Please mind the gap

After a few weeks of unavoidably engrossing myself in work (and family) I have neglected to blog. This is partly because of busy-ness but also because actually there has not been much to say. I tend to use this blog to showcase what I notice happening around government and the digital space, and for a while it was a struggle to keep up, now however, there is a gentle acceptance, adoption and movement in the direction of the future. The door is no longer being kicked at, it is open; the job now is to help everyone working in departments to mind that gap of knowledge.

What has become glaringly apparent is the widening gap between the use of social tools for big ‘P’ Politics and Politicians, and then public service. This took me by surprise, but explains why I was slightly frustrated by the projects at Rewired State that tended to focus on Politics and Politicians rather than public service data mash-ups that would help us in our lives (I was about to say daily but that might be a reach too far).

My focus is on the public service use of social media within the departments and by civil servants. This tends to cover four areas:

  • policy consultation – big lesson here is that the current digital environment requires earlier engagement (and more dialogue less monologue by the policy units)
  • marketing – obviously the marketing teams are already savvy to the fact that their online audience is collecting in community spaces (and most are supplementing traditional marketing media: TV, radio, print, with targeted online campaigns)
  • Press – press officers were probably the first to be baptised by fire and so now they are running with the crowd and monitoring what is happening in the social media space: following blogs, twitter streams and utilising flickr and YouTube (no comment); my dashboard-creating mates are very busy at the moment. I also think they should be the ones who gatekeep on behalf of the departments where they work, the tweeting/blogging areas of their departments should remain under the watchful eye of the Press Office (Although there is inevitably a cross over here with Political use of social tools)
  • corporate communication: in this I include information that the department/corporate produce for citizens/business/stakeholders/other departments (so transformational government and website rationalisation puts the onus here on Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk) however it is here that the most controversial arguments happen with departmental responsibility to the tax-payer: see the ‘free our data’/’give us RSS’ campaigns and the like (both of which I staunchly support)

That leaves a glaring gap for us working in central government: local government. Centrally this is the remit of the department for communities and local government, but in reality this is a whole different ballgame and the choice to engage using social media would lie with each council. (Not going there right now, that’s a whole other post).

It also has created an interesting conundrum for the strategy units, who are perhaps not used to working in a communication world that changes society/community in quite the same way or at the same speed as the digital revolution has created. More and more I see strategy units re-checking the future, not only because of the economic crisis, but also because of the communication landscape and technical revolution. This is a very exciting place to be.

So… the update is: this is now not something ‘new’, it fits, in a way that Second Life never did; it is an external catalyst for change within departments for comms teams, marketing and press; it is re-energising strategy units and more importantly, or beautifully, it is re-humanising the public service, assisting (IMHO) democracy – not so much for the world of Politics maybe, but in utilising the democratic idealism for making sure our public services work well for us.

It is a good place to be, and although there are battles to be fought and won, creaking changes to be made and mistakes, the doors are firmly open, we just need information gap monitors :) (See what I did there? I created a whole new job title).

Update…

So, the gaps are:

  1. Between Political use of social media and public sector/public service use
  2. Between central and local government
  3. Between the door being open and the knowledge needed to successfully use social tools

Every day I love you less and less

Communication used to be fun for me. Digital communication especially so. In the mid 90s it was a blank sheet of paper, or one only scribbled all over in pencil. Common sense was all it really took to say what you wanted to say, online, to the audience you wanted to reach.

Since the digital revolution of the last decade (at least) – and as ‘organisations’ make their online presence a strategic priority – it has become increasingly hard to keep that clear line of sight.

Take website rationalisation in the UK government. It is a perfectly simple and absolutely right policy. The information was often badly managed, not maintained and completely impossible to find, notwithstanding the cash that was being poured into a plethora of websites.

Put in its simplest form, website rationalisation means that all public sector information for citizens can be found on Directgov, and for business on businesslink.gov.uk (corporate information stays with the departmental websites) by 2011. This requires convergence of the content on the two main sites and throws up the inevitable cry of: what about the old stuff? Clearly, content that was written yonks ago needs to be re-written and there are new style guides to consider &c &c. But we can’t just switch off the old sites, it is wrong to have broken links in recorded answers to PQs/PMQs, that information must remain in perpetuity; and once you go down that path you end up in all sorts of mind-boggling complications. The National Archives provides the obvious solution (but that is so not as simple is it sounds – because I am nice I will not drive you down through that particular ‘detail devil’). Nor can you switch off urls, as to do so risks cyber squatting (on non-.gov domains) by questionable folk.

