Bring out the Windsor and Newton, I need to paint…

Huge apologies to those waiting for me to write up the discussion on Thursday. It will come, next week, it will be useful and yes… you can play too.

In the meantime, the questions that I have been sent privately suggest that my presumed awareness of website rationalisation and transformational government might be a little skewed.

The official documentation can be found by Googling the two terms, and maybe downloading a couple of PDFs, but the following is an explanation *MY OWN PERSONAL VIEW ONLY* of why it is important background to how we consult policy development in the future, and hence: the changing face of e-democracy… and why it is a part of what I am trying to do.

(My qualification for writing about this comes from the period of time I worked with Alex Butler *formidably good* and Andrew Stott *formidably mathematical* communicating the practical requirements of the policy across Whitehall).

Essentially, transformational government contains a piece about the online world: given the handle of website rationalisation. Website rationalisation has sub-divided itself  into rationalisation and convergence.

Website rationalisation is simply: reducing the number of websites government uses to disseminate information.

Website convergence is (I am not going to say simply) migrating the content out there onto the three proposed ‘golden’ destinations:

  • Directgov: for citizen information
  • businesslink.gov.uk: for business from SMEs to large corporates
  • Departmental sites: for stakeholder/’corporate’ information (central department sites only, non-departmental public bodies NDPBs are required to associate themselves with their ‘owners’)

There are more, NHS, Police etc but they are exceptions. Stick with the simple version…

In theory, this is a good thing: it simplifies how government delivers information, helps us members of this democracy find the information we need and it will eventually reduce cost.

All of this needs to be complete by end March 2011.

So for us, it’s good!

For departments it is more challenging as it does mean that every website needs to be audited, carved up and re-delivered through the three agreed channels.

I cannot hope to give the number of websites we are talking here, but there are many 🙂 please forgive my reticence to quote numbers, I know I will only be proved wrong!

Again, in theory, this is simple: audit the sites, audit the information, de-duplicate: re-deliver.

The challenge comes when policy units need to consult, to engage with us and find out what we think. Can using such a remote version of e-delivery work?

The challenge is already here. The people working in departments across Whitehall and the UK are now, have been and will be consulting on policies they are charged with developing over x number of years, and the Internet is a key tool for doing so. Take away the policy unit’s website and… how can this be done?

Well, the choice right now is the departmental website: until Directgov is able to offer consultation tools (not knocking DG, this is a biggy).

But… what if we were to look at this as white space? The information that we all need to know in any circumstance will, by 2011, be delivered through the three approved government arms. (Tempted to go Ganesha on the arms thing, but, let’s not.) Departments have time to streamline the corporate sites.

So is this an opportune moment to look at better ways of getting peoples’ opinion on policies in development?

My gut says yes. The temperature in the department I work for says yes. Hence all the fuss.

I will bring you details of the discussion last Thursday and will show you where you can play and what you can do if this matters to you.

Hoping that helped…

‘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.

…and so to (put this to) bed…

The UK Gov web guidelines and standards are not up for consultation, as clarified by Podnosh on his blog here: http://www.podnosh.com/blog/2008/06/12/coi-response-on-metadata-and-social-media-consulations/

I now bow out, and am looking to the future, when these things will be consulted fully – hopefully through the citizen empowerment agenda – upon which I base my future happiness.

No pressure, Sheenagh 😉

More soon, I need to go understand this before I say anything!

Social media and democracy – Part 2 (in light of civilserfgate)

Resistance is futile, I was really trying not to say anything about all of the media reports on the civil serf blogger, and the news in the Timesonline today that Sir Gus O’Donnell (aka Sir GO’D) is about to (finally) release the guidelines for civil servants on engaging in the social media space. However, the charming Simon McManus linked to my social media and democracy post, was himself linked to from the Guardian and so I thought it would be churlish not to say anything.

I will not repeat my misgivings about how social media will affect democracy in countries where autocracy rules, you can read that on the other post 🙂 but I will have a little muse about it in the context of civil servants, living in a democracy, under the auspices of the civil service code.

Aside: our civil service is highly respected, and the civil service code of conduct is key to this – I fundamentally believe that it should not be written off or ignored. Nor is it complicated, you can view it in all formats here: http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/cscode/index.asp

There are some misconceptions in the Press about who exactly civil servants work for. Here is a good definition of a civil servant, for those not wanting to leave my prose the explanation is as follows:

Civil Servants are those who are employed by the Crown, excluding those employed by the Monarch herself. The Civil Service therefore excludes those who are employed by Parliament and those employed by other public bodies.

