The revolution will not be comma separated

I had a fun day yesterday at the Civil Service Fast Stream conference, which was focusing on big society type stuff. I was running a session on open government, with a concentration on open data.

As a bit of fun, while we were talking I asked the members of the group to draw what occurred to them when thinking about open data.

Open data drawing

If you click the photo, you’ll be taken to the original on Flickr, which I have annotated with what I remember of the descriptions from the artists.

Once again, in a conversation about open data, I ended up coming across as being somewhat sceptical.

I’m all in favour of transparency in government, and I’m also very much in favour of public services publishing their information in accessible formats.

What I’m not so sure about are some of the claims made for the potential of open data to transform government, and its relationship with citizens.

I can’t see where the business model is for third parties to create applications based on this data, unless government itself pays. I’m also unconvinced that there are enough people around with the skills (and indeed the inclination) to either be effective armchair auditors or civic hackers all over the country.

I suspect the biggest users of open data will end up being journalists, and the work that newspapers such as The Guardian are already doing seems to support this. It’s a good thing, but hardly sees a great redrawing of the traditional ways of doing things.

The other area where I can see benefit coming from an openness around information assets and a different attitude towards data is in the use of it by government itself. I agree with Andrea DiMaio that if open government is to become a reality, it is going to happen through the actions of public servants themselves, rather than from activists on the outside.

So, transparency is important. There are opportunities around open data, as well as challenges. Right now, though, I struggle to see how dramatic change will happen as a result of publishing data.

I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, though!

Communities & Local Government engaging with bloggers

The Department for Communities & Local Government did some great work in engaging people with the Empowerment White Paper entitled Communities in Control. Some of the activity included a blog, forum, Twitter feed, online video and photos hosted on Flickr. What was originally going to be a very short term programme has been extended, which is also great news.

One of the aspects of the white paper that I, and others, found particularly interesting was that around Digital Mentors, people working in deprived communities to help give them a voice by providing them with the skills and tools to tell their stories using online means. Quite a few posts and comments were written, showing the appetite amongst the social web community for this kind of role.

Well, it seems like things are moving on and developing within the department, and what is really exciting is that those working on the Digital Mentor idea are starting to engage with the bloggers. I’m particularly chuffed that Georgia Klein chose my blog to leave this comment on:

Thanks for the blogging about Digital Mentors. I’m at CLG tasked with consulting informally with stakeholders to help me shape the document to go out to tender so that pilots can start April 09. I’d be really keen to recieve your wish list / views on what you think a mentor should look like based on your experiences and how one builds sustainability into these models. I’ll be watching out for your comments here but you can also contact me at [email removed to reduce spamming a little bit, you can find it on the original comment]. Be warned, the timetable for this initial consultation round is tight – mid-Oct (there may be more opportunities through the formal procurement process).

Quite a few readers of this blog have already commented, so do please add your views on the subject – as the department is listening!

This is a great example, though, of government finding where the conversations are happening and getting involved with them, making the most of the enthusiastic amateurs who are generating ideas and solutions online for no reason other than that they are interested. Let’s hope we see more of it in the future!

Public sector bloggers: the OPML

I have made another quick addition to Public Sector Bloggers, with the availability of an OPML file to download. Rather than subscribe to the combined feed, you can instead import each individual feed into your RSS aggregator in one go.

To do this, first right-click the link and choose whatever your browser offers as a term for downloading the file to your computer. If in doubt, left click the link, then when you are confronted with what looks like a page of code, choose ‘Save Page As’ (or similar) from your browsers’ file menu. Do remember where you saved it!

Next go into your aggregator and choose to import the file to add to your feeds. This will differ depending on which one you use. I’ve found some handy help files online:

If you need any help, yell in the comments, or email me.

Public Sector Bloggers Update

I’ve been putting a bit of work in updating the Public Sector Bloggers site, which aggregates a load of feeds from folk in the public sector who blog (duh…) in one place. The website gives a quick overview on the latest additions, or you can subscribe to a combined RSS feed or by email.

One thing I have changed is how the feed is generated. Before, I used Yahoo! Pipes to merge them all, which was a bit of pain in the neck. So I have now gone for a much easier way, which is to organise all the feeds in my Google Reader into a specific folder, and made that folder public, meaning it produces an RSS feed. I then use that feed to drive the site. Now to add a new feed, I just need to subscribe to it myself, and whack it into the right folder. Easy.

When I mentioned it last time, I had quite a few suggestions for additional feeds to add to the service. I’ve added quite a few more, so the list now looks like this:

Again, if I have missed anyone obvious out, please do let me know.

Guidance and Toolkits

There have been a number of posts popping up around the use of the social web within government, both as a reaction to discussions of the civil service guidelines for online participation and to the need to provide the tools and skills to public servants to make their interventions effective.

Firstly, the guidelines, about which I have written bits here and here. Dominic Campbell wishes they weren’t necessary:

Unfortunately, the moment that pen is put to paper and guidance is created, no matter how effective and light weight, things change and often for the worse. Guidance removes the freedom for people to think for themselves and results in situations where people download confidential files onto disc and send them through the post. Until civil servants are trusted to think for themselves, mistakes will continue to happen and the latent creative potential of the collective civil service will remain untapped, no matter how much guidance is created to give permission to behave to the contrary.

