Us Now

Quite a few folk have been lucky enough to see Us Now, a film made by Banyak Films in association with the RSA. Ivo Gormley directs.

Here is how the film is described on its website:

Us Now is a documentary film project about the power of mass
collaboration, government and the Internet.

Us Now tells the stories of online networks that are challenging the
existing notion of hierarchy. For the first time, it brings together
the fore-most thinkers in the field of participative governance to
describe the future of government.

A great part of the project is that so much material has been made available online. You can see loads of stuff on the Clips page of the Us Now website. I’ve embedded the trailer below, for now.

Any readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about the ways in which advances in web technology can improve the way our democracy and government works. High profile projects like this – trying to draw the thinking together in ways that will get the attention of those not yet involved in the conversation – can only help improve things. Great work.

In a comment on Jeremy’s blog, Ivo mentions the possibility of using the film as the basis of a session at the forthcoming UK government barcamp, next month. What a fantastic idea – sign me up!

The UKGovWeb Twitterverse

The real value of Twitter is in the network, and if you are just starting out with it, and don’t have many people to follow, or much of a following yourself, it can seem a bit quiet, depressing and pointless. As you build up your network, though, suddenly things change and it becomes a vital communication tool.

So, if you are a public sector worker wanting to make the most of this great network, you might need a bit of help tracking down some people to start following and interacting with. Here’s that help! I’ve tried to break the various groups up into categories, to help you find who you want.

If I have missed anyone out or put them in the wrong place, please let me know in the comments! There’s gotta be more tweeting politicians, surely?

Central Government Official Feeds

Civil Servants

Local Authority Official Feeds

Local Authority Web Teams

Local Authority Officers

Other Public Sector Bodies & Officers

Politicians

Freelancers, Consultants etc

ReadWriteGov is this Wednesday!

This Wednesday sees the first of hopefully many ReadWriteGov events taking place at Peterborough City Council.

It’s going to be a great day, with some excellent speakers, all of whom are working within the public sector trying to get things done. They are:

  • Dominic Campbell who will be speaking about the work Barnet Council are doing to better connect with their citizens
  • Steph Gray from DIUS who will be talking about making social media projects happen in government
  • Hadley Beeman from the London Deanery who will be discussing her project to get social networking and collaboration happening in the health sector

If you would like to come, there are still one or two places available – find out more here. Tickets are jolly cheap for this sort of thing, at just £25 for public sector folk.

Even if you can’t make it though, you can still receive some ReadWriteGov love. For instance, you can visit the blog, where after the event we will be posting content from the day, including presentations from speakers, audio, photos and maybe some video too.

We also now have a Twitter account, through which you can hear about what is happening and pass comments or ask questions during the day. Unlike a lot of events that offer this kind of thing, I really will be tracking what people are saying and making sure the less offensive questions get asked!

Just follow @readwritegov to join in!

New Zealand Gov blog

The New Zealand State Services Commission has started a blog – you can find it here. In their words:

We’re aiming to build thought leadership around significant work programmes, including Authentication, Strategy and Policy and Web Standards, as well as providing a best practice example of how to effectively manage social media as part of public sector communications. Other agencies ask us for guidance in setting up their own blogs – what better way to help them than to give a clear demonstration of how we do it, and the policies behind our thinking? We’d like to look at how the public and the Government can interact better through the use of new technologies. We’re interested in issues around identity, privacy, accessibility, intellectual property, e-government guidelines and Web 2.0. If you have thoughts or feelings in this area, you’re our target audience, whether you work for the government or not.

They have some interesting posts up already, including one on gov ICT strategy in the current unsettled financial situation:

Long term fiscal pressures need long term investment and expenditure responses. In New Zealand government ICT we have a unique window of opportunity in the next 2-5 years arising from the replacement of “legacy” transaction processing systems implemented in the 1990s. We can redesign systems and re-engineer business processes across agencies to meet the expectations of the information age.

And this on government officials and Wikipedia:

Superficially, Te Ara, an encyclopaedia run by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, seems to be a competitor of Wikipedia: they offer the same service. However, unlike consumers of shoes or cars, consumers of information need not (and seldom do) choose one or the other: their produce is complementary and their relationship is mutually beneficial. Wikipedia relies on sites like Te Ara as references for their content, and Te Ara relies on sites like Wikipedia linking to Te Ara as a resource, in turn directing traffic there.

Good stuff and well worth subscribing. Wouldn’t it be good to have an agenda setting ‘official’ blog for government at all levels in the UK?

Found via the Connected Republic.

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!

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.

A GovWeb group blog?

There has been quite a lot of interest in the Public Sector Bloggers site I set up recently (and which I really must get around to updating soon), which has been very gratifying. One of the issues with it – and indeed with any process of aggregating content from lots of blogs into one place – is that the sheer weight of content may well get people down a bit.

I wonder if there is any need for a more editorialised type of blog, with multiple authors, writing about government webby issues, maybe in an introductory style. It might not even look like a blog, using a ‘magazine’ style theme for example. It could cover the occasional snippets of news in the web world with how-tos and other guidance, and lots of links to other related content. I don’t see why some content couldn’t just be reposted from people’s individual blogs, to be honest.

To try and avoid having too many articles, though, it could maybe have the content refreshed twice a week, say, so that people only need to visit the site then, rather than feeling they have to check it several times every day to avoid missing something. Obviously RSS and email subscriptions could be available for those that know how.

What do people think? Is there a need for such a site? If there is, who’s in to contribute?

What is the role of government on the web?

Gerry McGovern has been writing an excellent trio of posts on the topic of government and the web. He has identified five things that government should be addressing:

  1. Get away from a technology obsession
  2. Manage customer top tasks, not government websites
  3. Get politicians off government websites
  4. Stop government vanity publishing
  5. Develop a government archive

He expands on each of these things in the three posts. Recommended and thought-provoking reading.

Government offline

The Economist has published an interesting article on “Why business succeeds on the web and government mostly fails”:

Why is government unable to reap the same benefits as business, which uses technology to lower costs, please customers and raise profits? The three main reasons are lack of competitive pressure, a tendency to reinvent the wheel and a focus on technology rather than organisation.

That reflects another problem. In the private sector, tight budgets for information technology spark innovation. But bureaucrats are suckers for overpriced, overpromised and overengineered systems. The contrast is all the sharper given some of the successes shown by those using open-source software: the District of Columbia, for example, has junked its servers and proprietary software in favour of the standard package of applications offered and hosted by Google.

Hmmm. Thanks to John Naughton for the tip.