Archive for September, 2007

FCO is web 2.Go

Its already been ‘exclusively revealed’ elsewhere, and even trailed in the national press. Now some of the ‘exciting stuff’ I alluded to the other day has gone live: the Foreign Office’s multi-channel social media initiative.

Combining multiple blogs, a Youtube channel and a Flickr account, the FCO has gone full steam ahead embracing social media tools for a different kind of online engagement, particularly for government.

Of course it helps that they have an enlightened and experience secretary of state to help blaze the trail, but whats interesting about this iteration is that they have depersonalised the initiative somewhat and made it more collegiate. Instead of just one blogger (though no doubt David Miliband will be the focal point) they’ve recruited six from right across the organisation: politicians, diplomats and officials (who said civil servants cannot blog?….). My guess is they’ve learnt the lessons of the foreign secretary’s previous departments: when you lose your blogger, you lose your blog.

The integration of Youtube and Flickr also looks good too. I understand that all six bloggers have been kitted out with gear to allow them to record, edit and upload as seamlessly as possible. I’m also glad to see that they’ve enabled comments on the Youtube and Flickr accounts, something that the Number 10 effort has not enabled.

All in all, it a pretty neat execution, it will be interesting to see what they do next (I have no idea, just guessing….).

The government web strategy – back of a fag packet version

Those who actually read this blog regularly (or get cornered and bored by me in the real world…) know that I have been banging on about the need for a simply defined and well communicated government web strategy for a very long time.

Why? – because there is an awful lot going on in improving the government’s online offerings but it doesn’t seem to ‘hang together’ at the moment, it needs an overarching framework so that its easy to explain as a whole, rather than its constituent parts.

What got me thinking about this was the endless round of meetings that started about 18 months ago on the back of the transformational government agenda. Almost without exception, colleagues would confidently tell me that the government web strategy was all about ‘closing websites down’. Far from it. But because that initiative was so high profile with momentum and buy-in, thats exactly what it looked like.

Now, as other transformational government initiatives kick in – updating guidelines on managing sites, improving search across government sites, archiving digital information etc etc its becoming easier to see how the strategy fits together.

Government web isn’t unique in this regard. I’ve previously referenced Jeremiah Owyang’s work on why the corporate domain is increasingly irrelevant. Corporate domains in government are still important, but its just as essential to understand how to integrate other online channels into the mix.

At the recent heads of ecommunications meeting, there was a discussion about developing departmental web strategies and a call for those who have already developed them to share them with the network. That got me thinking that it would be an awful lot easier if there was a clear statement – call it what you will: strategy, framework, statement of intent – setting out government-wide priorities, channels, audience segmentation etc. This would then allow organisations across government to align themselves with it and take their lead from it.

So what follows here is an attempt to capture how I usually respond when people ask me, ‘ what is the government’s web strategy’? Call it a bar-stool or Mickey Mouse version if you like. Its not perfect (in any case, it changes every time I recite it), probably missing bits or not expressed quite right. But its a start. Grateful for any thoughts on how to improve it. Who knows, we might actually create a credible statement about what all this stuff we do is actually about:

GOVERNMENT WEB STRATEGY (rough guide)

The aim of the government web strategy is to improve the delivery of government information, services and engagement (ISE) online.

This will be achieved by:

  • Clearly defining online channels by audience and need
  • Ensuring online channels meet required government standards for accessibility, usability and other technical aspects
  • Ensuring ISE is easily findable and searchable by improving it visibility to search engines
  • Providing opportunities for interaction and engagement with government online.

PRIMARY DELIVERY CHANNELS and who they are for (this is not definitive but a rule of thumb)

Services and information for the citizen, other than healthcare. are delivered through DirectGov.

Healthcare information is delivered through NHS Direct/NHS Choices.

Services and information for business sectors are delivered through Businesslink.

Policy news, publications (reports, consultations etc) and corporate stakeholder engagement is delivered through departmental corporate domains.

