Tom Watson’s Christmas Message

Our Minister for Digital Engagement’s blog has a stark message:

Globalisation in a connected world did for Woolies. When my son is a teenager, his friends will arrange to meet online and share their music tastes before pressing the ‘buy’ button. They’ll discover the world from their shared trust in favourite web sites.

We are entering an era of profound and irreversible change to the way people choose to live their lives and organise the world around them.

And there isn’t a politician on the planet who is going to stop this.

FixMyStreet on DirectGov!

Tom Watson reports via Twitter that MySociety’s FixMyStreet is now embedded in DirectGov. On the page in question, a boxout gives you the option of reporting a problem via FixMyStreet rather than through the usual route of DirectGov linking you through to your local authority.

An interesting example of making volunteer effort a part of the ‘official’ government offering. I have had some interesting discussions with some local gov folk about how useful FixMyStreet actually is, so it will be fascinating to see how this is received.

Who would you like to see on Twitter?

Tom Watson is making a list of people who aren’t yet on Twitter, but who ought to be for all our benefit.

Stephen Fry (if it be he) has become an instant success using micro-blogging platfrom, Twitter. Life would be enriched if more of Britain’s treasured characters were sharing their daily thoughts with social networkers. So I’m compiling a list of the 50 well known people who should tweet. Good, bad, charming, rude, the rogues and the pious, you name them and I’ll write to them over Christmas to urge them to join Twitter.

Add your suggestions in the comments on his post.

How councils can get started with social media

A sunday morning tweet from Tom Watson set my mind racing this morning:

Which is a very interesting question, not least for me as I have a considerable interest in loca government’s use of social media, as facilitator of the Social Media and Online Collaboration Community of Practice, the developer of the local government search engine and as the one-time author of a blog about using this stuff in local gov.

I actually think there are tremendous opportunities here, possibly more so than in central government, because at the local level, there is already a connection between the people and the government organisation, even if it is just through the collection of council tax, or the picking up of refuse. Local government doesn’t necessarily need to develop common ground with the people it serves, because the locality already act as a common denominator. Councils have a real opportunity to help develop the use of social media in a grographical area, to take a lead, say, in the definition and promotion of common tags to use so that locally generated content can be easily found and shared. The local authority could act as a convener, helping to draw people together online, including individual bloggers/photo sharers/etc, the local press, community groups and so on. I wrote more about this here.

There is plenty of good stuff going on already, but it is in pockets and I’m not sure how well the great work that is going on is being communicated to other authorities. Dominic Campbell is up to some terrific stuff in Barnet, and Simon Wakeman at Medway. I’ve written before about some of their stuff. Then there is Stratford, whose homepage features their Twitter feed, a flickr badge, and links to Stratford’s presence on various social networks, as well as a rather cool way to find out when your bins will be collected. Other councils are also starting to use Twitter as another channel to communicate their stuff – I’m collecting them here. Carl Haggerty at Devon has produced a plan for an externally facing onine community site for the people of Devon to use to connect, share and talk with each other, which looks great.

Lot’s of ideas were discussed at the workshop held by Simon Berry during his time at CLG earlier this year. I wrote up my thoughts in terms of using the social web to make local government a bit less boring. What was clear from the session was that there was tonnes of stuff that councils could be doing to revitalise their relationship with the people using the web.

So, after all that background, how can a Council dip their toes into social media waters?

First, start listening. Stop relying on Google Alerts and start using RSS. Maybe iGoogle, Pageflakes or Netvibes to start with. Subscribe to searches, but also to feeds for Flickr tags and groups related to your area, to delicious bookmarks that are appropriately tagged, likewise YouTube and other video sites. Start checking the local forums and noting where the Council comes in for criticism or even praise. Look on Facebook to see if there are any groups or pages formed around the area – if they are public then you can see what’s being said without having to join at this stage. Identify the people with an obvious love for the area, with genuine enthusiasm and commitment.

Next, start acknowledging and responding. Respond where appropriate in blog comments and in forums. Make sure that the Council’s message is being heard where people want to hear it, don’t rely on them checking your website for press releases or news items, or reading the local paper cover-to-cover. Make use of creative commons licenced images on flickr on your own website, and make sure you include a crediting link. Link from your site to those containing some good news, related to the local area.

