Archive for the ‘ digital strategy ’ Category

Want to see social media tools in action? – ask COI

With all the excitement of announcing the barcamp, I forgot to mention the fun I had at a recent event run by COI on behalf of the Government Communication Network.

Entitled ‘Social networking – can Facebook or YouTube help me? And what are they anyway?’ – the event was an opportunity to see some of the main social media tools and networks in action and talk to some of COI digital‘s experts about how they are being adopted across government.

Off the top of my head, there were demonstrations of social tagging, photo sharing, wikis, data mash-ups, and social networks such as Bebo and MySpace. Everyone had the ability to test them out, ask questions and develop ideas.

Around the room being used were a number of really useful wall displays explaining – in neat simple language – the technologies,  uses, potential etc. Hopefully COI will make these available to government communicators because they look like an excellent resource.

The workshop was run as part of the GCN Live series of events designed to help communicators across government build their knowledge and skills. I don’t know whether they plan to run more of this session but if you are at all curious at all about ‘social media’ or ‘social networking’, work in government and want to know more its got to be worth asking. Maybe COI would run a session for your team/ department too if you asked nicely.

Announcing UKGovweb barcamp

Those of you who read this blog regularly, or get cornered by me in the real world, will know there are two things in particular that I am particularly passionate about

  • clarity around government online strategy, and
  • how to innovate online, especially piloting the use of social media tools

I think these are important issues for government webbies (and by government, I don’t just mean Whitehall but right across the public sector). Talking to colleagues I know that these issues important to them too.

I’ve been talking for a while with colleagues in the transformational government team (they who are driving the website rationalisation / convergence, and other related, initiatives) about how we can harness the collective knowledge and intelligence of all those with an interest in improving how government does all this web stuff. Its becoming more important as we start to explore the possibilities and opportunities of government online beyond our corporate websites and intranets.

My proposal was to run a barcamp event, where those who want to participate in  developing ideas, sharing their expertise and swapping tips can come together as a community. For those not familiar with the barcamp concept, check out the wikipedia page. The key point is that you come if you have something to offer and you participate, rather than simply observe.

I’m delighted to report that they agree, so I’m pleased to seed the message here that we aim to have the event run across the last week of January 2008 (Saturday 26th/ Sunday 27th). I say ‘aim to have the event run’ because it will only work with the input, energy and enthusiasm of the participants. We have suggested a proposition and date, we’re hoping that enough people will want to be part of this to come along and also to help organise the event.

A page has been set up on the barcamp.org website. Please visit it, and sign up if you want to be part of this event.

If you know others who might be interested, let them know about it. In particular, if you blog then please point your readers to the page on the barcamp website.

I really do hope that together we can work together to get a common sense of purpose, and share some innovative ideas about government’s approach to all things online.

How to respond to customer needs for innovative tools

I’ve bleated on in the past about the virtues of experimenting outside the confines of the corporate hosting infrastructure – both to protect the core web services and to pilot new tools and ideas. As organisational online requirements increasingly extend beyond the corporate domain, its essential that new ideas are developed, channels investigated and knowledge and skillsets built up.

There’s been some debate in the blogosphere over the last few days about the difficulties of experimentation and innovation in corporate environments – pointing out the inability of corporate IT functions to respond to user needs through a combination risk averseness and bureauocracy amongst other things.

The debate seems to have been kicked off over at the 37 Signals blog. If you don’t know who 37 Signals are, they are worth investigating because they build online business tools (project management, CRM, billing etc) for small businesses. They’re particularly popular with US web companies for their ease of use and flexibility.

Dave Winer and Jeremiah Owyang both chipped in with their respective takes on the reasons users in large organisations bypass IT and embrace some of these tools, and how IT departments need to respond.

I couldn’t sympathise more. I was recently consulting for a customer who essentially required a small intranet for a geographically disparate group of users that don’t have access to the GSI (the government secure intranet). To provide them with that access would be prohibitively expensive – they’d never be able to justify it on a cost basis – so building content on our intranet was out. A bespoke extranet was also out, just too expensive to build for such a small group of users when the security requirements were introduced into the mix.

But something like 37 Signals’ Basecamp costs peanuts in comparison to set up and provides all the functionality they need – document sharing., project tracking, collaborative document working and even live web chatting. For $50 a month we can set up a number of these group work spaces with industry standard encryption and minimal set up or ongoing intervention required by the web team.

There are some issues that need resolving before you can use these kinds of tools, such as data security and how you can extract / export data for the corporate record. Equally, you may find that your corporate firewall prevents you from accessing some or all of the functionality. But that’s the whole point of experimentation, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t.

These issues are in no way insurmountable though. I can certainly recommend Basecamp and similar products (such as central desktop) as a low cost and effective way of deploying collaborative workspaces.

