Archive for July, 2008

Steph Gray – social media swiss army knife

If you’re not aware of his work, you should check out Steph Gray’s blog. Steph works at DIUS (the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) and as far as I know is the first person in government employed to deploy and embed social media skills and techniques across the organisation. And over the last few months he has been quietly getting on and doing a bloody good job.

I’m a believer that there is never one online solution to a problem (which is why I don’t like enterprise or corporate ‘solutions’) especially considering how many good cheap or tools there are out there across the web. What we need to do more of is experiment, lots. If you’re going to do that kind of thing properly, you probably need someone like Steph – who is a pretty good blueprint of the ideal social media evangelist in government:

  • He’s not a designer, but has a good eye for design
  • He’s not a programmer – but has a working knowledge of programming languages and operating systems to set things up (including this wonderful tool)
  • He’s not a builder but knows how to deploy tools such as blogging platforms, customise them and make them work
  • He has a strong communications skillset
  • He has bags of common sense
  • He knows where his expertise ends, is honest about it rather than trying to blag it, and always knows someone else who can help.

All of these are crucial and frankly, without that mix of skills, it would be very difficult to do what he is doing in any organisation (that is unless you had bags of money to recruit lots of people to cover the bases above).

Most importantly, its his full-time job, not part of it or an add-on. So he has time and space to get things right.

Steph’s done an impressive amount of work so far in the last six months, some of which is visible, some of which is not. He’s written some great pragmatic guidance illustrating ways of explaining the benefits of all this stuff to the business, rather than blindly evangelising social media for social media’s sake. And he’s been good enough to share it around to colleagues across government.

If departments are serious about investing in social media, creating online engagement opportunities etc, here is a very good yardstick to measure by.

If you’re a head of communications in government, thinking of experimenting in this area, you could do a lot worse than speak to Steph. Better still get him to help you find the right person.

On the frequency of my postings

Maybe you’ve noticed that I seem to have been posting more often than my usual once a fortnight recently.

It’s taken me quite by surprise and I have no idea how it has happened (could be sunstroke?).

Anyway, apologies if this state of affairs has alarmed you and I assure you normal service will be resumed shortly (though I do seem to have a lot I want to write about at the moment. We’ll see…).

Two tools I really like

Don’t normally do tech tips or gear I generally like here, goodness knows there are enough places on the web to find that kind of stuff. But I’ve recently come across two online resources that I think are absolutely fantastic so I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.

First up is up is Addictomatic (hat tip to Oli Barrett via David Wilcox). A fantastic tool that pulls content from across the web based on a keyword or phrase.

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with departmental colleagues to set up dashboards to allow them to view content based on their professional interests. Addictomatic works like that, though of course its limited by only being able to return information based on one keyword / phrase at a time and filtering is not available (as far as I can see). Nevertheless its a great way to get a snapshot on a particular issue (or person) very quickly.

I heartily recommend it, if only to demonstrate the potential value of making better use of RSS readers and web aggregators like Pageflakes or Netvibes.

Second is the AgencyTool web design dashboard. Can’t remember where I first saw this but its an absolute goldmine of information and advice about all aspects of web tech, design, build and marketing.

I’ve spent a fair few hours wading through the resources. Some are better than others but I bet you find something there that will be of use to you in your work.

Don’t like truncated feeds or partial emails

In my real life away from work (as if there is one nowadays) I read feeds and receive emails about interests not connected with government. One thing that gets my goat is reading a partial feed or an email with teaser text followed by a link so that I have to click through to read the rest of the article.

Today I got a response to a petition from the Number 10 website (its really nice that they have created a response mechanism for petitions that get a decent audience. It shows that they are listening and I think its a great service altogether).

This is what the email said:

You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to xxxxxxxxxxxx

The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to that petition and you can view
it here:

http://www.number10.gov.uk/xxxxxxxxxx

Prime Minister’s Office

Petition information – http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/xxxxxxxxx

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other
petitions you signed, please email optout@petitions.pm.gov.uk

Question: why do I have to click through to find out the government’s response? Its a small thing, I’ve no idea what usability experts find out from thousands of depth interviews of internet users (perhaps I should) but it doesn’t feel right to me. Personally its one click through I could do without. Any chance it could be fixed?

Debating the civil servants online engagement guidelines

Yesterday I was invited to a round table discussion at the Cabinet Office. The purpose was to talk about the recently published principles for participation online for civil servants – what’s good, what’s bad, what’s missing and how they can be applied in practice.