Dominic and I had a brief debate on the Local Government Community of Practice for Social Media about this. Whilst I accept his point that guidance should be unnecessary, they do have a certain empowering capacity which I think is very much a good thing at the moment. It provides legitimacy to those that want to engage in this space which wasn’t there before.

Jeremy Gould wrote an outline of the discussions he had at a recent gathering at the Cabinet Office:

I think I heardpeople were asking how to translate the principles into more operational / organisational guidance. In other words, how they’d actually do this stuff. But its also clear that we are still in the very early days of experimenting with the technologies and tools. There is no correct way to do things or optimum tool or technology. This is not the time for mandated solutions but for encouraging innovation.

This leads us nicely into a group of posts by Emma Mulqueeny, who is looking to develop a toolkit to guide civil servants around the social web and how they can be involved in it. This could be seen as being the bit that picks up on the operational side of things that Jeremy mentions people are actually looking for and will be much welcomed, I’m sure. Emma’s blog posts, by the way, are a great example of chucking an idea up in the air and letting people gives their views on it – the comments on her initial post have some great insights.

What’s good about this debate is that we seem to know be moving on from “We can’t introduce the tools til we change the culture” to “We can’t change the culture, let’s play with the tools anyway”. The guerilla, stealth style introduction of social web activity, best summed up in Colin McKay’s ebook, is surely the way forward: get it working, get it embedded, report on the benefits.

The trouble with putting together any generalist toolkit is that the whole issue is so damn complicated. As I have mentioned before, there are at least 16 different ways for officials to engage with the social web, depending on whether:

  • They do so internally or externally
  • They use social media to communicate or collaborate
  • They use their own platform, or get involved with someone else’s
  • They do so officially, or personally

Any toolkit or operational guidance will need to focus on providing a way for public servants to work their way through these options so they can decide on their best approach. They can be wildly different, of course: writing a blog is completely different as an activity to being active on a social network, say. Something is also required on the worldview required to make this stuff a success (give up on a certain amount of control, be prepared to accept some messiness); the roles also need defining (who does what when, etc) and then the platforms require explanation.

There needs to be material on how to make online activity effective, cutting through a lot of the bullshit (sorry, mum) that surrounds sites like NetMums or Wikipedia that are trotted out when anyone wants an example of an online community. Stuff to focus on includes:

  • That you need a core group of people involved in any project. You won’t get everyone in the UK interested enough in your consultation to take part in it. A tiny proportion of Wikipedia users edit articles to any major extent. The proportion of Linux users who actually contribute is miniscule. This isn’t a bad thing, but nor is it collaboration on a truly mass scale. Don’t overestimate how interested people are likely to be.
  • Any collaborative online exercise requires some kind of governance arrangements, no matter how informal. This isn’t about anarchy but is about giving people the platform to get involved, which still requires someone to have a leadership role.
  • The tools that are used must be intuitive and accessible. They must fit the type of work being undertaken. WordPress and MediaWiki are jolly popular at the moment, not least because they are quick and free. But do they suit every exercise?
  • Aggregating, moderating and reporting on outputs is vital, and again is a role that ought to be led from the centre. Outputs ought to be managed to ensure that the project actually delivers.

We don’t want to get to bogged down in what a blog is, and how to install WordPress, however. Instead case studies of how this stuff is working already would be useful to help persuade superiors that this is a Good Thing to be doing. Luckily, quite a few potential examples are starting to spring up:

  • Number 10’s ePetitions site
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s blogs
  • DIUS’s consultation exercises
  • CLG’s Communities in Control blog
  • Various government (central and local) forays into Twitter

There is plenty of material to go into a toolkit, before you even start talking about the tools, then. There is a bit of consensus forming, I feel, on the approach that can be taken to any kind of online participation by officials:

  1. start listening,
  2. then acknowledge what people are saying,
  3. then respond to them,
  4. then start creating new content for them.

It is important to be comfortable with each stage before moving on.

Having been reading and typing away for a good hour now, it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t mentioned just why government should want to be engaged in the social web at all. Perhaps a lot of us enthusiasts don’t ask ourselves that question enough. It should be the first question asked in any toolkit: why are you doing this? I think there are a number of reasons:

  • To produce better policy by taking a collaborative approach to it
  • To better put across the government’s position on issues under discussion
  • To explain and educate about what government is doing and why
  • To remove some of the barriers between the governed and the government, as well as those that operate the machinery of government

I suspect there are many other arguments, and also that there are people better at putting them than me.

I’ll finish by quoting a recent piece by David Wilcox, setting a challenge to government:

This is where the challenge is greatest for Government. What’s traditionally worked for Whitehall is top-down, controlled, and not very joined-up You get people to come to your fund, your support programme, your events … then expect them to do the rounds with other departments and organisations. What works on the web is to go where the people are. Instead of building yet another web site it is often better to do a lightweight blog and then concentrate on using a range of tools and platforms to connect with existing communities and networks. The response of the social technology innovator, faced with a new piece of work or project developed by someone else, is “great, if you’ve done that already, I can build on it”. Open source thinking.