Thirdly, start to engage yourself. Start public blogs for big council projects, so that people can be kept in the know – if they want to be – and can leave comments or ask questions, and then make sure someone responds to them. Maybe senior managers should blog too, to help get messages out that people can read without them first going through the filter of the local press. How about creating a blog to publicise the services that the council provides, by having a different team blog every couple of weeks about what they do. Create video content and make it shareable on YouTube, etc, encouraging others to display council content on their sites. Make the copyright on council content as relaxed as possible so that others can use it however they choose. Put meetings online, even if it isn’t live streamed, make them available as podcasts, put any slides on services like SlideShare.

Where should this all be done? Try and use existing services where you can. Don’t try and recreate existing networks where they are already working. If people are happy uploading to a flickr group, let them, don’t try and force them to use an online photo gallery you have just developed. In fact, rather than developing it, spend the money showing folk who don’t know about flickr how to use it. Likewise with blogs – you need a really good argument, in my opinion, not to just use WordPress.com. It’s just so quick and easy – and free.

Who should be doing this? In terms of listening, everyone in the Council. If that’s unrealistic, then at least someone in each team should be monitoring what’s going on, not just communications departments. In terms of acknowledging and responding, then officers with responsibility for what is being discussed should feel empowered to state the council’s position on relevant issues online – again they shouldn’t feel the need to leave it to the communications officer. As for enagaging, then anyone with an enthusiasm for connecting locally online should be provided with the tools to do so. Nobody should be forced into it, but those with a passion to spread the word about the good work they, and other council officers, do should be empowered to do so.

Another important point to make is that social media doesn’t take the place of other forms of communication and enagagement, and really ought to be considered an “as well as”. You’ll still need to do your newsletters and stuff, bu you might be able to integrate the two – maybe by putting links to your online content in your newsletters, for instance. It also mean that you still need to use face to face means of consulting – whilst online social methods can bring great results, it is vital to blend in the offline too, so as to ensure that you are not excluding anyone, and so that as many different voices can be heard.*

What is clear is that this stuff is not the responsibility of the web team, nor the comms team. It should be in service teams that the ideas should be produced and the comms and web folk should just provide the means for that idea to flourish. You do need to have the boss onside though, which is where notes from Cabinet Office ministers come into play.

* This bit added thanks to Lloyd’s comment below. Thanks Lloyd!

Show them a better way

Bit late on this one, but hey ho. The Power of Information Taskforce has launched a new initiative, which many commentators have ikened to the BBC Backstage project, to open up the way that government data can be hacked about. Effectively, ideas are being requested to improve the way government communicates. To quote the site, called Show Us a Better Way:

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful.  To provide you with some raw materials we will be posting some links to information sources here.

Steve Dale recorded a video of Tom Watson – the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the Task Force – introducing the competition at 2gether08.

Bill Thompson writes:

The downside is that although they’ve got access to many of these sources they can’t be used freely yet, as there are still many restrictions on how we can exploit the data the government collects on our behalf. But if enough good ideas emerge then it will help put pressure on the various data holders to offer more permissive license, and we may eventually see a general presumption that public data is freely available to the public, as The Guardian has been arguing for a while now.

Simon Dickson says:

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

A term that has been bandied about a good deal recently in connected with this and other initiatives is ‘codesign’, the idea that processes and products are best developed in the open, with the cooperation and collaborative between government, organisations, communities and individuals.

In many ways, there is no reason why government shouldn’t engage in these sorts of developments, after all it theoretically shouldn’t have the competitive elements that might dissuade commercial enterprises from sharing all.

I wonder if I can tie in here the comment Tom Steinberg of MySociety left here recently, picking up on a point I made about who’s responsibility it is to actually get things done in this space:

“Is it organisations like MySociety? Or is it every individual with a laptop and a broadband connection? I am beginning to suspect the answer is the latter”

That would be awesome, but until Ning gets good enough to make building sites like WhatDoTheyKnow into a point-and-click exercise we’ll have to keep filling the gaps, sorry!

