Where do government webbies fit into e-government?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the group, or community, of people within government who manage websites, intranets, blogs, wikis and other digital communications channels.

There aren’t that many of us around considering what we actually do.

We’re also not very good at organising ourselves so consequently we don’t have the representation we need – we and our work are often overshadowed by other groups who have louder voices and / or are better organised.

Its one of the reasons why I set up the barcamp and, subsequently am trying to make the afternoon tea gatherings regular events (described by David today as ‘Teacamp’ – I quite like that) – so that we could get to know each other better and start to interact as a group of similar interests. Not just civil servants, but the people on the periphary or outside who can assist us in making what we do better.

This problem of relative obscurity has been highlighted to me over the last few days. Downing Street launched a twitter feed, a great idea and a good example of low cost piloting to test the value of an emerging digital channel.

But coverage has focused on the fact that ‘Gordon Brown is now on Twitter’ – he’s not its Downing Street that runs the feed, not the Prime Minister (in fact, he is sort of, but that is by the by).

This illustrates for me the problem of our role and profile in egovernment and the challenges that face us both day to day and in the longer term.

We’re not IT, we’re not e-democracy, and we’re not politics online. Each of these groups are important to us, and we need to work with them, but them we ain’t.

But some people do think that one or more of these are what we do – hence the confusion over the ownership of the Downing Street twitter feed.

The IT profession in government is a powerful group – they provide both the infrastructure and the applications that help us deliver procurement big contracts. They’re well organised (they did invent Prince 2 after all) and have senior representation in most government departments.

The e-democracy crowd are also quite a well self-organised group – academics, social hackers etc who have an important role in challenging government to do better in its interactions with citizens.

Then there’s politics online – the parties, representatives and the bloggers. They obviously make a lot of noise, and gain exposure for what they do.

We are none of them – not partisan or political, not technical, not edemocracy.

It strikes me we need a voice to represent us and plug us into these other groups somewhere closer to the top of the pyramid. Perhaps COI’s Digital People will draw us together. Perhaps Tom is that person?

Somehow we need to draw ourselves together – the people around government who are really passionate about improving the way government conducts itself online – and speak as a group.

    • Mark
    • April 3rd, 2008

    Where do you fit? In the basement!

    More seriously, you need to persuade someone, and most of all yourselves, that this matters. “The IT profession matters… and is well organised:”?!

    Ah how others see us!

  1. If the web/IT/social community is given permission to ‘try’; things will change. If civil servants know what may or may not endanger their mortgage then they will be much more willing to engage.

  2. I thought we were more like the roof or the door 🙂

    Point taken, but perceptions create strong images. And after all, you are a designated ‘profession’ within government now.

  3. I wonder sometimes if it doesn’t help that webbies are often found within the Comms function. I can see the logic, but there’s a more deep-rooted role for webbies in terms of citizen engagement, internal skills and improving business processes across the organisation.

    There’s a risk of that being undermined if you see web = comms channel (which I should say happily isn’t the case in my Department).

    Yes, fingers crossed Digital People will help.

  4. Speaking as an “outsider” (i.e. belonging to none of the three groups, but having a background in the technologies and an interest from the point of view of a taxpayer/voter/citizen/combination of all) it strikes me that being none of those groups could be your best advantage.

    The IT professionals attempt to “deliver” the big contracts – but usually fail to deliver real value. The e-democracy crowd issue the challenges, but tend not to appreciate the “turning the supertanker” nature of the problem. And the online politicos are more interested in the transitory nature of scoring quick points from the opposition (small ‘o’).

    While all three groups have their positives, they’ve also come replete with baggage trains of negatives. So being a “fourth way” (shudder) outside of all that might actually be the most advantageous position?

  5. @Steph Good points. Its understandable that some webbies are found in comms functions if their roles are to run corporate websites / intranets, but no reason for wider engagement, outreach type stuff. Though I suppose the function has to fit somewhere and comms seems like the most logical.

    @Tim – a fourth way eh? Now there’s an idea 🙂 Can’t ignore the other groups because of the noise they make. But you’re right, we need to find a way to cut across them.

    • Mark
    • April 4th, 2008

    The challenge for us in IT was indeed easier, people vaguely understand what “IT” is; the PCs on people’s desks kind of gives it away. But I don’t think that people understand the webby role yet, indeed I suspect that many organizations – regardless of sector – just see the “web” as another channel to be dealt with by MARCOM.

    That’s fine for the old world of “Internet as clickable brochures” but falls down when we look at the power of the new technologies to support new forms of engagement and delivery.

    There is obviously a hunger out there for us to do more of this kind of thing and do it smarter and more holistically. Which brings us back to your point about the need to somehow get the people who know together with the people who can support and champion.

    The Knowledge Council might be a channel to consider. Whilst much of its work programme is focused on records management it does have a number of work streams looking at social media and the like. Of course you might ask where the CKOs are in the public sector? But you might like to talk to your rep to get their views on the utility or otherwise of the KC.

