A Masters in Public Technology?

Tom Steinberg:

There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.

I agree, though Tom’s developer-centric view of this should probably be widened for it to be a bit more inclusive.

101 cool tools: Instapaper

Wow! Number 4 already! At this rate I’ll be through all 101 by 2020…

Instapaper is a really neat service for saving content for consumption at a time that suits you.

You create an account, and then add a bookmarklet to your browser – when you spot something you’d like to check out later, just click the bookmark and a few seconds later the content has been sent to your account.

Your page on Instapaper then lists all your saved content, and you can then click to read them – and what’s really clever is that the content is stripped from the rest of the original web page, allowing you to focus on the words.

The next great thing with Instapaper is the way it integrates with mobile devices. The iPad and iPhone apps are excellent, and a great way of consuming content on the move.

But the real winner is the Kindle integration. By visiting your Instapaper account via the Kinde’s experimental browser, you can download your recent saved items, cobbled together into a single ‘ebook’. Genius!


Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian:

The biggest complaint, in both my Twitter sample and the expert essays, was about the quality of thinking in the online era. What the internet has done, say the dissenters, is damage our ability to concentrate for sustained periods. Being connected meant being constantly tempted to look away, to hop from the text in front of you to another, newer one. One tweeter replied that he now thought “about more things for shorter amounts of time. It’s like ADHD.” Anyone who has Tweetdeck fitted on their desktop, chirruping like a toddler tapping you on the shoulder urging you to come and play, will know what he means.

This, the worriers fear, is not just irritating; it might even damage our civilisation. How capable will people be of creating great works if they are constantly interrupted, even when alone? “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” angsts Nicholas Carr, who believes the internet is steering us toward “the shallows”.

Jeff Jarvis responds:

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will be ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

The end of the IT department

37 Signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson:

When people talk about their IT departments, they always talk about the things they’re not allowed to do, the applications they can’t run, and the long time it takes to get anything done. Rigid and inflexible policies that fill the air with animosity. Not to mention the frustrations of speaking different languages. None of this is a good foundation for a sustainable relationship.

If businesses had as many gripes with an external vendor, that vendor would’ve been dropped long ago. But IT departments have endured as a necessary evil. I think those days are coming to an end.

Worth reading in full.

Bookmarks for January 27th through February 19th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

The networked public servant

** Update – if you want to know how to network well, Mary has a great guide **

One of the most popular books about the social media powered digital revolution is Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Published in 2008, it took a private sector view of the benefits of listening to customers and engaging with them in online spaces. It’s a worthwhile read.

The two authors have subsequently published new books, though not together. What I find interesting is the fact that the follow ups (Li’s Open Leadership, and Bernoff’s Empowered) both took on the next logical step – how do you fix your organisation’s culture to make the most of the lessons of Groundswell? Again, both are a good read.

Both Li and Bernoff come to similar conclusions: an enlightened form of management is required, one which assumes competence in staff and provides them with access to the tools to do their jobs. More than anything staff need to have confidence that they are trusted by management to do their jobs.

It’s intriguing the way that both authors end up at a similar conclusion via slightly differing routes – Li focuses on leadership while Bernoff really puts staff at the centre of his book. The end result is pretty much the same, but the two books do complement one another quite nicely, and confirms my view that just a top-down or a bottom-up approach isn’t enough to change culture – you need both, in tandem.

This links in nicely with another train of thought I’ve had recently around the changing nature of work and professionalism, particularly in relation to public services. The way people work is definitely changing – both as a result of technology plus wider changes in society.

What effect does this have on the general role of the public servant? Does the traditional skill set still equip people with the abilities they need to both do their jobs well, and enhance their careers?

Two blog posts definitely worth reading around this topic are from Louise and Carl, who write about their careers in local government and how they ended up where they are.

I won’t bore you with my own backstory, but when I worked within local government it involved changing jobs regularly, not being afraid to move from authority to authority in search of promotion and new challenges, and putting a lot of after work hours into building relationships with people and being helpful through my blog.

I started making some notes on what the networked public servant looks like. It’s by no means definitive (or indeed correct!) but is a start and I would value feedback on this stuff – including what use it is and how it might be developed.