Stakeholder/workforce specific ISE (guidance, resources etc) could be delivered through the corporate domain or via a standalone site dependent on the size/scale of the defined audience (e.g. armed forces specific domains but smaller groups of practitioners by the parent department).

CHANNELS FOR DRIVING TRAFFIC / INFORMING USERS

Info4local delivers tailored, opt-in messages to the wider public sector

Bespoke email marketing can be used for other tailored audiences

Syndication tools (e.g. RSS) can be used to inform and/or push information to users.

ENGAGEMENT CHANNELS

Social media tools can be used for a variety of purposes to generate engagement opportunities (e.g. in support of consultation, elicit feedback, collaborate etc)

Social networks can allow government to engage and interact with pre-existing communities.

ENABLING CHANNELS

search – improved standards for site/content optimisation allow users to find what they are looking for more easily.

Site user statistics – better standards of evaluating metrics allow us to tailor and improve online channels by user experience and usage.

Archiving content – improved standards on ensuring hyperlinks persist allows users to find older content and support the government record.

So thats about it. Not perfect – I’ll probably want to rewrite it in the morning but finally committed to paper(?).

What’s good/bad/missing/needs refining?

Whitehall’s really getting social media now

At the quarterly government heads of e-communication meeting this afternoon. Sure I’ve mentioned this little shindig before, a chance for head webbies from the various departments to get together chew the cud and solve the worlds problems…

No surprises that there has been a great deal of interest in social media over the last nine months or so (when we’ve managed to collectively draw breath over website rationalisation).

When I was working on the government communications social media review we discovered an awful lot of experimenting going on around departments, some of it good some of it not so good. The great thing was that it was happening, even if it didn’t always seem to be clearly defined. But the piloting was patchy, really confined to a few more forward thinking departments. Everyone else was keen to find out more and there was great appetite for this stuff.

That was around February / March time. The review was a good snapshot of activity at that time but its already out of date.

By early summer, appetites had been wetted and plans were being drawn up by others to invest (a lot of) time and (a little) money in utilising social media tools to prove their value (and to stop policy bods saying that they ‘wanted a blog’ without really knowing why).

Proof of the change in understanding can be seen in some recent innovations such as the Our NHS blog – using the technology in the right context and not just to use the technology.

But even that mindset has been overtaken. Today, the talk was about exploiting the range of tools and online communities to promote, explain and involve citizens in government policy initiatives. I don’t want to steal others’ thunder before anything gets released but there is some really exciting stuff just around the corner. I’ll let you know when it finally sees the light of day, but I’ll give you a hint: everyone’s favourite online politician and is involved. Simon Dickson will be so pleased he asked the question first….

Going to the public sector web management forum?

I mentioned a while back that a public sector web management group is being set up to try and promote good practice and share experience.

Its an offshoot, though independent of, Public Sector Forums, the community primarily aimed at local government webbies and scourge of Direct Gov amongst others.

They’re holding their inaugural event in Birmingham on October 10th. Details are on the Public Sector Forums site (You have to be registered to see the details, though not a problem if you have a .gov.uk email address (not much of a problem if you don’t as I understand it, as long as you can prove you work in the sector)).

There’s a lot local and central government webbies can share and work together on to make our lives (and our digital communications) better. But because of Public Sector Forum’s core membership, the proposed agenda at the moment is a bit skewed towards local government. webbies. I know of a few other central government webbies planning to go. If there’s enough of us, perhaps we could have a breakout session at some point in the day to reflect on issues more pertinant to working in central government environments.

I think its important that we (central government webbies) support this event, and try to work together with our local government counterparts to drive up standards and best practice guidelines. If you’re thinking about going, its only £165 + vat to attend (or 3 for £330). If you can make it, please leave a comment here to let me know; that you’re coming, if there are any central govt specific issues that you think are worth discussing, whether you are planning to stay up the night before – it would be good if we could arrange a drink or two beforehand.

Struggling to do ‘sexy’ stuff with protected IT systems

A common bugbear of mine, how to deploy interesting applications and tools (blogs, wikis etc) on our platform. That’s a tough one. Part of my role is to try to improve our online offerings to staff and the world, sometimes it feels like the IT department’s role is to stop me.

