Social media in government – can’t we lead by example please?

There’s been an amusing series of posts published over the past few days about the status of various pieces of government web guidance being developed by COI.

First Jack Pickard noticed that the Delivering Inclusive Websites guidance, for which he had valiantly led a response on behalf of the embryonic Public Sector Web Management Forum, had been published – after six months of radio silence from COI (though to be fair, they did take on board a fair number of Jack’s excellent points).

Then Emma noticed that some of the other guidance documents were ‘in consultation’ and mused how one could become involved in ‘consulting’ on the drafts.

Nick Booth pointed out the faint irony of describing something as being out for consultation, without indicating how any kind of conversation could take place (I’ll ignore the double irony that one of the documents in question is social media guidance aka participative online media).

So Nick put a call into COI’s press office asking how he could respond to the consultation.

Oh dear, today Emma checked the COI site again. Guess what? The documents in question are now simply marked as being ‘in preparation’.

It would be easy to laugh, cry, criticise or bitch about this situation. I’ll do none of them.

I will point out this: government webbies have been waiting a long time for these different sets of guidance to see the light of day. Some of us have been involved in helping to put them together even. But the pace of development has been tortuously slow (the previous guidance was published in 2003 if I remember correctly and work on their replacements has been going on for over a year). The fact that some of them are still ‘in preparation’ is very disappointing.

I’ve said this before to some closer to the work than I – and I repeat it here – why or why didn’t someone take the previous version of the guidance, upload it to a wiki, and invite anyone who wanted to contribute to producing a new version to do so (within reason, perhaps requiring them to register or even restrict it to those whose work would be subject to the guidelines).

I’ve been given a couple of answers:

  1. They want to have something produced that they can upload once they are complete.
  2. Various mutterings about developing cross-government social media platforms that could host this content.

Both of these answers seem a bit misguided to me. Take the second one first – Steve Dale nailed this the other day when building on a post from Euan Semple: there is no one technical ‘solution’ that will work for all requirements. The reason why there are a myriad of wiki and blog platforms is that they all have different functionality and ways of working that suit different needs. Waiting for the magic ‘enterprise’ solution is not only costly, but misguided and wasting time.

In terms of producing the guidance, then publishing it in some kind of controlled collaborative environment – isn’t this rather missing the point? One of the greatest benefits of the social media/web2.0 bandwagon is the ability to collaborate and draw on the ‘collective wisdom of the many’. Trying to backfill ‘collaboration’ onto something signed off and published doesn’t really send the right signal.

Here’s my two’pennth: before anyone drafts any more guidance, take out your credit card and head over to Wikispaces (or a similar hosted wiki service). $1000 (pretty reasonable given the current exchange rate) will buy you a nice hosted wiki which you can rebrand and give a dedicated sub-domain so its nice and official (about half a day’s work?). Upload the drafts as they are now and invite anyone who wants to to help make those guidelines as good as they possibly could be. There are plenty of people out there, right across Whitehall and further afield the wider public sector, who are itching to contribute for everyone’s benefit.

If us webbies in government cannot demonstrate the amazing benefits of social media by our own actions, its a bit rich of us to go round telling anyone who will listen how great the latest online innovations are. Please, lets demonstrate our competences by our behaviour.

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  1. Amazing. You’ve pretty much described the state of play in Canada as well – down to the CIO efforts to centralize and the reluctance to share drafts too widely.

  2. Jeremy… you are so right. I was trying to work out what it was that rankled about all this with me, and it is simply that there is SO much good will out here – we all want this to work – and I am pretty sure this is a rare occurance in any public/private/3rd sector collaboration. We so want these guidelines to be good, and we all want them to be exemplars, and there are many people who would freely give their time to making this happen, (some of whom I know, and I know how valuable and unique their ‘time’ is)… if time can be unique… I digress

    Please, please can we have this back in consultation, and please, please can we be told how to contribute. We mean well 🙂 we want to help!

  3. @Colin: sad but not surprising! I often gaze longingly across the water having read your posts and think things are so much better over there -( Perhaps we should form a mutual support group!

  4. Its about control in a new environments where control is dangerous.

  5. Great, impassioned stuff. Who actually are the people making these decisions?!

  6. A bit premature to be pointing the finger Dave. This is an opportunity to do things better. Let’s see what happens.

  7. N’est ce pas, I agree.

    Including your point here
    http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2008/06/lgov-website-future-whats-missing.html

  8. Well constructed argument. I suppose it’s going to take time before attitudes (and consequently actions) change in gov. Posts like this can only help.

  9. Sorry , wasn’t asking so that I could organise a witch hunt. It was more a general thing, in terms of what level the people are that are taking the decisions – they aren’t webbies, I assume!

    • osimod
    • June 12th, 2008

    fully agree Jeremy – I wrote something similar on the EC context regarding a consultation on “ICT for governance”
    See http://egov20.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/lets-walk-the-talk-web2-opening-up-the-consultation-processes-of-the-ec/

  10. Hmm. Government … social media …

    I wonder. If a Prince had said to Machiavelli:

    “Niccolo: I’m thinking of starting a blog and using a wiki so that I can involve people a bit more…”*

    What sort of answer would he have got?

    *OK, OK, give me a bit of historical latitude willya?

    • alex
    • June 16th, 2008

    any chance the minister tom watson mp can help here

  11. @Alex Well, there’s an idea 🙂

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