*sigh* you see… by the time you have wound yourself up in knots about this, the simple pleasure of getting the right information to the right audience is swept up in such a maelstrom, you wish you never started! but you can’t do that…

Then along comes a new lovely clean simple way of communicating online: one that is not simply a push of content…

WEB TWO (twenty if you’re cool)

Oh how attractive this is to the frankly ragged people like me; and to be fair the bemused policy units, communication and marketing teams, press officers and the rest: aching to be relieved from the too complicated discussions around getting the ‘old, flat’ content to the spangly new macro-sites (and keeping the… yes you get where I am going).

And so we have seen the remarkable rise in supremely fantastic new work across the public sector digital arena, using social media tools: monitoring, influencing and engaging in the *hopefully* appropriate digital communities… so much so that I cannot keep up (unless I give up the day job and simply watch).

In the last 18 months the most desired digital skill set has not been the ability to craft and manage online content, rather the canny knowledge of the community manager: someone who understands how everything works NOW, and can steer a department/organisation into utilising crowdsourcing, cloud computing and Open Source software.

This is all well and good; it honestly is the Good Life of the internet: community based communication.

But it’s not that simple.

Now we have embraced social technologies we come to the problem of data. In order to continue with this trend of ‘going to the people where they are communing’ we must listen to what they need – and increasingly those who enable us to utilise these social tools demand that the raw data be free. I don’t mean personal data about you and I, I mean the data feeds. Give it to us, they say, and we will make our own stuff in a way that we understand.

The answer to the eternal cry of ‘How can we engage the young people’? Give them the data and let those who know what they are doing, create something that their peers will understand.

And so we find ourselves in a quandary. Not because anyone is precious about the data, rather it is not ready; often it has not been held in any format that is easily shared; sometimes data sets have been held in different formats and updated by a variety of people; borders and boundaries differ &c &c.

In order to free this data, a cross-government (central and local) audit needs to take place; and as with the rationalisation of content onto Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk, a redrafting and ordering of the raw data needs to occur, APIs created, ratification of the accuracy, maintenance contracts drawn up, SLAs…

*sigh*

It’s just never as simple as it seems, but we need to do this work. All of it.

I just wanted you to understand how complicated this all is :)

Oh and by the way, go and sign up to this: http://www.mashthestate.org.uk/index

#babysteps

PS Apologies to the Kaiser Chiefs… er not sure what I am legally up for when using a song as a blog title.

Does this mean we have now clarified the formula for change?

Willingness of public sector + free public data + revised procurement rules + brilliant talent + global sharing = 21st century way of being a part of our community and engaging with our government?

Willingness of public sector

Well, we have just had the brilliant ’09 UKGovBarCamp (I was not there but all of my mates and colleagues were, so I received updates constantly and have seen some of the outcomes). There was the announcement of the Directgov innovations site, pledged support for the Rewired State: National Hack the Government Day and announcement of another event in April around public engagement online, (by the fabulous Mitch Sava from Polywonk).

None of this is done without integral support and co-operation from the public sector, with civil servants and Ministers engaging at every level: essential to make any of this have any point. So I can safely say that this is not just a nod in the right direction: this is a movement.

Free public data

No I don’t mean details about you and I, I mean stats and the like. Facts and figures that are available as APIs and then we can all make our own minds up. Many people have been campaigning to free our data for years, most publicly The Guardian (for some reason I cannot make this link, just Google ‘free our data’). Now a report is due out, here in Beta for your comment for two weeks. Here are the pages most interesting to the data bit: geospatial data and general data.

I have had many conversations recently about data, and how it will ultimately be the tripping point for everything that we all want to happen. The fear seems to really be that nothing will happen because the risk that by freeing the data and people mashing it up will embarrass some and highlight what is happening in certain areas: for us I guess this really means what might it do to the value of our houses? Well… I have no argument for that, except that if that is what is really happening, then we need to know about it and we need to do something about it: government and community alike to change those figures.

