in order to be a success – as no one can really get away with assuming that someone else is going to do it for them.
But this takes time, something that the already lean civil service holds as a premium and any extra demand on a person or unit’s time comes at the cost of something else: and in my experience of the civil service – dropping anything will have a measurable impact on something.
Therefore digital engagement needs to be of proven and mandated strategic priority, with measurable benefit, in order to make this something that anyone can take seriously.
This can only be achieved by education and awareness in the senior civil service, strategic and policy teams. This is a deal-breaker, and one of the greater challenges.
Concerns over job security
As website rationalisation takes hold, so online communcations teams begin to feel disillusioned that their roles in departments are either feeders for the franchise teams running content on Directgov, or putter-uppers of corporate content on the official departmental website. Not exciting particularly, nor challenging and career-developing.
Naturally, attention is focussing on the digital engagement world, and there is a decided move towards *ownership* of social media. Any new project that uses social tools, challenges the status quo, involves a map (:)), or is at least vaguely more interesting than the convergence of content, triggers a pinata-bashing type scramble for the work. This is not in itself a problem, but – and here I risk being beaten at work on Monday – the scramble does not necessarily result in rational thought as to whether the idea in itself was a good one. The huge risk here is that projects are taken on and assigned simply because they are different and engaging, rather than whether they are right.
This can be mitigated by rapid education of online communcation teams, increased internal communication and… time. But again – this is an issue that needs to be addressed somehow.
The challenges that I have listed above are ones that I am particularly interested in resolving publicly (as it were). And would welcome conferences/unconferences/geek dinners/conversation in addressing. Apologies if this seems very last year, but the reality is that however exciting new stuff is – it’s not as challenging (therefore exciting) as creating the right environment in the first place that will utilise future development as a part of its daily work.
PS If anyone is reading this who works in the Home Office and is bewildered as to what I am talking about, seeing as there is nothing apparently happening where you work, do hunt me down on the gsi email and ask me. This is all WIP and there is much to be done (as you can see) before we achieve the nirvana I have set out.