Of course, there is no need for Tom to apologise at all. There is a gap at the moment, and MySociety is filling it, and enriching the online political experience better than anyone else. No doubt too that MySociety will be coming up with some awesome, innovative ideas to make use of data, whether through Show Us a Better Way or not.

Exercises like this one just launched by the Taskforce make the liklihood of a growing army of bedroom government institutional hackers all the more likely. They may only have a very narrow interest in a specific part of government. They may not want to help government at all, but maybe groups on the outside of the usual political processes. Either way, they may nevr have had the chance to participate in these kind of exercises before.

It will be interesting to see, if the codesign concept takes off within government, whose (who’s?) responsibility it ends up being. It’s not a webby’s job, really, but it isn’t strictly a policy thing either. It blends and mashes the two into a new role as ill-defined and messy as the process of codesign itself. How this can fit into a departmental org chart, God only knows.

Power of Information Task Force

Tom Watson posted up his speech announcing the Power of Information Task Force on his blog yesterday and it contained some really good stuff. I guess that those who want to can snicker about the notion of creating a task force to promote innovation (shouldn’t we be organising without organisations?), but I’m glad that there will be some folk looking into this stuff, and it would be nice if they do so in an open and collaborative way.

Only last week, the Prime Minister became the first head of Government in Europe to launch his own channel on Twitter, which I can tell you from experience, is extremely useful to his ministers at least.

But we need to make it easier for others too.

Hazel Blears
with be leading this agenda when her department will address this in a White Paper on engagement in the summer.

But I want to take the Power of Information agenda further and do it faster. So today I am announcing the establishment of the Power of Information Taskforce. I’m pleased to say that Richard Allan has agreed to Chair the Taskforce. Richard has a vast breadth of knowledge in this field. He’s also an all round good guy and I know he will help us provide clarity to government departments as they contend with the power of information agenda.

Most interesting for me were the bits that focused on community engagement and participation. Let’s have a look at one or two now.

And in the week where the digital world went crazy over Mystarbucksidea.com (I’ve already voted for free Wifi), NHS choices launched a blog about diabetes, bringing together the people who treat the illness and the people who receive treatment. It’s a brilliant ideas and hopefully will foster a new information community who can work together to improve things.

I was diagnosed a type 1 diabetic about a year ago, so have quite an interest in this. I was 27 when I was diagnosed, which is a funny age I think, and led to it taking quite a while for the doctors to figure out if I was type 1 (meaning injections) or type 2 (meaning I had to eat less). I still haven’t got to grips with it yet: I’m supposed to inject myself four times a day but manage it twice at best, largely with the result that I feel pretty crap all the time. Last summer I was hospitalised twice and suffered a crippling bout of depression. I guess I am exactly the sort of person that this blog is supposed to be reaching out to: I’ve got the disease, I’m crap at dealing with it, and I like blogs. I hadn’t heard about it though, which renders it pretty useless. Still, now I do, thanks to Tom, I’ll engage with it, leave a comment or two and see what happens. The blog idea is nice, but I wonder whether more of a social network type approach would be better – linking me up with other diabetics who have been through similar issues.

My officials have been working up draft guidance on how public servants can use social media. And the Power of Information Report made a series of recommendations about this too.

I want the taskforce to ensure that the COI and Cabinet Office produce a set of guidelines that adheres to the letter of the law when it comes to the civil service code but also lives within the spirit of the age. I’ll be putting some very draft proposals to the taskforce to consider later this week.

Here, here. I wrote in the wake of the Civil Sef affair that Public servants should be blogging, or engaging through other social networking tools. Public servants are too often characterised as faceless bureaucrats and the more that can be done to dissuade people from that notion, the better. But to get more public sector workers being open, they need to feel safe to do so, and sensible policies will help to do that.

We will also look at, and learn from, the way people are communicating with each other.

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

This is a point I have been meaning to blog about for some time: the relationship between online collaborative communities and the co-operative movement. The point is that while the tools are new, the relationships aren’t, and people have been working together to tackle problems since the year dot. What the tools do is make the process easier and more transparent and because they also make it easier to do without forming institutions or organisations, they also remove some of the political undercurrents too. More needs to be written on this, I think.