Recommendation 9 and recommendation 13 are the ones to watch for this one.

Revised procurement rules

*sigh* anyone who has seen me so far this year will no doubt have been met by my current rage-inducing rant: procurement/HR/head count – driving me nuts. We need to get some stuff done quickly, with the right people at very little, sometimes no, cost. But we can’t – because of procurement. I know that this was discussed at UKGovBarCamp, and boy wonder has set up a google group to start a conversation about this: but nothing else has happened: this MUST be dealt with, and is missed entirely in the Power of Information report.

Growl

Brilliant talent

I don’t need to say anything about this, there are so many superbly talented people, engaging for free and giving as much as they can to help push this on. These people are essential to making this formula work, but stymied by the procurement issue, often, or a perceived ignorance on the part of the public sector to listen to them. This is changing, but needs some proper attention.

H/T to Tom Watson MP for going out of his way to recognise and support this community.

Global sharing

I am delighted to see that over the past year there has been much International engagement and sharing of ideas, concurrent events and the like. Not enough. But this is where the work of futuregov and their competition is so vital. The Obama messiah-like effect has opened up the global awareness of what it means to have transparent governance, from online to the story of Michelle Obama encouraging people to ask anything they liked about her and her husband, their finances, beliefs – everything (never before seen true transparency).

Although I am not so interested in the political opportunities here, but the lessons we can learn – as we are all breaking new ground. The standards have been set high: once again quoting Obama’s inaugural speech:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Now a commitment to do everything in the light of day is something that all of our politicians say, but I believe that Obama means it: and the people he has appointed to work with him seem to show that he means it. (Macon Phillips and Katie Jacobs Stanton for example).

Conclusion

I *believe* that this is the formula needed, I cannot think of anything else really. I know that Mitch is running his event on online public consultation which will be great – but I think in order to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s we need to do one on procurement rules: this would not be unconference style: this would need to be much more formal. But actually the trend seems to be moving in that direction, the freedom of the barcamp, through the practicality of the Hack Day, through Mitch’s semi-formal event to one aching with bureaucracy (procurement rules) – we need them all to make change happen.

I can’t do a social media toolkit, but Obama can! (Sort of…)

Growl, possibly the only reason he is President of the US and I am not… apart from… (no OK)

Oh this is so hard to say, but Twitter has come up trumps again. The truly remarkable Oli Barrett found this gem.

It is a very wordy document, but do read it, just the headings will do if you know what you are talking about. I am interested most in how this success story can be moved into all online public engagement.

There is a very small but growing bunch of people who work in the public sector over here who have been trying to harness and do exactly what Obama has done: not for campaigning purposes, but for online engagement, digital democracy (although it is often for free and in our own time to be honest).

Hopefully very soon Government here in the UK will step up to the plate and put some serious time, money and resource into utilising the opportunity offered by social media, which I know has become a swear word, even amongst my most beloved. (And by time money and resource, I don’t mean taxing the public purse further, I mean re-directing the bleed).

I am not a geek, nor am I particularly talented at policy-making – but what I do know is how government works, big G government: as in the governing party, as well as the mighty civil service. And what I am so sure of, is that the three powers that run this country:

  • citizens
  • the Labour Party (do I need to date this post?)
  • the civil service

… must pay serious heed to how everyone is learning now. Behaviour is being influenced in a way never before seen; it is simple, it is the power of community.

I have no real idea how best to harness this, but I will give it a damn good try, but I know for certain that it does not depend on the right content management system.

The digital ‘me’ culture is not such a bad thing, you know: we start to think in Facebook/twitter updates, but it is exactly this that enables us to share our lives, and to say ‘I am willing to reduce my hours/days of work to ensure that my neighbour can bring in an income to support their family’. This is something referred to in Obama’s speech:

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

I know that I have become far more conscious of my societal obligations since I started engaging in online communities. Why? Because it is real. Reality plays a huge part in this online revolution, I am not going to go down the path of fictitious reality as we can generally spot and ignore those, but each of our friends are more real to us – and so we feel an affinity and turn towards our governers to see what they are doing, how are they responding to our concerns?

