Archive for the ‘ social media ’ Category

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.

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…

helping policy bods to use social web tools

Emma is asking for help to develop a social media ‘toolkit’ The word toolkit always makes me feel rather queasy, I keep tripping over ‘toolkits’ in government and they are banded around as if they are the panacea to all our problems, which they’re not.

But she’s got a serious point. Which creating resources to help civil servants take advantage of the opportunities that social web tools and applications offer them in their work.

So, the cause is worthwhile. Please help her if you’ve got anything to add.

Woo hoo! Social media guidelines for civil servants finally published

Goodness me, hard to believe that civil servants finally have a published set of guidelines on how to participate online. This is a piece of work I really hoped would come out of the GCN social media review I was involved with last year.

Since then, a great deal of effort has gone into drafting guidance on participation online generally, and using social media / web2.0 tools specifically. But as time has drifted, so the guidelines got more and more complicated to the point where they threatened to become unhelpful.

A recent sense check around Whitehall, with support from the egovernment minister has resulted in a much slimmed down set of principles for participation. They’re not perfect, they’re not comprehensive – but its a jolly good start and much welcome.

I understand that some of the denser draft guidance will soon find its way online as supporting information, perhaps on wiki, to allow organisations to develop operational guidance that support the principles. I look forward to seeing that.

In the meantime, the Power Of Information Taskforce are seeking feedback on the guidelines. Please help them to improve this first crack at creating the conditions for civil servants to communicate online safely by letting them know what you think.

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.

I get knocked down, but I get up again

I’m going through one of my, seemingly increasingly more, regular quiet periods here. Partly because I am actually busy doing work stuff that doesn’t give me much time to write here.

Not all the work stuff is easy to get to fruition, and over the last few months several small projects that I have had on the go have foundered for a variety of reasons. Getting knock backs is part of the game of course, though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

But in the last two weeks I’ve attended two really inspirational events, on very different scales and with very different line ups of speakers.

The first was Nesta’sThe Innovation Edge‘ conference. Amongst the presenters were Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Bob Geldof. Tim famously invented the world wide web as a small side project around his day job. Bob Geldof, as well as being a former rock star and founder of Band Aid, is a serial entrepreneur.

Two things stuck with me from their talks.

  • From Tim: don’t be afraid to experiment and give people space in their jobs to try.
  • From Bob: learn to embrace failure it happens more often than success but you cannot succeed if you don’t know what failure feels like.

Now these two guys are at the top of their fields, and vastly experienced. You’d expect world renowned heavy hitters like them to say that. Its easy to agree with them, but a damn sight harder to apply.

Well on Tuesday evening I went along to an event run by consummate networker, the redoubtable Oli Barrett. A different kind of event in every way – smaller and intimate, but equally inspirational. The format was three excellent speakers followed by some speed-networking (Oli claims to have introduced this concept to the UK, but I won’t hold it against him).

Girl who knows everyone Emma Mulqueeny describes the speakers and their pitches much better than I could. But two of them, Caspar Berry and Shed Simove, both talked about the value of embracing failure and keeping going if you want to succeed.

Takeaways that I picked up:

  • From Caspar: Understanding and embracing risk is good. Don’t try to mitigate but meet it full on. Success is all about luck so the more times you fail, and the more you risk, the greater the more reward when you do hit gold.
  • From Shed: Just keep going, generate ideas and making them happen. Most will fail, only few will be successful. But the failures demonstrate to others an ability to make things happen and see them through, rather than just giving up.

How can we apply this to our work on government digital stuff?

At the moment, despite increasing interest, all this experimental social media stuff is difficult to sell to decision makers and budget holders. Its tricky to demonstrate the value to the business, what the return might be, the cost of investing in time and skills. Its all just difficult.

If you find yourself in this position, two words – keep trying.

One of those ideas is going to be a winner. But if you give up at the first hurdle, you’ll never know which idea.

If you are working on projects that you ar struggling with, please share your experiences – the failures as well as the successes – with your peers and colleagues across government. We all want, and need, to learn from each others epxeriences. To take the lessons and try and improve upon them next time. Perhaps we can all help each other.

Gadzooks! I missed my birthday :-)

As I’m going through one of my (reasonably regular) “neglecting the blog” phases at the moment I failed to recognise that somehow Whitehall Webby has made it to the ripe old age of one.

I started writing here on 29 April 2007, when I was helping the Cabinet Office to produce a report on government communicators’ use of social media. It was an experiment to demonstrate the opportunities of civil servants blogging (jury’s still out on that one I think…)

Since then I’ve published 91 pieces on the site, not bad considering I find it all so difficult, and had 336 comments (some of which, admittedly, are mine… ).

The most popular post over the last year has been the ‘about me‘ page, with over 1,100 views. However the posts I wrote on the civil serf affair got the most interest at the time (as most other government web related blogs experienced).

Over the last twelve months I’ve tried to to publicise examples of good government use of web, particularly innovative stuff. This includes the launch of the Ministry of Justice website, the Wales Office wordpress site, the Foreign Office’s social media big-bang, and more recently the excellent experimentation coming out of Number 10.

A common theme throughout my musings has been the role of webbies in government, and how we can organise ourselves into a group of experts who are recognised as such in Whitehall.

This thinking led to what has been my highlight of the last year – setting up the UKGovWeb Barcamp and bringing together civil servants, consultants, freelancers and others with the intention of encouraging the building of a community of committed people around government online.