Around the table was a good mix of web strategists, practitioners, enthusiasts and those just interested to find out more. As we went round the table introducing ourselves and our particular interests it struck me that there is an awful lot of good stuff going on around me. There are plenty of implementations of social web tools happening – collaborative tools, using blogs for stakeholder engagement, social networks etc etc so plenty of shared learning developing that we somehow need to plug into and harness.

We were lucky that we managed to avoid falling into the trap of concentrating on blogs and bloggers, as I understand the first of these sessions last week spent much of the time discussing (Dave Briggs has a good round up of that session). But there was still, unsurprisingly, a focus on how organisations can deploy tools, rather than the simpler (but in my mind more powerful) opportunity of civil servants participating in exsiting online environments. As Justin put it succinctly in a tweet, “all I hear are broadcast models

There was a recognition that, if we are to embed these skills and techniques in government organisatinos, then we need to invest in both training/ongoing support and in capacity. Simply mandating people to include online engagement in their already busy day jobs will not work. If we are going to take this stuff seriously its going to have to be resourced properly. We also need to be realistic about the potential scale the resource will require, particularly if we use online tools to debate a high profile or contentious issue (remember the road pricing petition?).

I think I heardpeople were asking how to translate the principles into more operational / organisational guidance. In other words, how they’d actually do this stuff. But its also clear that we are still in the very early days of experimenting with the technologies and tools. There is no correct way to do things or optimum tool or technology. This is not the time for mandated solutions but for encouraging innovation.

All in all a useful conversation. But like a lot of conversations about social web that I have nowadays, I can’t help thinking that there is still an awful lot of actual work to do to support and encourage the use of social web tools to support better policy engagement. Guess that comes next…

Show us a better way – not just for real people

I’ve been following the show us a better way competition – asking people to come up with ideas about making better use of public data – with great interest over the last few weeks. The scale of ideas has been seriously impressive, in fact its so much so that its seriously messed up my RSS reader.

One thing that has bothered me though is that the competition isn’t really being promoted around Whitehall, partly because civil servants are not eligible for the prize for the winning entry (£20,000 if you’re interested, and why wouldn’t you be?).

Earlier today I was at a workshop to discuss the recently published principles for civil servants participating online (I’ll post something about it separately soon) when it was mentioned that a separate prize has been put up for the best suggestion from a civil servant, a Macbook Air. That’s right a Macbook Air.

That’s not a shabby prize by anyone’s standards. We should be shouting this from across the rooftops of Whitehall because there are a lot of ‘owners’ of data sets in government and I bet a fair few of them have ideas about how they could make better use of them. Now they have a pretty good incentive to do so.

Now, how about mashing up blue flag beaches with bus routes, GPS coordinates for buses and health inspected ice cream parlours? Might be able to fit another tutti-frutti in before the last lift home. Mmm ice cream…….

Enabling staff conversations online

Last Wednesday we ran our first online staff webchat, allowing anyone in the organisation to put questions to representatives from the senior management team (including our permanent secretary).

Hardly revolutionary you may say, after all webchats aren’t exactly new and in the current ‘social media’ excitement in government, where everyone is trying to be the first to do something cutting edge, webchats look decidely old hat.

But there were very good business reasons why we did what we did and didn’t get diverted by something more vogueish.

Depending how you count them, we have between 80,000 and 100,000 staff, making us the third largest government department.

Reaching out to the them is difficult. We are a mish-mash of organisations that have come together, all with different cultures, different ways of working, different ways of communicating, and – crucially in this case – different IT systems.

Attempting to use web engagement tools across our intranets couldn’t be guaranteed to work. So we took a gamble and ran the webchat on the public internet. Unsurprisingly some people were very nervous about this, but you know what? People behaved themselves and the discussion went well without any technological or conversational difficulties.

Because of the variability of kit on people’s desks we went for a lowest common demoninator solution that performed nicely on older browsers and without any need for plug-ins or cool ajax-y functionality.

This wasn’t about the tools, it was about the need to communicate and the opportunity to use technology to attempt to solve the problem.

Its difficult from an initial look at the stats to know exactly how many staff participated in the webchat, partly because of the way our IT firewalls tend to use a small number of IP addresses for each physical location. But we know it was well over 1000 people, and maybe significantly more (we’re still working on digging into the data). That might sound like a small number but many of our staff across the country don’t have ready access to PCs and internet access

We had over 40 pre-submitted questions and 130+ asked during the one hour chat. 52 got answered on the day (not bad going in one hour!), with the rest being published on the intranet shortly.

All in all, a good first crack at reaching staff online. Proof of the pudding – we’ve been asked to run one each month from now on.