Setback for public sector bloggers

Paul Canning brings to our attention the case of a sacked blogger at the Welsh Assembly. As reported at WalesOnline:

AN Assembly Government civil servant who was sacked for running a political blog is taking his case to an Employment Tribunal.

Last night a former AM who himself is a regular blogger said he found the decision to dismiss the civil servant “heavy handed”.

The former Assembly Government employee, whose real name has not been disclosed but who ran a blog called Christopher Glamorganshire, provided what readers saw as a neutral running commentary on last year’s coalition negotiations involving Labour and Plaid Cymru.

An Assembly Government spokesman said: “This issue regards a former Welsh Assembly Government employee who was dismissed for activities related to the Glamorganshire Blog that contravened the Civil Service Code. The case went to the Civil Service Appeals Board, which we won, and it is listed for Employment Tribunal in Cardiff later this year.”

It is understood the elements of the Civil Service Code regarded by the Assembly Government as relevant to the case come under sections headed “integrity” and “rights and responsibilities”.

Obviously the material appeared on the blog before the recent guidance was developed and published, however it does show that the need for the guidance has been pressing for some time – it will be interesting if it wil be raised at the tribunal as being part of the blogger’s case. Let’s hope that sense prevails – this kind of heavy handed approach to bloggers doesn’t do anybody any good.

The issue that this case does raise, though, is that of how these guidelines can be applied to those not working in Whitehall. The argument will be made, I am sure, that they apply to anyone who also has to conform to the Civil Service Code, but what about all the public sector workers to whom this does not apply? I think there is a role for the developing Public Sector Webbies/Web Managers’ Group to come up with some guidance for anyone working in the public sector to work to – and to get some recognition from employers on the issue too.

Public Sector Bloggers

I’ve been wrestling with how to bring together and publicise the bloggers who have always been around, and those who are springing up following the publication of the guidelines.

So, I have started hacking together http://publicsectorblogs.org/ which takes a bunch of feeds, bungs them into one using Yahoo! Pipes and then republishes them on one page using SimplePie. Sophisticated it ain’t.

There is a combined feed to subscribe to via Feedburner, and an email subscription option too, but I see this more as a tool for people to quickly scan rather than anything else – there’s probably too much of it to begin with.

The bloggers I have used so far aren’t just civil servants, or local government officers, but anyone who works for or in the UK public service, and who write about it now and again. This is an inclusive kind of thing! They are (in no particular order):

If anyone has any further suggestions, do let me know in the comments.

I do need to make some improvements to the site, the most important one being to highlight where each post has come from. But this is my first time with SimplePie – and I suspect my use of Pipes complicates matters – and so any offers of help are appreciated!

Civil servants, blogs and anonymity

Back onto one of my favourite subjects: bloggers’ anonymity. There’s plenty of background here.

Paul Johnston wrote in the comments:

Great to see this upswing in civil servant blogging, but quite understandably they seem to be anonymous. Very understandable in my opinion and in my view quite acceptable if that is what suits the individuals best. I assume these civil servants want to remain anonymous a) to reduce the likelihood of the media doing anything silly with what they write b) to emphasize that what they say has nothing to do with the views of their employer. Are you still uncomfortable with that, Dave?

I replied that it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, just that I think transparency is always preferable. Besides, Mark O’Neill of DCMS has revealed his identity, it’s just Chris the Digital Pioneer who is staying in the shadows for now. I guess it depends on what you are doing, and one of the victims of the brevity of the guidance is that it’s hard to apply it all to every way a civil servant can participate online.

Take the recent example of Dylan Jeffrey from DCLG posting a comment on this blog, giving his department’s position on a topic under discussion. Had he done this anonymously, it would have been pretty useless.

Jeremy Gould blogs openly as himself, and as a result has become influential in the world of eGov, and has done a significant amount to push the agenda forward. This wouldn’t have been posible if no-one knew who he was.

As for the liklihood of media twisting words or messages – well, Civil Serf pretty much answers that one. Point one is that the media will report it even if it is anonymous; and number two is that discovering the identity of the blogger becomes part of the game. In the meantime, the anonymous blogger, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, has blogged things that perhaps they really shouldn’t and ends up in even more trouble once they are outed, which is inevitable.

I don’t really have that much of a problem with anonymous bloggers, really, I just think that nobody really stays anonymous for long and that whatever they are trying to achieve with their blog in the vast majority of cases would be more successful if their identity is known. There are exceptions: people in oppressive regimes, etc, but for civil servants, as the guidance says, “be a civil servant”!

A New Civil Servant Blogger

In what is, as far as I am aware, the first instance of  civil servant starting a blog because the new guidelines freed him up to do so, Mark O’Neill of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has begun a blog called Lost ConsCIOusness.

Good on him.

Do we need to start a list somewhere?

Edit: Justin points out in the comments that Digital Pioneer was also very quick out of the blocks. Welcome, Chris! You might just grab the gold medal if only for linking to me on just the second post…