So far thats bearing fruit. Many of us meet regularly at “teacamps” and colleagues in several departments are beginning to create self-organised groups in their organisations with the intention of working together to offer networking and training opportunities.

So, the future looks bright, and this blog has actually made it through a whote year – something I often thought wouldn’t happen.

End of term report completed, lets hope there’s another one next year.

Back – not quite with a vengeance

Apologies for the radio silence around here but I’ve been away on holiday for the last week or so.

I promised myself that I would make up for my recent lack of decent posting while I was away. But instead I actually enjoyed the break and kept away from the web as much as possible (not entirely of course as my family kept reminding me to ‘put that computer down’….).

Anyway, thought I should update you about what happened at the Social Innovation Camp a few weeks back.

For reasons I shan’t go into here I wasn’t able to get to London for day two of the weekend. So without me as a distraction the prison visits team managed to come second in the competition at the end of the two days.

This is great news. It means we have won a small sum of money (£1000) to try and develop the project further. It also means that the project has a bit more momentum behind it so hopefully we can make some good come of the idea.

To recap, the initial identified problem was that peoples’ experience of visiting an inmate in prison can vary greatly from establishment to establishment. The challenge was to try and make it better.

The solution we came up with is to provide a method of allowing visitors to share their visit experience. Thereby letting other visitors know what to expect and also to feedback to the prison authorities – hopefully so that they can take comments into account to improve future visits (kind of like Patient Opinion for prison visitors).

Since the camp. members of the team have been working together to identify ways of taking the project to the next stage. Some of us are due to present our work at London Minibar next Friday (25th) to see if we can raise any interest and/or funding to develop the project further.

I’ll keep you posted how it goes.

Social innovation camp – day one

I’ve been at the Young Foundation in London all day today (barring the disaster that is South West Trains this weekend) participating in the Social Innovation Camp.

Social innovation camp is an unconference (and competition) exploring how technology can assist in solving societal problems or making life easier in sometimes small, but significant, ways. The participants are a mix of geeks, designers, coders, and thinkers (and then me – who is none of these things, but wishes he was). A real gathering of minds, ideas and energy.

I’m part of a team looking at how we can improve the experience of prison visits for all concerned – the prisoners, their visitors (relatives, friends, supporters etc), the authorities, support groups etc.

I should point out that, though I am employed by the government department responsible for the Prison Service, I have neither no operational relationship with that agency, nor am I attending the camp in any official capacity. I just sounded interesting.

So what have we been up to so far? Well, we’ve tried to unpick and map the process of visiting a prison from start (incarceration) through to the actual visit and beyond.

Then, we’ve looked at how technology might make the experiences gathered through that journey better. Could an internet enabled booking system, accessible via the web, handsets, kiosks etc help? (probably).
How can visitors feedback their experiences of the event – both to help other users of the system and to enable the prisons to improve the processes. Is there a way of harnessing the collective knowledge of prison visitors for the benefit of others?

The pot is still melting on this and other ideas and we have until 2pm tomorrow to try and make something of all the good ideas.

Its not often that I get a chance to spend time with people who possess such a wide variety of backgrounds, skills and experience in one place to work on problem solving. The team I worked with today includes freelance designers, web coders, the publisher / editor of an ethical magazine, the production director of a digital agency, and two members of PACT (a charity that helps families of prisoners) amongst others.


Equally, the mind boggles at all the variables involved in prison visits – different visiting times, methods of requesting visits etc etc (some times for good reasons – like levels of security).

Its a seriously daunting challenge. We have a short period of time to try and come up with a solution to ease these problems in some way. We are competing with the other five teams (you can find out more about the other projects here) for modest cash prizes to take the ideas to the next stage.

If you’re interested in finding out how we get on, why not come along to Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood tomorrow afternoon at 2.30pm where each team will be presenting their idea to a panel of judges.

Some things that have caught my eye recently

Time flies, and suddenly I realise that I haven’t posted here since the excitement of the civil serf affair. Rather than the usual (unintentional I assure you) long essay, here’s a few things that have interested me over the last few weeks – and might be of interest to you too:

  • Networking Democracy – really interesting debate beginning over at Our Kingdom about how government can use the internet to assist a national debate. This is related to the Governance of Britain programme, which I have talked about before.
  • Andrew Brown‘s been busy using Del.icio.us to create a feed of cabinet papers from Lewisham Council. What a brilliant idea! – and an easy way to syndicate content if you’re not all RSS enabled. Hoping to use this idea shortly.
  • The BBC has published some guidance for its staff engaging in social networking. Its thorough but succinct and most importantly its out there for everyone to see. (I have had some involvement in the development of similar guidance for civil servants but that’s not published yet. Frankly, the BBC guidance and the civil service code cover the bases for any civil servant unsure about what they should/n’t or could/n’t do online).
  • Almost as a companion piece, Colin McKay has published a great piece of guidance on how to do social media ‘stuff’ in large organisations. Worth reading for tips on getting people onside and stuff in ‘under the wire’ (according to Wikipedia, Colin is a professional skateboarder – you kept that quiet!)
  • I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA last week about his new book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘. David Wilcox has a good video clip of part of the presentation. Can’t wait to read the book.
  • Some more public sector blogging – nine members of the house of Lords have launched a team blog. Be interesting to see how that develops.