Dave @ PSF

I’m going to be talking to a bunch of public sector folk on Thursday as part of a Public Sector Forums event entitled Public Sector Websites – Essential Issues for Managers, Developers and Others.

It should be a good day – as well as me, other speakers include:

  • Gavin Woods – Business Development Manager, BrowseAloud
  • Jack Pickard, Web Services Manager, Public Sector Forums
  • Dan Champion – Champion Internet Solutions
  • Simon Halberstam – ‘Weblaw’ & Partner, Sprecher Grier Halberstam LLP
  • Simon Wakeman – Head of Marketing, Medway Council
  • Peter Barton – Lincolnshire County Council

My bit is on ‘Social Networking and other Tools of Engagement’. Here’s the blurb:

Dave will begin to identify what the social web can do, and help equip the delegation with the skills and tools that will enable them to succeed using those tools.

Should be a good day. If you aren’t already booked up, what are you waiting for? 😉

Unlocking the Power of Local Government Information

The Power of Information Taskforce has shared some great advice on their blog for local authorities to help them share their data with people who want to do interesting stuff with it.

It includes making it clear to folk exactly what they can do with the data, using a single common licence to reduce confusion and recommends the use of the PSI’s ‘Click-use‘ licence.

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!

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!

Digital mentor update

Just a quick post for those who are interested in the digital mentor role which was mooted in the Communities in Control white paper. There has been a terrific response in the comments on my post on the subject, from people in the third sector, local government, education and a few interested individuals too. Thanks to all for those.

The questions that are being asked go right to the core of the issues:

  • Who are the digital mentors supposed to be? Volunteers? Local government officers? Paid individuals? Charity groups?
  • What are they meant to do? Is it just around upskilling people in digital media – or is there a role to connecting people to local services and democratic engagement online too?
  • How are they meant to achieve this – through online training, workshops, or printed stuff? How will it be paid for?
  • When are the digital mentors to start working?
  • Where will the pilots be?

I have started making a few enquiries to find out who knows what about the development of the role, and to see if there is some way we can all have an input into the process. If anybody has any ideas, do leave them in the comments here.

Councils respond to Communities in Control

The Local Government Association has responded to the white paper Communities in Control on behalf of local authorities across the country. They are clearly anxious about finances:

Councils will work with the Government to ensure that any additional responsibilities that councils have as a result of these proposals are properly funded.

and are keen that not too much power goes to the people:

It is through representative democracy that elected councillors make tough decisions based on the interests of residents and this should remain the lynchpin of involving people locally.

Worth reading in full – thanks to Dominic for the link.

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?

More online government innovation

There seems to be a head of steam being built up here, folks.

The Department for Innovation, University and Skills – who ought to be good at this stuff, really – has launched a new minisite called Innovation Nation : Interactive. It’s a consultation exercise around the Innovation Nation strategy, but is much more fun than the usual “here’s a PDF and an email address” approach. Here’s how they describe it themselves:

We’d like to hear your views and feedback on the Innovation Nation strategy that we published in March 2008, to help inform the implementation of the strategy. This is an interactive version of the Executive Summary of the document, where you can comment on each paragraph individually, or on sections as a whole.

It runs on WordPress (natch) and the CommentPress theme – one of a new breed of templates that change the way that sites work as well as the way they look. It’s a really nicely put together site.

Steph Gray, the blogging Social Media Manager at DIUS, puts it thus on his site:

In terms of the technology story, it’s amazing how CommentPress transforms a plain vanilla blogging format into such a dynamic tool for analysing a text, and just how easy it is to implement. Inspired by Glyn from Open Rights Group at a TeaCamp a while back, the site was put together in less than a day (though we’ve done less fancy customisation than ORG’s impressive implementation). The project is also one of the first public outings of our sandbox server, designed to be at arm’s length from the corporate site and with greater scope to test innovative tools and approaches online. Finally, we also used the excellent MailBuild email distribution system to help alert key stakeholders and contributors to the initial consultation about the new site via a branded email.

But we hope the bigger story will be the breaking down of the classic consult/deliver dichotomy which we’re challenging policy teams to overcome. We’d love this interactive document to become a place where policymakers, stakeholders and interested citizens come together to help move a policy forward, and we’ll be doing our best to act as a bridge between commenters and the civil servants who are working hard to change things. Don’t underestimate the scale of the cultural challenge here: we’re asking seasoned, busy public servants with a familiar way of working to take extra time and effort to make engagement a continuous process – and to do so in a whole new way.

I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in innovation in the public, private or third sectors to visit the site and leave constructive feedback where you can.