Thursday, August 07, 2008

The strategic benefits and risks of permeable boundaries for government websites

In the 'old days' before the internet, the boundaries of government reports, brochures, fact sheets, policy statements and other discrete documents were hard and unyielding.

While a document might feature several attributed quotes and some purchased stock art, all of the content was owned by the organisation that created it. This was a logical approach given the mediums available.

The first government websites followed the same approach. Each was a discrete island containing its own text, images, maps and code. The only enhancement was to link to other websites (sometimes wrapped in a warning that people were leaving one silo to enter another).

Today the internet has matured further as a medium and we have seen a thaw in this approach, albeit an uneven one.

Many government websites (but not all) have discarded their warnings on leaving the site. Some sites now effectively cross-link between knowledge centres, regardless of which departmental or private sector site they live within.

I've even seen some sites embed external functionality, such as Google Maps or Youtube videos, and a few allow other sites to reuse or embed government information or functionality through RSS or other means.

I am very glad to see this shift from rigid to permeable boundaries occurring. It provides a number of strategic benefits for government.

Strategic benefits of permeability
  • Greater reach
    Just as governments site their customer-facing offices in high traffic areas to improve reach, in the online channel government must have presence in appropriate sites.
    With permeable boundaries government can be where people choose to congregate, in social networks such as MySpace or Facebook, or media sites such as NineMSN.

  • Reduced duplication (information/effort)
    With permeable boundaries there is less effort required in re-inventing the wheel. Government agencies can embed publicly available tools in their sites and link to pre-existing information repositories.
    This allows the government to focus on filling the gaps where there are currently no tools or information rather than wasting money on replicating what already exists.

  • Improved awareness and trust
    Research demonstrates that people trust who their friends trust - word-of-mouth is a key influencer of decisions and behaviour.
    Permeable boundaries allow government organisations to become part of the network of friends. By engaging openly across existing communities over time this integrates government with these communities, making them a trusted member rather than an aloof outsider.

How to build permeable boundaries

These are quick thoughts on easy ways to start turning rigid into permeable boundaries.
  • Provide your media releases via RSS/Atom and promote them with your key partners.

  • Display audio-visual material using popular mediums, for example using Youtube for video, Slideshare for powerpoint slides, Scribd for documents.

  • Use existing third-party tools to deliver key features rather than building new tools, for example using Google Maps for map-based functions, Google for website search, for weather information, Blogger or Wordpress for in-site blogs and Footytips for an internal football tipping competition.

  • Use Govdex to develop an extranet to share information with trusted strategic partners.

  • Engage officially with existing online communities where there is clear benefit for doing so, for instance with online forums related to your area of business, with appropriate social networks and industry groups.

  • Build an appropriate and managed presence in a virtual world, such as Second Life.
And manage all these online initiatives, just as your agency would manage a new shopfront or service. Online engagement isn't tick-a-box, it requires ongoing commitment to succeed.

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