And when we know we get a delivery channel right we should use the ‘collaboration’ part of Ed’s vision to best effect, to gain, social leverage, as Professor Shirky would say.

Let me use a recent story to illustrate this point. I recently registered my local Labour Party with groupsnearyou.com. This is a new site provided by the MySociety people. It’s a site for people who run small scale community focused groups.

Through the site, I found West Bromwich Freecycle.

I’m the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East and I didn’t know about an important recycling initiative going on in my own patch. This information now means that a bag load of clothing for a small child and a habitat sofa are about given a second chance to give pleasure.

Nice example, not least because of the use of an existing network to connect with others. The delivery channel – in this case the connecting of local groups – does not therefore need to be created by the government, or the Labour Party, rather by interested folk, doing things in an open and collaborative way like MySociety does.  This taps into another long running question of mine which asks whose responsibility is it to push for improvements in civic life using social tools? Is it the government, at whatever level? Is it organisations like MySociety? Or is it every individual with a laptop and a broadband connection? I am beginning to suspect the answer is the latter – individuals pushing the boundaries and demonstrating where the value is, with the institutions following up once the point has been proved. Organisations like MySociety can help but they aren’t necessarily needed

Overall, a great speech to hear from a cabinet minister. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Hello, Rohan Silva

I, like Nick Booth and presumably countless others, got an email from someone called Rohan Silva today, who has an @parliament email address. Rohan writes:

I thought you might be interested in how Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson‘s speech yesterday on new technologies and the internet “mashed up” Conservative Party policies, speeches and ideas from the past 18 months. (Comically, the link to Tom’s speech isn’t actually working at the moment: http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/?p=1899 – and it’s not been published on the Cabinet Office website…)

It’s well worth reading Tom’s entire speech alongside our previous key speeches on this subject, and seeing for yourself just how much of it has been purloined from Conservative Party announcements. But for those of you who don’t have time to do that, here’s a selection of some of the most obvious thefts in Tom’s speech, along with some suggestions about other Conservative Party internet related policies that he may want to borrow for his next one…

What follows is a job lot of loosely related content from Watson’s speech, along with the Tory equivalent from where it was ‘stolen’. There are obviously problems with this, as Nick points out in his post:

Rohan: I know and can find a whole range of already public sources for these ideas: books, websites, blogs, reports commissioned by goverment and others. These ideas are out there and both parties are getting to grips with them and talking about them. I would have to be something of a moron to believe that all the government is doing is nicking ideas from you when it is much more credible to believe that you are all reading about and experience the same radical shift in how we communicate and collaborate.

It’s kind of interesting that the Tories are targeting a group of interested folk in this way. But several things annoyed me:

  1. The list was sent to everyone in the bcc field, so I have no idea who else got this. Great way to start a conversation.
  2. Why not post this on a blog somewhere, point us to it and start a discussion around it?
  3. As Nick points out, why not engage with Tom and see to it that these ideas get implemented?

This ain’t the way to go about it, boys.

Tom Watson’s been busy

Tom Watson, the Cabinet Office minister for web stuff, has been busy, first of all giving a speech on Government 2.0:

Driving through the cultural change in all our communications that sees the internet, mobile and other new media as the norm

  • ensuring better innovation and much faster implementation. Build stuff small, test it out then iterate, iterate, iterate.
  • capturing the skills, talent and energy we need for change – from within the public service and from outside. Over the next few weeks I hope to say more on this.
  • using new media to engage more directly and more effectively with individuals and communities.

Certainly sounds good. Am available for the middle one, obviously 😉

Also, on his blog, Tom comes up with a code for civil servant blogging, obviously in the light of the Civil Serf affair:

1. Write as yourself
2. Own your own content
3. Be nice
4. Keep secrets
5. No anonymous comments
6. Remember the civil service code
7. Got a problem? Talk to your boss
8. Stop it if we say so
9. Be the authority in your specialist field – provide worthwhile information
10. Think about consequences
11. Media interest? Tell your boss
12. Correct your own mistakes

Not sure about 8 (who’s ‘we’?), but otherwise a reasonable list.