Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

New Zealand government social media guidance

More examples of advice and guidance on using social media tools in government, this time from New Zealand.

The first bit is the High Level Guidance, described as helping:

organisations when they are trying to decide if they should use social media in a communications, community engagement, or a policy consultation context.  It is intended to be useful to managers and leadership teams, but also provides basic principles, code of conduct issues, and templates that are important for practioners of social media.

You can download it here.

The second is the Hands-on Toolbox, which

has been written to help practitioners who are setting up social media profiles and using the tools on a daily basis.  It has been written for public servants with limited experience using social media, but also offers tools and tips that will be useful for those practitioners who have been using social media for some time.

You can download that here.

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.

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”!

Civil Servants and the Social Web

There has been quite a discussion in recent times about the guidance for civil servants on how they should interract with the social web: see Emma and Nick for some of what has been said.

Well, now, as Jeremy announces, we have the guidance. We knew this was coming, because eGovernment minister Tom Watson told us it was imminent on Twitter.

The guidance itself is up on the Civil Service website, while over on the Power of Information taskforce’s blog, comments are being sought. The guidance is nice and short, being made up of 5 bullet points, followed by a bit of text about how the Civil Service Code affects how civil servants operate on the web. The five key points are:

  1. Be credible
  2. Be consistent
  3. Be responsive
  4. Be integrated
  5. Be a civil servant

There is still room for some slightly more detailed guidance, which I understand will soon be on its way. For example there is a difference between a civil servant commenting on a post on (say) this blog; commenting in a post on their own departmental blog; or writing on a personal blog of their own. This stuff needs exploring, and hopefully it will be done so in a social, collaborative way.

My hope is that even this short guidance will find its way to a wiki, where is can be grown and expanded as people see is appropriate. A more important thing to do is to try and make what is a pretty limited document in terms of scope (ie, it’s just for civil servants) applicable to the much wider audience of all public sector workers in the UK – including local government, for example.

Here’s some of the feedback so far from others, firstly from Steve Dale:

The initiative is to be applauded, and I particularly like the succinctness of the guidelines, which is most un-civil service-like, but in keeping with the overall concept of agility and flexibility that one associates with the brave new world of Web 2.0.

Emma:

I think they are brilliant in their simplicity – not entirely sure why they have taken so long to be published, but am not mud-slinging. Now I want to see civil service engagement all over the place!

Justin:

I’m not sure this will lead to an explosion of government bloggers but it does provide some sense of security for those already blogging. It will be interesting to see where this leads – the public sector digital community seems to be responding positively: some can already see potential in the announcement, whilst for others there is a general sense of relief.

Simon:

This is a big step indeed. And it shows the benefit of having a blog-literate Minister for e-Government. I’m just glad I registered govblogs.co.uk earlier in the week… for purposes which will soon become apparent.

Jeremy:

A recent sense check around Whitehall, with support from the egovernment minister has resulted in a much slimmed down set of principles for participation. They’re not perfect, they’re not comprehensive – but its a jolly good start and much welcome.