Reputation: not a goal but a measure

I am not Dave Briggs*.

I’ve been following the #lgcomms12 hashtag this week. This is the label for tweets from the LGComms Academy event in Birmingham. It is much more lively than in previous years I must say and it sounds like they’ve been having a really interesting time.

Richard Stokoe from London Fire Brigade has caused quite a stir. He seems to have been arguing that Councils should not care about their reputation. I’ve put a flavour of the tweets in a Storify. Richard refuses to tweet himself.

It is pretty strong stuff for corporate comms professionals. Managing reputations is what PR professionals do. Already under threat from digital comms, from people “just doing it” within their own organisations they now face one of their own turning on them.

Which is all to the good.

I’m pretty sure that Richard Stokoe does care about the reputation of local government. He ran the LGA news team after all.

But he cares more about looking after people. When I interviewed him about how London Fire Brigade approaches social media he was very clear that it is all about stopping fires.

I agree with that approach, communications activity should be about changing people’s lives. It should be about making sure that the vulnerable know what services they can access, it should be about making sure that everybody makes use of the recycling service, it should be about transforming the way services are delivered.

Though I have concerns about where that narrative takes us. If local authorities cease to care about their reputation locally that could take them into some very dark areas.

Local authorities are important. They intervene very heavily in the lives of the most vulnerable in society and they shape the environment and economy for us all. They regulate things, they balance competing needs and wishes, they hold the ring in communities.

If we don’t trust or respect our local authority it will find it hard to deliver services. It may make people’s lives worse. It will become dragged into conflict and a cycle of failed projects and angry customers.

Local authorities should earn and re-earn trust. They should care about their reputation: not as a goal in itself but as a measure of how well they serve their community.

PR in local government should be a tool by which citizens can drive improvements in the council. It should not be a tool by which citizens can be persuaded their services are better than they are.

*This is my first blog on Kind of Digital’s site. I have my own blog where I write about digital comms and emergencies. The plan is that, as I often help Dave deliver projects and training, I may post on this site from time to time about non-emergency comms stuff. But I guess that depends on how many complaints the Kind of Digital team receives.

WordPress for local government

wordpressWordPress, the open source content management system that I use here on this blog, is growing in its utilisation across government. It took root a bit quicker in central government, with the Number 10 site, Defra, Wales Office and the Department of Health, amongst others, using WordPress to deliver some or all of their web content.

There’s increasing evidence of its use in local government too, mostly for micro-sites rather than being used as the main content management system for a council’s corporate website. Take the ‘digital press office’ sites at Shropshire or Birmingham, for example.

Carl Haggerty recently blogged about two new WordPress sites Devon County Council have published – a newsroom site and a networking site for social care commissioning.

Some councils have the capacity to run their own servers for hosting WordPress, and to keep the software maintained, templates developed and so on – which is great. But what about those authorities that lack the in-house knowledge, or perhaps just the time?

At Kind of Digital, we are currently supporting one district council to make the most of WordPress by supplying a comprehensively supported platform to run multiple WordPress sites for a small yearly subscription fee.

The platform provides:

  • a dedicated virtual private server hosting a WordPress multisite instance, with no limit on the number of sites hosted
  • maintenance of the software, plugins and themes, with regular upgrades taking place
  • daily backups both locally and to the cloud and an SLA guaranteeing uptime and availability
  • telephone, web and email support, and written and video-based documentation and guidance
  • a number of training and consultancy days every year to help people use the platform to its potential
  • a number of templates to use on sites, including microsites, blogs, commentable documents, consultation sites and much more

The organisation will soon start to see considerable savings as microsites hosted in a number of locations are brought together and re-hosted on the multisite platform.

We’re already talking to a couple of other organisations about supporting them with a similar arrangement. As I mentioned above, many organisations can support WordPress perfectly easily themselves – but for those that need a helping hand, we’ve got a nice system ready and waiting to go.

Interested? Drop me line!

The Preston Social Media Toolkit

A bit of a flurry on Twitter about Preston City Council’s ‘Social Media Toolkit‘ which describes itself as

a complete guide to joining the social media revolution

It costs £199 (plus VAT).

I wish them luck. I do this stuff for living and it’s very, very hard to make money from content. Apparently newspapers and record labels are finding it tricky too.