Let’s see how this plays out, what worries me is that the opportunity here will be swallowed up by a fear of the unknown, and a need to be ‘stakeholder managed’ through change, which is ridiculous – we can all keep up, but can someone have the guts to show the way? Because to be honest, if someone doesn’t I can see the potential for digital civil war – and the senior civil servants, the Ministers and departments will have no idea how to address or indeed manage it; and they won’t have the time to write the project initiation document (PID).

V-Logs from the online consultation meeting

Hermione Way, newspepper.com, interviewed some of the participants after the meeting on the 4th December. Whilst we set up collaborative areas for all of you to continue to add/develop some of the ideas that came from the day, I thought that is might be interesting for you to see what people said as soon as released from the room.

HUGE thank you to Hermione for doing this, and for highlighting what we are doing in this week’s (episode 3) techfluff.tv. She came in for the second half of the meeting and joined in on the discussion around social media and policy development. You may notice that I am not interviewed, this is because I am RUBBISH at being in front of a camera, much better at writing. Anyway, everyone else said it so much better than I could.

Steph Gray Department for Innovation, University and Skills (DIUS)

Mark O’Neill Department for Culture, Media and Sport


Mitch Sava Polywonk and David Wilcox Social Reporter

Matthew Cain Newscounter (Note the hesitation in the middle and the twitter conversation at end… diamond)


Alan Moore SMLXL

Euan Semple


Miliband and Hammersley… together at last

It has been an open secret that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has recently opened its arms and mind to Ben Hammersley – in my opinion, this is one of the single most important steps the department will take digitally, other than scoring Miliband as its Minister.

Something needed to happen to help government departments realise that online communication need not have a 1million pound plus IT tag attached to it. In the last four weeks, Paul Bute and Ben have managed to pull off Project Demophon (working title).

It is still in Beta therefore being tested – sorry for stating the bleeding obvious – taken to various board members and yet to see the light of the private office, but that is happening now, so forgive me for not actually sharing the url, it will come, be patient!

Here is what it does (copied from the Beta version Home page):

Demophon is the FCO’s online collaboration space. We use it to work on projects with partners outside government. It is based on a system called a wiki. A wiki is a website where the users can edit every page, and create new ones at will. At the top of every page is an “edit” link. Click on this, make your changes, and hit save. Your changes will be visible immediately.

If you are new to using Demophon then click on help. You can edit the help page too, so if you find a new thing to do, or a better way of putting it, please make changes. Feel free to play around in the Sandpit. Do not worry about making mistakes – every version of every page is automatically retained. You can roll-back changes with ease. Click on the History tab at the top of any page to see this. Confident wiki users might like to bookmark the cheatsheet.

Demophon is password protected for privacy, and all users are verified. Once verified, every user can see every page on Demophon. This is a good thing. It means that all information can be cross referenced, and we don’t need to reinvent stuff. Users are all those with an account and include colleagues in the FCO, partners across government, and partners outside government (including the media) who have been nominated by an FCO officer.

Only place UNCLASSIFIED material on Demophon – information that you are content to be in the public domain. If information is sensitive in any way (including ‘in confidence’ and ‘UBS’ material such as details of high profile visits or personal data such as telephone lists) it should not be placed on this space.

So far so good… but it gets better

Demophon provides the FCO’s first collaborative working space. It enables you to:

  • arrange meetings, visits and conferences: agree on location and dates and logistics, set the agenda, and write the reports collaboratively;
  • draft business plans collectively: if you hoard them on Word docs your stakeholders will complain they haven’t been adequately consulted;
  • share best practice: get your colleagues and partners to develop their own FAQs and link to best-of-breed examples;
  • produce real time project and political reporting: contribute to project updates and reports written by teams all over the world (including external partners);
  • manage crises: ensure all the information we need is in one place. Don’t put up with unconnected email strings;
  • keep up to date with contacts: update external (and internal) details as a team so that your QBP list is always up-to-date;
  • access your personalised feeds: keep up to date with what your contacts are doing via RSS without wasting time searching multiple websites;
  • (on non-Firecrest machines) use maps: ideal for managing fast moving crises/unfolding events.

It is not rocket science, but we all knew it was not hard – thanks Ben for making it happen H/T forever…

I know that it is frustrating hearing about something but not being able to go and play, but let’s give the guys a break, applaud the fact that this has been achieved and support its uptake across Whitehall and local government/third sector – (hurrah for them :))

‘Citizen empowerment agenda’: how potentially cool is this?

