Monday, February 23, 2009

Government-related initiative tops Fast Company's "The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies" list for 2009

It's uncommon (at least in Australia) to see a government-related initiative promoted as a leader in innovation.

It's even rarer to see publications such as Fast Company, with its focus on the most innovative companies in the world, feature government-related initiatives.

However this year Fast Company's profile of "The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies" is topped by a government-related initiative. One which,
took a skinny kid with a funny name and turned him into the most powerful new national brand in a generation.
This reflects my view that the government could be one of the largest beneficiaries of the online channel. The internet allows government to have real conversations with citizens on an unprecended scale - participatory democracy in a way that has not been possible since communities grew too large to fit within a single town hall meeting.

To quote Fast Company,
Barack Obama's presidential-campaign team relied on technology -- what was known internally as the "triple O," or Obama's online operation -- to connect with voters better, faster, and more cheaply than ever before. The team has become the envy of marketers both in and out of politics for proving, among other things, just how effective digital initiatives can be.

More information can be gleaned from Stilgherrian's live blog of the Media 09 event, which featured Ben Self (a founder of the company BlueStateDigital who provided Obama's online community infrastructure) providing insights into how it was done.

Digital initiatives tick many boxes for government - in my view even more boxes than they tick for commercial organisations.

There are the cost, speed and reach benefits - the ability to contact, engage and solicit views from more people than ever before in a matter of hours or days at very low cost.

There is also the benefit of being able to speak with your own voice, making statements and holding conversations outside the moderation, influence and slant of media gatekeepers.

These benefits reach across all organisations, politicians and other individuals using the internet.

For government there are additional benefits in understanding the ongoing mood of a community and proactively creating and amending legislation and policy to better meet current citizen needs.

It is also possible to receive feedback on existing initiatives and develop collaborative policy and programs to help the finetuning process often necessary after legislation is introduced.

Finally, the internet allows government to mobilise a population behind a given cause or initiative, such as has occurred around the Victorian bushfires. For this crisis, for the first time ever, I've seen people 'retweeting' (forwarding) messages sent out via the KevinRuddPM Twitter account.

Of course there are hurdles that need to be considered - the need to be transparent (to a point), and the need to engage in a human-centric manner, rather than as a media statement robot.

These last two factors can be stumbling blocks for government. Transparency involves willingly admitting mistakes and committing to doing better. Speaking with a human voice requires a willingness to allow government representatives to do more than copy and paste the words of existing media releases - to inject their own style into communications.

These are both possible and in many cases already supported in other channels, such as radio talkback and live television. However often the internet is treated more as a long lead time press channel than as a real-time multimedia one.

For Australia to remain a leading nation in the world, I believe our governments need to overcome these hurdles, demonstrating innovative approaches to engagement and governance as we're now seeing in nations from the US to Estonia.

Time and citizen feedback will tell if we manage to do so in a meaningful way.

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