That’s not really fair is it? What they are actually doing is protecting a stable, business critical environment. And they do it well. The consequence is that takes ages and ages of negotiations, documentations, feasibility studies ad infinitum to do anything new and interesting. That of course can make simple things expensive, never mind the actual time accrued.

Increasingly people are looking outside the corporate environment to deploy new stuff quickly. That’s totally understandable and good of course. Its an opportunity to test concepts, stability and security of applications and prove their value. All these things help to prove the business case for corporate adoption (eventually).

I guess its not just government webbies who have this problem, it certainly cut across me several times in the corporate world and that’s not surprising. They share similar cultures to large government departments.

Then I came across this post the other day by Chris Anderson, editor-in chief of Wired magazine (and author of The Long Tail amongst other things).

It made me think, if that is the circumvention that he has to make to do interesting things, we should actively seek to circumvent our IT departments. To promote innovation and to protect the corporate environment. Its a win-win situation when you think about it like that!

Trying to balance real and online life

Apologies for the radio silence, family illness has made it difficult to post over the last few days. But this event fits quite neatly into something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and tried to do something about while I was away on holiday.

Over the last year or so I’ve found myself increasingly drowning in links, requests to connect, RSS feeds etc etc. The more I did online, the more the addiction grabbed me.

So I took my laptop away with me (doesn’t that in itself suggest some kind of problem?!) and determined to reduce the digital clutter in my life, and make some more time for me and my family. Every time I checked my feed reader I cross-referenced stories against similar feeds and discovered that one or two in each subject area were authoritative enough to cover the others. So I started deleting, and deleting. Until I’d dropped from over 260 feeds down to just below 90 (and around 25 of those are ‘watching feeds – software updates, feeds that reference my employer but are often about government departments abroad so get immediately deleted etc). As I read through the feeds, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing.

About halfway through I realised that I hadn’t saved the URLs to the deleted blogs. Far from panicking, I sensed relief so plunged on to finish the job. Then I cut down my facebook groups by over half. Then I organised my bookmarks and kicked out over 150 links that have followed me around over the last decade.

Has it made life easier? Too soon to say. I don’t miss any feeds and am more diligent about adding new ones, rule of thumb is one in one out. I’m not sure if it saves me a great deal of time, but the time I spend online feels more productive. If I leave my reader for a day, rather than returning to over 500 unread posts (and getting RSI by pressing ‘delete’ too many times) I’m faced with less than 100 on average. This might sound like a lot, but compared to before its managable. I’m hoping to reduce it further, to less than 50, but find myself now with a rump of legacy sites that I have read for years. Some are nowhere near as good as they used to, but I keep hoping they’ll regain their mojo. They’ll have to go at some point…

Why is all this important for government webbies? As we go around evangelizing about the benefits of social media tools and social networks, is important we are realistic about the amount of time all this stuff could consume. Everybody in government is increasingly busy (contrary to popular opinion) with little time or appetite to take on additional tasks, so we need to be clear about the time implication as well as the benefits.

A colleague recently asked me how long it takes to write a (really, this) blog. I replied that two posts a week (optimistic I know, but thats the new plan – one shorter, one longer) take about an hour each from sitting down to completion (already having had an embryonic idea). This didn’t sound too bad to my colleague.

But later I realised that the writing bit is only the output from all the surfing, reading, networking that I do. With the amount of feeds, memberships and links that I have accumulated I estimate I have spend between 3-5 hours a day on average over the last nine months online. Some of this has been at work, much of it at home. In fact, that’s a very conservative estimate. How can one possibly hope to see the daylight, play with children and generally enjoy life glued to a screen? My spring cleaning of feeds has lifted a great burden without reducing my access to the important stories. Social media is very seductive at the moment, especially in government, its important to respect it and use it, but not be sucked in too far.

So I’m now writing this at a much more sensible 11.15pm, rather than half one in the morning. But its still too late in the evening to be writing…