  1. Be networked – be comfortable meeting new people and cultivating relationships. Be happy to connect with folk online and off. Concentrate on networking with people outside your organisation as well as inside it. Get to know people, what they are good at, and connect them with others.
  2. Be entrepreneurial – have a strong commercial sense of value and opportunity. Be creative with the budgets you have and find new ways of improving them.
  3. Be inspirational – through your actions and words, be able to enthuse and motivate people to go outside their comfort zones.
  4. Be collaborative – understand the value of involving others in what you are doing. Be aware of your own skills and the gaps, and welcome people who can help fill them for you.
  5. Be creative – don’t just look to what other people have done and replicate it, but come up with your own solutions and ideas – and don’t be afraid to share them with others.
  6. Be risky – understand risk and how to manage it. Don’t see risk as an excuse for inactivity but as a challenge to be met head-on.
  7. Be bold – if you are convinced an approach is the right one to take, do so with confidence and encourage others to support you. Don’t be fearful of what others may think.
  8. Be human – don’t be a corporate drone. What makes you different to everyone else? Emphasise it, and make the most of it. Be someone people outside your organisation don’t mind talking to.
  9. Be studious – always be learning and looking out for new things to understand. Never stop looking round the corner to see what the next new thing is going to be.
  10. Be generous – with your knowledge and your time. Having a reputation for helpfulness is a wonderful asset.
  11. Be open – accept when you’re wrong, or when you aren’t sure about something. If you have half an idea, share it, and let others help out and finish it.
  12. Be innovative – always be on the lookout for new, better ways of doing things. Be open to new ideas, no matter where they emerge from. Develop systems and workflows for testing and implementing new ideas to ensure the best ones succeed.

How can technology support public sector collaboration?

Last week’s webinar went fairly well, I’d like to think. You can judge for yourself by watching it below – it’s split up into two parts, probably because I talk too much.

To be able to read the slides it’s probably best to watch in full screen mode.

Lots of people asked questions and I couldn’t answer them all on the day, so here’s a quick document with responses to some of the other points that were made.

Here are the slides themselves. If you can’t see the Slideshare embed, here is the downloadable PDF version.

Don’t forget to check out all the great stories of public sector collaboration Learning Pool are publishing as part of our Collaboration Quarter campaign.

If you’d like to talk about how you might better use social technology to improve collaboration within your organisation, or indeed when working in partnership with others, just get in touch!

6 objectives for public service digital engagement

One thing that really came out of the social media strategy seminar we ran last week was that it’s vital for an organisation to have a decent handle on just why they want to be doing this stuff.

I think we’ve reached the point now where most organisations understand the power and reach of emerging social technology, and get the fact that they ought to be involved.

For an approach to be truly successful though, you have to have some objectives in mind. It’s not enough to just do – knowing what you’re doing and why is just as important!

Another thing to consider is what it is that you want those you digitally engage with to actually do. It’s great having thousands of people liking your Facebook page, or loads of Twitter followers… but what are you going to do with them?

Here are some of the more obvious objectives for an organisation to be involved in the social web.

1. Engagement

Lots of people have their own definition of engagement, but just for the purposes of this post, I am talking about a more engaging method of communicating with the public.

I’ve written previously that social media activity doesn’t belong exclusively to communicators, but there is no doubt that there are real opportunities to improve the way organisations communicate using the web.

So using online channels to make people aware of the good work your organisation is doing is a perfectly valid objective – I’d just argue it shouldn’t be the only one!

A great example of this would be Coventry City Council‘s use of Facebook.

2. Open innovation

Perhaps a more interesting use of social technology is in increasing the pool of people contributing ideas and solutions to problems and the improvement of services.

Open innovation differs from traditional approaches by opening up the innovation process beyond the walls of the organisation.

The web provides a great platform for encouraging people to share problems and for groups to work together on solutions.

There are a couple of potentially great examples emerging in this space – DotGovLabs, which is currently an invite only platform, but which will be opening up a bit more in the future; and FutureGov‘s Simpl, which combines open innovation principles with an online marketplace.

