Digital government and not being boring

I spent a most enjoyable time at the Department for Communities and Local Government today as a guest of Simon Berry, along with a rogue’s gallery of other bloggers and online networkers. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and new acquaintances, as well as take part in some really interesting exercises, put together in partnership with Simon by David Wilcox, who was, as always, an excellent facilitator and conversation starter.

At one stage of the workshop, the group split into two smaller ones: one team of mainly civil servants and local authority types; another of mostly techies. I fell into the latter grouping, and we discussed the ways in which we felt emerging technology could help government – at both a local and a national level – get closer to those it governs.

Being in a group of people which contained – amongst others – Dan McQuillan, Steve Bridger, Paul Bradshaw and Tim Davies, the ideas were soon flowing – helped by the relaxed atmosphere which meant there were plenty of jokes and laughs too. Some of the issues we came up with included:

  • Listening before talking – government needs to now what is being said by whom before it can start engaging with them
  • Figure out which communication medium best suits the people you want to talk to – for example, just because blogs are on the internet doesn’t mean young people are interested. They’re not – they are on Polyvore instead.
  • Local government should be concentrating at least as much as central government is on opening up data and information it holds.
  • The word empowerment is a bit dodgy in this context – why should people need to be empowered by government? Isn’t it already in our power to organise ourselves and get things done?
  • The relationship between government and people – whether on an individual basis or within groups, should be informalised. Government has a role to play in civil society, but how much of a role should be determined not by them but by the communities themselves – for instance, they might just want a room to meet in, or maybe some advice on funding.
  • Local government shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating what is happening in their areas – but shouldn’t feel the need to claim any credit. Likewise, too often there is a financial focus to such good news stories. When something good happens, who cares who did it, or who paid for it?
  • It’s not just government talking to groups or individuals – there are other players in the civic space who need to be involved. The networked journalism that Charlie Beckett and Paul Bradshaw write about has a role to play, as do charities and other third sector groups, schools, hospitals, churches. The web can help bring some sense to this civic soup of different interests and organisations, to aggregate it and break it down in different, more meaningful ways.

Dan McQuillan pointed out at one stage that the problem with trying to get people to be, say, a school governor, is that being a school governor is actually a pretty dull thing to do. This is true of a lot of things, though – if someone asked you to engage with your local authority, it might not necessarily be something that would have you widdly with excitement. However, if you were asked about an issue that particularly interested you, like environmental issues, or public transport, or education, then you might be more likely to take part.

The issue is one of boringness, then, and the important thing for government to try and do is to avoid being boring. People interests are atomised, and tend to focus around single or narrowly related issues, rather than everything that concerns a single organisation.

Another example of boringness is in the way that local issues are reported on. For example, more people read about council issues in their local paper than in the leaflets sent out by the council itself. That’s because the council leaflet is probably more boring than the paper’s coverage. That said, more people moan about their bin collections, or pot holes in their street, in the pub with their mates than read about them in the local paper. Again, chatting in the pub is more fun.

So for government at all levels to get their messages across, and to engage better with people, they need to ensure they aren’t boring the people they want to talk to. How can they do this?

One way would be by identifying the issues people and groups are interested in, and providing information on, and inviting comment on, those topics. Something like Hear From Your MP at a local level just wouldn’t work – even I would be bored stupid if I had to read everything my Councillors had to say. But if that could be tailored to Hear About Stuff You Are Interested In From Everybody, that might just work.

Aggregate stuff from government, communities, charities, media organisations, church groups and anyone else along subject lines based on a local area. This might be very hard to do, and indeed might be impossible without some serious collaboration between various parties in terms of the way they produce content. But if it were to be achieved, then I think getting people involved would be much easier.

There were many ideas produced at the meeting, like mine above, and we are going to be working together to develop the better ones and see how they grow. A good place to monitor what is going on will be to tune in to Simon’s Web24Gov site.

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