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

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).

Tool-kit for social media – or engaging people online

If you could put together your ideal tool-kit for engaging online, what would be in it?

By tool-kit I mean ways of finding and engaging with the people you want to do any of the following:

  • engage
  • influence
  • consult

To my rather amateur but enthusiastic mind I would say something like:

  • engage: find communities already in existence online – toolkit would contain ways of finding these communities
  • influence: toolkit would point to robust platforms already in existence, free and unlikely to fail (essentially those that depend on the robustness of their platform in order to succeed – WordPress for one), with a bit of advice on what business support would be required to use such a tool effectively (because this is key :))
  • consult: toolkit would include blogging and wiki software, alongside details of the experts in the business, their rates and how you might be able to procure them. Alongside details of how other organisations in your area, for example public sector (my bag, baby) have been using these things successfully

You can reply to this plea – as ever – personally to me mulquem@gmail.com – or, as I would prefer, here as a comment.

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