3. Participation

The web provides a great opportunity to get more people involved. Too many participation processes in public services involve people being in the right place at the right time, and completely fail to fit in with the way people’s lives tend to work these days.

Using the web as a platform for participation makes it possible for lots more people to get involved. All those who don’t have the time to spare for a 2 hour meeting in the evening may well have 15 minutes spare when they are sat near their computers to contribute.

One great use of social tech to increase participation that I have come across recently is South Yorkshire Police who run their community meetings online in parallel with the offline traditional meeting with virtual attendees outnumbering those who turn up in person.

4. Collaboration

More and more, organisations involved in the delivery of public services are having to work together to ensure the best service is provided for the best value. This means sharing information and having effective means of communication -stuff which the social web was made for.

Too many public service partnerships are run on the basis of meetings, which are often monthly or even quarterly, and where too few people are able to get involved. Using an online platform to provide a space for discussions, online meetings and document sharing and collaboration makes total sense.

An illustration of this is action is the Essex Vine project, where Learning Pool provided a common platform for the Human Resources partnership in the county, and where common learning resources are shared by all, including a management training programme. Find out more here.

5. Crowdsourcing

Corwdsourcing is similar to open innovation, in fact it’s probably a type of open innovation. It focuses on spreading the net as widely as possibly in search of ideas.

Often this takes the form of competitions, where cash or other resources are provided to winning ideas to develop prototypes.

Two great instances of this are Kent and Medway’s Transformed by You project, and the open data competitions run by Warwickshire County Council.

6. Knowledge sharing

Number six focuses on the cross sector need for organisations involved in the delivery of public services to share experience and lessons learned amongst one another. Again, a key thing here is efficiency and making the most of scarce resources: if one council has been through a process, they really need to share what went well and what went wrong with others before they embark on a similar project.

Social tools make this really easy, and the outstanding example of this is the Communities of Practice platform, operated by LGID.

Any more?

There’s six from me. Disagree with any? Let me know in the comments, or add some of your own!

Radical transparency in local government – what can you do?

Something like Wikileaks couldn’t happen in local government, could it?

Watching LCC

Well, it looks like something similar is kicking off in Lincolnshire, with the Watching Lincolnshire County Council blog.

It’s a whistleblowing site, where disgruntled employees are sharing rumours, gossip and occasionally confidential details, all anonymously. Collective Responsibility have an interview with those behind it.

Whether or not this is the right thing for those behind the site to do is a moot point. The real issue is that the internet makes this kind of activity easy to do, and very difficult to stop.

All organisations need to be aware of the fact that any of their employees at any time could start something similar. And no matter how sophisticated your information management systems and processes, the fact that it’s human beings behind the controls means that any data can find its way into the public domain quickly and easily.

What can you do about it? First of all, acknowledge your lack of control here. You can’t stop this from happening. All you can do is to try and prevent the situation arising where employees might want to do this.

That means: be open in your communication, and involve and engage staff in any large scale change programme that might be taking place. Examples such as Watching LCC show that staff are increasingly willing to go to the internet to share their concerns – other instances include the setting up of Facebook groups to support staff in similar circumstances.

One way to prevent this is to provide a similar area for discussion within the organisation, such as simple discussion forums, or with tools like Yammer. Ensure staff trust the space, don’t manage it, and hopefully they will prefer to air their issues internally rather than in a public space.

There’s an assumption that face to face communications are always best. That may be true, but the problem is that they don’t scale well. As soon as you are dealing with groups larger than say 25, the intimacy is lost and there are better ways of dealing with it.

I remember being involved in an organisation-wide restructure when working in local government, and most of the communications involved hundreds of people trooping into the council chamber to hear the chief executive tell us what was going to happen to us. There was an opportunity to ask questions, in front of everyone. Unsurprisingly, not many people bothered.

Discussing issues openly and in a trusted online environment won’t be a panacea for employee engagement during times of significant change. But it might mitigate against the risk of staff going elsewhere to have these conversations.

Has anyone else heard of any public sector staff rebellions, using the web? Are any of your organisations actively managing the issue – and is it in a positive, constructive way, or a negative, let’s-shut-it-down way? The latter, of course, is bound to fail.