… if there is enough enthusiasm, of course. And that will only come if this is looked at as something that can be developed collaboratively and we can help shape how it might best work, well, actually, I mean: create some way of doing this that will be used.

It is here: http://tiny.cc/sIE7I (ooh Ed aside (O/T), tiny got clever, they have an upgraded version)

Hazel Blears gives an impassioned introduction which is vehement in its acknowledgement of how important it is to harness the willingness of people to ‘get involved’ in government (true democracy) – something I am sure she sees much of, the people who go to meet her are obviously there for a purpose. (This does not reflect the general apathy in society, but it is enough for now).

I am pretty sure that the children pictured in the document would not be so keen on voluntarily spending time giving their much sought after opinion on government policy, no matter how easy we make it. Nor should they really. In my opinion, children should be allowed to be children, and teenagers teenagers &c &c. Of course we can ask, and enable those who do want to get involved to do so, and I am more than sure that what they have to say will be brilliant. (Am I a bit wrong if I envisage the scenes from the Sound of Music when the odd-looking Nazi kids (totally the fault of the film not me!) get all caught up in politics and try to affect their non-engaging co-patriots who are busy snogging and singing? Hmm thought so!)

HOWEVER, I love this policy. (By the way it is all part of the Governance of Britain (GOB) thing, which sounds mind-numbingly boring, but actually it is pretty interesting (when you get past the name). Jeremy Gould was involved in its development.)

I love it because it sits so perfectly with all of the social media people I have met recently at the UKGovBarCamp who really do care about this stuff. I cannot believe how many people there are, groups (not necessarily lobby groups) just impassioned people who believe in getting involved, helping and actually getting excited about the opportunities offered to us in this digital age.

So, to save you scrolling through 49 pages of explanation, here is basically what the citizen empowerment agenda is:

  • I can’t precis Ms Blears’ intro, you need to read it then come back for the rest if you need :)
  • Bearing in mind that it is based on the GOB Green Paper, you need to know this bit of it: It aims to give citizens the means of participating in decision-making at every level; to clarify the role of Government, both at central and local level; to rebalance power between Parliament and government and give British people a stronger sense of what it means to be British (FWIW: I do not agree with the importance of the second point but hey ho)
  • This paper is an action plan covering three areas:
  1. Widening and deepening empowerment opportunities locally
  2. Supporting and enabling people to take up empowerment opportunities
  3. Strengthening local representative democracy
  • In Summer 2008 there will be a review of this action plan, with a further plan set out thereafter (I know, I KNOW… these things take time)

Hope you don’t mind but I am just going to pick out the actions from point two, as that is the most relevant to making this a success IMHO. (The action plan is a little bit of a muddle, in that actually by doing points four and ten, copied below, you should be able to achieve the rest… is this helping? Sorry)

4. Give citizens a greater role in planning
• Build an e-consultation hub: 2007 link every local authority and 2008 open the hub to the general public.

10. Continue to develop online tools to support empowerment and democracy
• We will continue to develop www.peopleandparticipation.net with Ministry of Justice and the Sustainable Development Commission.
• We will work across Government to encourage use of new forms of information and communication.

The paper goes into detail, but basically, this agenda enables you and I to get involved in policy-making that affects you and I – and Communities and Local Government (CLG) will be working to ensure that this happens.

I happen to know that the people involved in taking this forward in CLG rock. Amongst them sits one Sheenagh Reynolds who has been consistent in her professionalism and work ethic throughout the five years I have known her – what more could you want from a civil servant? (I emailed her at 7.30pm tonight and she replied – ’nuff said.) Please don’t go hounding her, she is a busy lady :)

To wrap, as I feel as if I am beginning to lecture: this policy is important, it is active and it is something that you should all be taking note of and discussing. Is there a formal way of engaging? Not yet, but why not have a look for yourselves and discuss it on your own blogs, at your dinner parties, in the playground, crack houses… whatever ;) see what energy there is – if it is there, then when they take this to the next stage, you can play!

I am not sure that this post makes sense – apologies if I ramble, but the point is, know about it, understand it and when you can – get involved.

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