I spent an interesting morning last Friday at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, attending a meeting of ‘civil servant bloggers’ – not many of whom, it turned out, actually blogged – to discuss the recent guidelines for online participation. It was organised through the Power of Information Taskforce.
I found it a peculiar experience, not really being sure of what the purpose of the workshop was, nor what would happen to the results, whatever they may have been.
The guidelines themselves are short and sweet, and whilst in many ways their brevity is a strength, they do (out of necessity) simplify an issue which is actually pretty complicated when you think about it. For instance, what do we actually mean when we talk about online participation? Also, how could civil servants participate online? There are several choices:
- They can do so internally or externally
- They can use social media to communicate or collaborate
- They can use their own platform, or get involved with someone else’s
- They can do so officially, or personally
I doubt whether the guidelines will encourage too many civil servants to start blogging, which is probably a good thing, if we are being honest. Most have neither the neither the time nor the inclination to start their own blogs, and it is a truth universally recognised that there is nothing worse than blogs that run out of steam, or enthusiasm.
Instead, I think there needs to be a focus on participating online in other people’s spaces. This is a quick, easy way for officials to engage without the need for the continuous content generation that comes with setting up a new platform. It’s also something that could develop over time:
- Listen to what’s being said – set up simple RSS feeds and subscribe to searches on key terms to monitor the online conversation
- Get involved – where appropriate, leave responses where they are required, or acknowledge and link to such conversations from the traditional web presence
- Create content – if it is necessary or useful, start a blog to provide a way of providing information and views that work better on a standalone site
To do this though, officials need the resources to be able to do it: time, skills and tools. The recent work at DIUS goes to show just what is possible when roles are created to focus on digital participation issues. Training is required to show civil servants how to do stuff – but it needs to be directly focused on what people in specific jobs need, whether press officers, policy officials, or whoever. Rather than training, ‘mentoring’ or ‘coaching’ is probably the better term for this. In terms of tools, people need to be able to access sites, whether blogs, forums or social networks, without having to request to IT to lift the block on each one. They also need up-to-date browsers which can handle Flash or AJAX type content, and which render pages properly. Far, far too many public institutions use IE6 as their most up to date browser – it isn’t good enough.
Ingrid was at the event too, and posted her thoughts here.