Posts Tagged ‘ BarcampUKGovweb ’

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.

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Govweb afternoon tea Thursday 3rd April 2-4

I’ve been remiss in not publicising this event, partly because the last one fell away due to Maundy Thursday which put me out my ‘rhythm’.  But anyway, is anybody up for  a geeky cup of tea or coffee tomorrow afternoon?
I will be tiied in the quarterly Whitehall heads of ecommunications group from 2 (reporting back on the barcamp as it happens), so will be on a little later, but I will be there  but will pop along a little later. Hope to see some of you there (more details here)

Quick reminder – afternoon tea for government webbies this afternoon

Its the third UKGovWeb afternoon tea meet up this afternoon – think opencoffee with a public sector slant (best china, cucumber sandwiches etc – not literally).

Come along if you’ve got half an hour spare. There’ll be the usual mix of civil servants, contractors, consultants, social hackers there. Good place to chat and meet interesting people (and have a cup of tea).

We’ll be at Cafe Zest, top floor of House of Fraser in Victoria Street between 2pm and 4pm today.

More information here and here.

Hope to see you there.

What gov webbies can do to improve awareness of their published consultations

I had the good fortune to meet Harry Metcalfe recently. Harry told me that he was building a web service that would aggregating information about all government consultations published online. By pulling the information into his site, he was going to be able to generate email alerts and RSS feeds for either user defined search phrases or individual organisations.

“Why are you doing this?”, I asked. ‘Because I can,” he replied, “and because its not always easy for people to find government consultations online.” I took a look at the early iteration of his site and immediately subscribed to a feed for consultations published by my employer. It worked very nicely.

I’d love for us to publish our own RSS feed for consultations we release. I know its not that hard, its just that other things always get in the way of feature development and they inevitably take a back seat when the pressure is on.

Now Harry’s pride and joy is live in beta and working rather nicely. You should take a look around, its really good.

I bumped into Harry again a few weeks after our first encounter. He said to me, “If you made a few small changes to the way you present information about consultations on your site, it will make it much easier for me to extract the data for mine.” So he came in and talked to my editorial and technical colleagues about making this happen.

Why are we doing this? Not to make Harry’s site better. At least not only for that reason. We’re improving the way we create the pages – tagging relevant items of data like the consultation name, opening and closing dates, contact details etc – for a number of really good reasons that we hadn’t thought of before Harry suggested it:

  • It will make it easier for anyone to screen scrape the data if they so wish and republish it elsewhere
  • It makes the content on, and behind, the page more appetising for search engines, thus increasing the visibility of the consultations in search results
  • We can learn from this small in itself exercise and apply the same rigour to other classes of content published on our site
  • When we are in a position to implement more syndication tools on the site (e.g. fixed and user-defined RSS feeds) the content will already be in a format that makes the process work easier.

Why is this all important? Because we cannot rely on people coming to our websites to find out what we are doing. By making the content more attractive for syndication, we can increase our potential reach substantially and automatically update interested parties when consultations relevant to them are published. The Power of Information review touched on this, and its regularly a subject of conversation around Whitehall.

TellThemWhatYouThink is in its early days. But its already received plenty of coverage inside and outside Whitehall. It doesn’t (yet?) apply itself to the more difficult issue of making participation in online consultation easier. But maybe that’s not far away.

When we’ve finished improving our own consultation pages, I’ll let you know. I’m also hoping that Harry can come along to the next Whitehall heads of e-communications meeting so that we can sell the benefit of our approach. Its a small thing in itself to implement, but if we all do it the consequences could be much bigger.

Talking to energetic volunteers like Harry can produce all sorts of unexpected results. I never realised that by making a few tweaks to our page templates we could really improve how people can use and re-broadcast important government information. The barcamp and subsequent events are really starting to bear fruit…

Welcome new visitors and blogroll entries

Completely unexpectedly, the Economist referenced this ‘ere blog in a special report about e-government in this week’s edition (last sentence of fifth paragraph down in this article if you’re really interested. But when I say referenced, I mean just about referred to).

Consequently, visits to the site have rocketed. Sunday is usually a low double figures day (not that I check them obsessively you understand…) but the last two days have seen visits well into the two hundreds. I’m astounded and shocked (but not so secretly chuffed).

So welcome all, hope some of you stick around. Let me know if there is anything of particular interest to you and I’ll let you know if I can talk about it.

Also, way overdue, added a couple of new links to the blogroll. Dave Briggs, he of the Information Authority, and seemingly boundless capacity to blog; and Jenny Brown, recently arrived at the Department for Health and a part-time social media goddess. Met them both at the Barcamp and they are great colleagues to know. Hope we can work on something great soon.

More post-barcamp thoughts

At a few weeks distance, and after several caffeine fuelled conversations, the real benefits of the recent barcamp are becoming clearer to me.

First, it was really great that such a wide group of people came together for the day. That in itself was a good thing. Somebody said to me that evening that it would have taken them a year to meet all the people that they had wanted to meet if the event hadn’t taken place. So now we all know each other just a little better and that is starting to generate value of its own.