My preferred method is to give it away, publish it for free, and gain a reputation for helpfulness and perhaps a little expertise. That reputation, somewhere down the line, turns into paid work. That’s the theory anyway.

So would I advise any councils to buy this document? Probably not. There’s plenty of free content out there – possibly on this blog, if you take the time to hunt for it.

But if it’s easy to read documents you are after, then download Social by Social and Local by Social for free. The latter is a fantastic general document on the practicalities of using social technology, and the former puts it all into the local government context beautifully.

Another read is the 21st century councillor one for that particular group of people – and I understand that it’s being refreshed at the moment.

I did put out the idea of perhaps writing something like this collaboratively, on a wiki, for the benefit of everyone, but that might not even be necessary. Maybe we just need to produce a list of links to public, freely available blog posts written by people like Dan, Carl, Sarah, Sharon, Ingrid and others (sorry if I missed you out) which already have all that info in them.

That way, newcomers have a curated list of great content that will answer most of their questions, and the authors still get the clicks and the page views, which may or may not be important to them.

Portfolio: sharing council comms resources

Portfolio looks an interesting idea, coming out of Nottingham City Council.

This, from an article at LGComms:

We’re launching Portfolio, a web portal that allows public sector organisations to share marketing materials. Councils and other public authorities can sign up to it for free and save money by buying ready-made, proven marketing campaigns. It also enables them to make money by uploading and selling their own designs.

Kind of an app store but for comms resources. Cool.

Right now it’s just traditional print media designs that are available, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too hard to include video assets, audio and so on.

Maybe even WordPress templates and the like?

Adverts on council websites

Adrian Short picks up on some adverts that appear on a council’s website. They’re for debt management companies that encourage people to apply for bankruptcy.

Probably not a good thing – I think we’d probably rather people needing advice about that sort of thing go to the Citizens Advice Bureau, for example.

Soem folk don’t think councils should run adverts on their sites. I’m pretty indifferent personally – if they can make it work and get some revenue to help develop the website, then that’s fair enough.

Councils running adverts on their websites do need to be very careful however about the contents of those adverts. If you’re using Google Adsense then it is possible to moderate the adverts to keep inappropriate content off your site. As a reputation management issue, this is a vital activity – but also of course to protect those using the site.

Maybe an alternative is to use a more local, friendly service than Google – such as Addiply. This would offer far more control.

Peter McClymont raises another interesting issue:

After all, councils get plenty of web traffic because there’s nowhere else to go for that content. If I want to pay my council tax, I have to visit the council website, meaning any adverts on that site get the benefit of my eyeballs and potential clicks as a result of that monopoly position.

I doubt if anyone has done any research in those areas where councils do run ads as to whether it has affected the revenues of the local newspaper website, for example. It would be interesting though, I think.

For more information on councils running adverts, Catherine Howe wrote an excellent summary post earlier this year.

Future of local gov IT strategy

Gotta love blogging local government types. Great post here from Warwickshire County Council’s Jim Morton about their developing IT strategy.

My favourite bit:

1. Embrace the practice of using ICT as a Utility: It is now possible to consume software, development platforms and infrastructure from the cloud which can potentially lead to many benefits. We need to understand where working this way will help save us time and money as well as avoid extensive development in re-inventing the wheel where a product or service can be used off the shelf. As an example our open data site is already provided using the Ruby on Rails platform as a service provider Heroku.

2. Warwickshire as a service: This is a (hopefully) catchy way of saying that we need to expand our initial work on open data to include as many of our data sets and services as possible i.e. build an open API for the organisation. The vision is that both internal and external developers will make use of the same building blocks for creating services applications and web sites.

3. Rational approach to information management: We need to overcome the historical and technical silos that we have built up around information to build single sources of the truth and gain a clearer understanding of the context around our data and documents. This will allow us to build more useful, accurate applications and web sites as well as providing clear understanding of which information must be kept safe and secure.

4. Use the web to extend the organisation: We need to move from an arms-length model of interacting with the public web via a curated web presence and individual point solutions for deeper interaction to becoming an organisation that is engaged with the web at a cultural as well as technical level. Staff at WCC need to merge the web into their everyday work-life in the same way that they do in their personal lives.