    And with that, back into the basement with you.

    • futurewww
    • April 4th, 2008

    But isn’t it true that web IS a comms channel?

    Except, it has much greater potential than, say, a hard copy publication. You can do so much more with the digital channel in terms of engagement.

    Or perhaps, even, we should think about a number of ‘channels’, over which you publish content, for users to view, take, use, for example, like you tube. Your channels could be the departments’ corporate sites, directgov, businesslink, etc. The content owners publish over these various ‘channels’.

    This would firmly plant webbies in the comms teams I think.

    However, I like steph’s point above – there is a role for you in improving business processes. If you are enabling citizens to engage, the front end channel needs to be properly integrated into the backend (policy people listening, responding and acting on it). It would be pretty pointless if all this lovely engagement all stopped at the door of policy people who carried on before.

    This puts webbies in policy teams as well as comms, as advocates….

  6. @futurewww – agree, channels not channel. Also think webbies need wider integrating across the business.

    • Ed V
    • April 7th, 2008

    People want to professionalise because it gives them status. It doesn’t move the project on, just makes networking more meaningful (and makes it easier to sell our services).

    And if we need a place in the comms hierarchy for webbies, should we be in the marketing team or corporate communications. In the same place as or different to publications? And where would that leave internal communications (intranet) and press office (online buzz)?

    When you did barcamp and teacamp, you only said we had to be interested in government online. There was nothing in the small print about being in comms or even being a web professional.

    This should be about advocacy and conversation, not about badges, empires and territory. Indeed, in small organisation, the wannabe webbie doesn’t get to silo-ize to the extent implied by the discussion here.

    In my Department, it’s easier to create online conversations if I’m being asked to do it by, say, a minister or an official than if I’m asking them to do it.

    I was only a pure webbie for a year, but I’m still an advocate. And I would like to recruit people who understand this stuff, whether they’re heading for press office, marketing or the web team. In fact, given that the web team has to spend so much time building pages, it’s a reach to expect them to be the main exponents.

    Let’s keep it at the community of interest, unconference level. We don’t dispose of enough budget to get given a powerful silo. Not while wordpress is around, anyway.

  7. I am only interested in government online but I am acutely aware of these other groups around us being either misidentified as us, or sometimes squeezing us. I have no time for empires or territory but if we are more identifiable, it might make things easier for us, s’all.

  8. Jeremy’s original post said: ‘somehow we need to draw ourselves together – the people around government who are really passionate about improving the way government conducts itself online – and speak as a group.’

    I am currently setting up a digital people network in BERR.

    It includes people across the dept who have in interest in using social media/ collaborative tools and have either used them or are considering using them.

    It includes people from all functions, web team, marketing, press, policy and I am going to approach IT for a rep.

    I am aiming for group to:
    – have joined approach across dept
    – share ideas and knowledge
    – get involved in barcamp, social media cafe, and any other relevant events or networks
    – start using social media/ collaborative tools to improve berr online
    – to see use of these tools as integral part of the comms /digital comms mix
    – to use these tools effectively as part of the comms strategy and not use them because all the other kids are using them.

    It is in ideas / starting stage at present, but I would like to see it as part of the wider digital people network, and part of the bar camp network.

    We could have a digital people network for each govt dept, that includes barcamp people, and is part of the cabinet office central digital people network.

    Has anyone in other govt depts set up a similar network either formally or informally? If so, would you be interested in getting together to discuss? – perhaps at barcamp tea next Thu?

    • alex
    • April 18th, 2008

    see this slide show


    I think webbies are everywhere in government and outside

    All of us who use the web are rooting for you government webbies

    The sooner you get to run the place, and the
    NHS will feel like Amazon

  9. @Alex thanks for the link. Not sure if I want the NHS to feel like Amazon – I never believe those user reviews! But seriously, government webbies are, and should be, everywhere – lets just try and stick together.

  10. Alex

    Thats great thanks, just what I need to show t people internally. I’ve emailed Scott Gavin who put the case study together. If you see anything else useful like that or have any other ideas, please email me jane.oloughlin@berr.gsi.gov.uk.


    • john culkin
    • May 22nd, 2008

    Sadly, to be taken seriously, you need representation at a higher level. It just doesn’t exist at the moment. The benefits of social media are hard to understand and even harder to sell. Most people just hear bunch of buzzwords, nothing more. The evidence-base and general level of familiarity with the concepts are both slightly too small to make a convinving business case at present.

    Until senior managers grasp the potential significance of SM, big changes won’t happen. We’ll all just keep getting requests for blogs that aren’t really blogs, and personalisation that staff aren’t interested in.

    The development curve of intranet might give some clues as to how SM might become more widespread. The first intranets were developed by interested amateurs, then the benefits were recognised, and then management jumped on board. But in today’s world of massive IT contracts, is it as easy for an interested amateur to set up a small SM experiment as it was at the dawn of the company-intranet?

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