Second, there were some great conversations on the day, and subsequently, about the potential for collaborating between us inside government, and those round and about. Some great ideas, small on their own but with the potential to deliver real improvements to the way government transacts online, have been mooted – like having a consistent approach to publishing information about consultations.

These two things in themselves are fantastic outcomes – relationship building and idea generation / sharing.

But its equally important that we can somehow sustain and ramp up the momentum created by all this. There is still a great deal to do.

We’ve already had one afternoon coffee meet up (last Thursday) which in itself was a great event. Around 20 people turned up just to chat, chew the cud, bounce ideas off each others etc. I think its worth continuing these opportunities to catch-up and create other kinds of fora. Equally there is a rich social network of different types of events in the wider internet community in London (sorry if this sounds a little London-centric but that’s where I’m based). Encouraging government web people to participate in those events would plug us in to what else is happening in our area of specialism. Nobody knows everything and in this game things change so quickly, so its important to meet other people with different experiences and perspectives.

But many (most?) people working inside government on online stuff didn’t know about the barcamp as much as we tried to get the word around.  So we need to get the word around that these kind of networking / sharing opportunities exist and encourage them to come along.

But we’ve all got day jobs and bills to pay so lets be realistic about what we can create and, most importantly, sustain as a small but hopefully growing group of people that want to improve the way we do things.

With all that in mind, I reckon we should try to make the afternoon coffee meet-up a more regular occurrence (but we are talking about government online after all so perhaps it should be afternoon tea? 🙂   ) . We were lucky with the venue last time, CafeZest in House of Fraser along Victoria Street in that it was reasonably quiet and it has free wifi. So unless anyone can think of a better venue, how about every first and third Thursday of the month from 2 til 4?

Anyone can come – civil servants, contractors, consultants, freelancers etc. Basically if you’ve got an interest in improving government online then pop in. Think of it as a drop in centre, you don’t need to come along for the whole time, or indeed every time. But if you want to catch up or try and find someone to help you with a problem then pop in.

I’ll be there next Thursday 21st Feb, hope to meet you there. It would be useful (but not essential) if you are thinking of coming if you could add your name to the wiki page thats been set up, and let us know in advance if there is anything taxing you or that you want to share. That way somebody out there who can help you might make the effort to turn up too.

Why I’ve been a bit of a twit(terer) recently

One of the reasons I’ve been quieter than usual here (apart from organising, and then getting over, the barcamp) is my reappraisal of Twitter.

Twitter, for the initiated, is a micro-blogging tool that allows you to send short messages, about the length of an SMS. These messages are almost immediately received by others who subscribe to your updates. You, in turn, can follow others’ updates an instantly connected community.

So what’s so good about that? After all, on first glance it just looks like the status update tool in Facebook. When it first launched a year or so ago it didn’t seem to have much to it.

When Facebook added status updates to user profiles and the ability to update via mobile, it seemed to me like Twitter was becoming just a little bit superfluous.

Now though things are different. Facebook seems to me to be much quieter than before and most of my interaction there is via private messaging rather than status updates or writing on pe and public messaging. And Twitter is proving to be much more than just letting people knowing what you are doing at a particular time.

Its beauty is its simplicity. Twitter’s proposition is that you have just 140 characters to answer the question. ‘What are you doing?’. So far, so Facebook. But if you observe tweets from other users, you notice a marked difference to Facebook updates. What you are doing doesn’t just mean your current status, but also what you might be thinking, planning, debating, or questioning.

That’s where its value starts to shine through – quick updates, testing ideas, advising friends and colleagues what’s happening.

I’m increasingly advising people that blogging is hard work and labour intensive as a discipline. it needs careful thought, and commitment. Because of this its generally not instantaneous.

Twitter on the other hand is immediate – a short message delivered and received either  via a webpage, an rss feed, an SMS on a phone, blackberry, iphone, instant messenger… Hell, you can even update your Facebook status using Twitter

I’ve tried various ways of using Twitter. At the moment I recommend the Twitbin plug-in for Firefox, though I’m tiring of it because its not comprehensive enough.

Bloggers I have followed for a long time, like Jeremiah Owyang and Steve Rubel, make great use of Twitter, almost to the detriment of their blog posting in terms of frequency and depth. With Twitter, they can throw out an idea and get a very fast response from their readership.

So, what does this mean for the public sector. How could we make use of tools like Twitter? Well, the key is in its convenience. As I said above, I’m increasingly advising people not to blog because of the time and effort commitment. Twitter gets around that problem by lowering those barriers. That in itself is a bonus.

But Jenny Brown put the case for Twitter much better than I ever could in her presentation at the Barcamp. Its well worth a view.

POSTSCRIPT: Since I wrote a rough version of this piece a few weeks ago (thus proving my point above that blogging can have a huge lag from draft to publish) I’ve noticed a raft of articles around the subjects of ‘why twitter is still relevant’ or ‘how business can use  twitter’. Which proves one thing, when people are talking about it, it can’t all be hot air.