Update: just come across this illuminating interview with Socitm President Jos Creese:

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.

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.

If place is a system, let’s make it an open source one

This is a post that has been brewing for a long while, so sorry if it smells a bit. The basic concept hit me during FutureGov‘s excellent CityCamp London event, and keeps reoccurring as I have chats with people and read stuff online.

It’s not a post about technology, really, but rather taking some of the lessons learned from technology and seeing how it can be applied to everyday public services.

The way I see it is this – places, whether cities, towns, villages, or larger areas like districts, counties or regions, can be seen as systems. They have a number of different sectors and organisations working within them, all of which have their own distinct processes, but all of which also interact with one another all the time.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the system works as well as it does most of the time. These are complicated beasts.

So what about this open source business? Well, whilst in theory anyone can contribute code to an open source project, in general, not many people actually do. Instead, development is handled by a small core group, and most people’s effort is put into testing software and submitting bug reports.

This is the role I think citizens can play in redesigning local services – not necessarily producing solutions, but spotting the issues, the bugs, and reporting them. As Eric Raymond wrote in his seminal work on open source development, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, identifying problems is the hard bit, the bit where you need ‘many eyeballs’ – solving them should be straightforward for those that understand the system.

That’s not to say that citizens shouldn’t be involved in contributing ideas for improvements, but it shouldn’t be their only contribution. I suspect this is the reason why the success of ideation competitions across the world has been variable, as Andrea Di Maio has noted on several occasions.

A key part of the bug tracking process, though, is visibility, and this is what our public services lack right now as part of the feedback mechanism.

The bugs people identify are published on the web, categorised and tagged so they can easily be found. Other people try to recreate the bugs so they can be further tested. People suggest possible solutions, which the core development team may or may not take on board.

For place to work effectively as an open source system, then, we need an open, public repository of bugs that anybody can access.

After all, there are very few areas of service delivery that just one organisation has ownership of. Take anti-social behaviour – it’s a police matter, sure, but also a health one, an education one, a social services one. There are probably some community and voluntary organisations that have an interest too.

Any one of those services might have an easy solution to a problem, but if they don’t know about it because it was reported to someone else, then nothing is going to happen.

Likewise when people are submitting issues, or bugs, they don’t necessarily care which service they should be reporting it to. Which tier of local government? Is it a police matter? We shouldn’t force people to understand our hierarchies and structures just because they want to point something out that is going wrong.

Some people might be crying out ‘FixMyStreet!’ at this stage, and that site does go a certain way to answer some of the issues I’ve written about. But there are a couple of key differences. The first is the nature and tone of FMS, which the name makes clear. ‘Fix my street!’ yells the citizen. Maybe we should turn that around, and make it ‘How can I help you to fix my street?’ might be a more positive exchange.

Not only that, but while FMS provides a space for public responses to issues from the council, it doesn’t make the process of producing a solution an open one. It doesn’t open the conversation up to the other actors in a place, it doesn’t enable citizens themselves to contribute to the solution – whether through their ideas or actually physically doing something.

Here’s another example. Maybe someone reports a bug in the local public transport arrangements, getting from a village into the local town – there isn’t a bus early enough to get them to work. They could report the bug straight into the local council, in which case it would probably end up being pushed to the transport operator. But this misses the opportunity for perhaps a local private car hire firm to step into the breach, or indeed for a local resident to offer a lift. In the latter case, sometimes a problem in the system doesn’t need a system wide fix.

There are a number of challenges to open sourcing a place like this. A major one is the way that partnerships work at the moment, which can be incredibly slow moving, bureaucratic and not terribly collaborative. A more enlightened approach will be necessary – although in this age of public sector austerity, such an attitude is likely to be required anyway.

There is some tech required – the best place for the bug tracker is online, but throwing something together in WordPress or Drupal shouldn’t take anyone who knows what they are doing too long at all.

So this concept I think starts to tie together some of my thinking around coproduction, crowdsourcing, open source and my more recent outpourings on innovation and creative collaboration.

I’d be really interested in people’s thoughts. Please spot the bugs in what I’ve written!

Whilst the half baked thinking in this post is entirely mine, the bug tracker idea was originally blogged about by Tim Davies a few years ago; and the importance of visibility was made clear to me in a conversation with Nick Booth.