It may remain confusing, but basically, civil servants are employed by the Crown, the Crown’s executive powers are exercised by government, therefore, civil servants must do as they are told by the governing party – but they remain loyal to the Crown as their ultimate employer. (This explains why a rather brilliantly painted picture of the royal family en flagrante on the balcony of Buckingham Palace was refused in horror by a colleague in HMRC!)

So, to our very own Belle du Jour – the civil serf. She is a civil servant, therefore is required to do the bidding of the Labour Government Ministers, whilst remaining in the employ of the Crown. She will have signed up to the Civil Service code and therefore will be required to stick to the rules of the game. On reflection, (OK printing and scribbling) I believe that the following bits of the civil service code are salient here:

The code is broken down into four simple sections: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality, so taking these areas and looking at what they require, I am just going to highlight those guidelines that should have given any blogging civil servant pause for thought…

Integrity

You must always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings

You must not misuse your official position, for example by using information acquired in the course of your official duties to further your private interest or those of others (NB I am intrigued by what the last four words imply)

You must not disclose official information without authority. This duty continues to apply after you leave the Civil Service

Honesty

You must set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible

You must not deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers, Parliament or others

Political impartiality

You must serve the government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of the Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are

You must act in a way which deserves and retains the confidences of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government

My take on it all

As with any mediation, we need to remain true to the facts… however entertaining it has been to read the riotous posts about what it is like in whichever department this lass works for, what damage is it doing to her colleagues? Employers? People working for her? Citizens of this country? Has she broken a contract that she signed up to when taking on her job in the civil service?

My position is that she had a right to write down her thoughts, but she went too far.

I am far more reassured by the only other blogging civil servant I know – Jeremy Gould – I hope that he is still able to talk about his thoughts and experiences, in his own way. I may unduly promote his blog, but with reason – it is all the things we want from the civil serf without the sensationalism.

Update 11th March: Yikes, thank you David Briggs for having the grace not to point out that you too are a blogging civil servant! I shall unduly promote your blog forthwith! Oops and Paul Canning… I am not doing well here am I?

I should make a public curtsey to Tom Watson MP who is not a civil servant, rather a rather precocious politician – however, he does seem to have some empathy with what we are trying to achieve. Many bloggers have spoken about him today far better than I can… go read: up-to-date bloggers on Google

Social media and democracy

I was at a conference today during which much was made about how social media – well it was tabbed as ‘The Internet’ but I think they meant social media – is changing the way democratic societies across the globe govern themselves.  The assumption is that those in power will be forced to listen to the voices of those they represent, and be accountable. In this vein, it was mooted that China will have democracy forced upon them, and there is nothing they will be able to do about it. Hmmm…

Well, OK, you can see how social media, or The Internet, gives many fora for opinion/discussion and can act as an effective lobbying/rallying tool. You can even see that there is little any government or ruling party could do to silence those voices – take China and its efforts to block access to YouTube – this is clearly a losing battle.

However, it is just another way for people to speak – it does not enable listening! Yes it can create a two-way conversation, yes you can feel as if you are speaking directly to the person – rather than through convoluted channels that might dilute your message… but who is listening? What assumptions are they making about you?

Anyone who works in an e-media team in the public sector, will tell you how difficult it is to champion the use of any social media tool to any great effect. And, other than responding to the perennial cry: ‘I want a blog’ – which never, ever really means I want a blog (Miliband excepted of course) there is little or no interest. This could be due to the fact that there is a great nervousness around it: mis-information and wild assumptions all ultimately culled by risk aversion/avoidance. Sure, there are some great examples of its effective use: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Number Ten’s e-petition site and the Ministry of Justice Governance of Britain site are all great examples of effective and supported use of social media tools – however, these are the exceptions and hardly about to start affecting the political philosophy behind democracy – or even give those who govern our country too much to be concerned about.

I remember being impressed by the Wispa campaign, where a Facebook group successfully nagged Cadbury’s to bring back their favourite 80s chocolate bar; I can’t see how nagging will ever enforce an EU referendum, for example, or change policy, or get you out of your tax liabilities.

Yet I keep hearing how these voices cannot, will not and should not be silenced… and a true democratic society would utilise the opportunity afforded by social media. My feeling is that there is nowt you can do to lower the noise level, but to enable real change, or the change that is suggested could be afforded by social media, a fundamental shift needs to take place in the way people listen. Until then, nagging/lobbying/campaigning through social media tools will have very little effect.

That is my view on social media and democratic change. HOWEVER, there is a great opportunity for any ruling nation to use social media tools to consult, deliver messages and perhaps better understand society’s concerns, but that is another conversation – and one that I know can be answered by members of public sector e-media teams across the globe.