I’ve referred to the work Simon Dickson recently did in setting up a blog for the NHS Darsi review. Another good example of using best of breed tools at little cost. If you don’t have the skills required in-house to set something like that up reckon five to ten days of your favourite freelancer’s time to sort it out for you (I know it doesn’t take that long to set up a blog itself but there is plenty of associated work required, especially if you want to make it look as integrated with the corporate domain as the NHS blog does).

But I also have sympathy with the position the IT departments find themselves in (you don’t know how hard it was to write those words….). One commenter on Jeremiah’s post summed up how the perceived intransigence can be overcome.

“Any organization actually looking to deploy social media technology needs to have the IT department support them. Not doing so would be a waste of time, money, and resources. If you can’t get the support than you are selling the wrong people.

Step 1. develop social media concept

Step 2. implement pilot on your own time

Step 3. sell your management on the idea

Step 4. leverage you management buy-in to develop corporate strategy

Step 5. use corporate strategy to get funding and prioritization for IT

Step 6. bring project to IT for company wide implementation

If you make it to step 6, you are well on your way to a good implementation. Keep in mind step 4 & 5 are the hardest!! Convincing senior management that your little social media/collaboration project is just as important as business continuity or an ERP implementation will be hard. The data from the pilot will be critical. The buy-in will also be critical.

Then again, you could skip the IT department, implement it yourself, and become an IT support person yourself instead of a strategist or innovator….”

I think that’s absolutely right. There’s simply no point in trying to experiment within the corporate environment. Its too expensive and they won’t recognise the real value of using these tools initially until somebody proves it (what doubting Thomases that lot are). I did try and get quotations for deploying social media tools on the corporate infrastructure so that we could use them on the intranet. The prices quoted would have bought me a few nice cars. But for those tools to work long-term you can’t ignore the IT department and our role is to prove their value to the business so that IT want to work with you to deply them.

There is a real tension between best of breed, open source tools such as blogging platforms, that cost little to set up and use – and so called enterprise solutions that attempt to do everything but never seem to work as well (but cost the earth in comparison). That tension can only be overcome with proof that the cheaper tools deliver better value, not because they are cheaper but because they perform the function better.

Interested to know if others are using online tools and applications to deliver services, what they are using and how successful they are. I know you are a shy lot commenting here .so an email would be good. I’m interested in anything that you’ve used hosted away from your corporate hosting environment or that’s provided online (surveys, forms, blogs, wikis, project management tools, using social networks etc etc).

Putting ‘increasingly irrelevant websites’ in context

Valuable comment from a local government webby following my post about visiting the public sector web manager’s group conference a few weeks back.

James from East Devon raises issue with me about Lincolnshire council’s plan to turn off their intranet in three years time. I said that it was ‘an obvious extension of the ‘corporate website is increasingly irrelevant‘ mantra’.

James responds that the Lincolnshire ‘intranet’ isn’t really that at all, its a knowledge management tool with no integration to online systems or directories.

“All of that, of course, is an internal issue for Peter and his council but I wouldn’t want anyone reading your blog to think that it was an endorsement of “corporate websites being increasingly irrelevant”. I believe they’re more relevant than ever and can be used in increasingly creative ways to improve delivery of information, systems and communication.”

I agree with James that corporate websites and intranets are valuable and relevant tools. They’re not going to disappear in a hurry. I think there’s a difference between ‘increasingly irrelevant’ and ‘dead as a dodo’ so perhaps I should explain what I think it is.

For many organisations up to now, including in the public sector, ‘web’ has meant their internet and intranet sites. Companies have recognised the need to be online and responded by resourcing teams or outsourcing requirements for a corporate presence online. Those sites have typically expanded over the years; some strategically and user-focused, others sprawling with legacy content and design.

The point that Jeremiah Owyang makes is that, for most organisations, owned and controlled domains – and the desire that they rank high in search results – has been their only requirement for online activity up to now. That has to change as new methods of online marketing, outreach and engagement develop and mature.

Corporate domains will continue to be important (and for government there are specific issues around being a trusted source for information) but they will increasingly exist as part of a wider mix of digital channels that organisations will need to appropriately utilise. This is nothing new, its fairly classic marketing and communications theory – audiences, needs, messages and appropriate delivery channels.

The ‘irrelevance’ stems from them potentially becoming less important if your audience is elsewhere online. Why put all your resources into your corporate domain if engagement would be more effective elsewhere? We use this line of thought at MoJ to support our use of Direct Gov:

The corporate domain is primarily for stakeholders. We get between 300,000 and 500,000 unique visitors a month. Direct Gov is primarily for citizens. They get between 10 and 15 times our monthly traffic. Why create online content and services for citizens and locate it on our domain when the chances of reaching the very people that want them are massively increased elsewhere?

Similarly, if your staff have internet access why spend large sums of money procuring collaborative tools for your intranet when similar (and often better) tools exist online and cost very little to use? (assuming there are no data security issues of course…)

Of course, many public sector organisations are only resourced to manage their corporate web presences and intranets at present. That’s what makes the challenge interesting and more difficult – how to respond to the opportunities with limited resources and build a case for doing it.

Does that make sense?

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?

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!