Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ignorance (of social media) is risk

I still encounter a large number of public servants - from a variety of agencies and at a range of government levels (local to federal) - whose experience of social media is limited to Facebook and Twitter - or less.

Most appear to be unaware of the steps the Government has taken to integrate social media into business practices - mentioning the Gov 2.0 Taskforce and Declaration of Open Government provoke blank looks. Few have heard of the many civic tools and government initiatives that have taken place online - and even fewer appear to actually participate.

Some of these people are senior decision makers. Others provide advice and operational leadership in support of senior decision makers.

I find this a very disturbing situation for the public service and government in Australia. To me the largest and most damaging risk facing any activity is ignorance. When you don't know what you don't know there is rich ground for poor decisions, human error and missteps.

The situation provides opportunity for 'snake oil' salespeople - sometimes masquerading as well-paid consultants - to provide dangerous advice and poorly considered ideas about the use of social media which cannot be accurately assessed and considered where staff experience is lacking. These ideas have the potential to seriously damage reputations in the public service, agencies and governments.

Social media has been immensely popular in the community for at least five years and some government departments have supported internal collaboration through forums for at least twenty years.

Surely there has been enough time to expect more active learning by people who seek operational and strategic leadership roles.

There are a plethora of seminars on social media, volumes of information online and excellent case studies of Australian and international best practice.

Understanding where social media fits into the media mix for communication, engagement, collaboration and productivity improvements needs to stop being the preserve of a relatively few specialists and become a core capability, skill and toolset for many public servants.

Perhaps that is what is needed - to make an understanding of the strategic use of social media communications and engagement channels a core part of public service capabilities.

It certainly touches on a range of capabilities we already expect public servants in the Australian Public Service to master in the Integrated Leadership System. For example, at the EL2 level, looking at only the 'Shapes strategic thinking' capability, there are a multitude of ways in which social media enables and extends the ability of a public servant to perform their duties:
  • Encourages others to provide input and comment on the strategic direction of the business unit.
    (social media channels may be an effective means for supporting provision of this input)
  • Communicates with others regarding the purpose of their work and the relationship between work unit objectives and organisational goals.
    (social media channels may be an effective method of supporting this communication)
  • Considers a wide range of issues and their implications for the business unit.
    (to consider any issues presented by social media you must have a good understand of social media channels)
  • Identifies critical information gaps and asks a range of questions to uncover valuable information.
    (as a major channel for engagement and communication, public servants without a working understanding of social media have critical information gaps)
  • Sources information on best practice approaches adopted in both the public and private sectors.
    (there are many examples available of best practice social media use to address a wide range of business needs in both public and private industry)
  • Scans the internal and external environment for new trends and recent developments that are likely to affect own business area.
    (how can you effectively scan the environment today without monitoring social media channels and online peer groups)
  • Gathers and investigates information and alternate viewpoints from a variety of sources through formal and informal means; explores new ideas with an open mind.
    (social media leverages the capability to gather and investigate information and viewpoints - both formally and informally. The use of social media in any initiative must be considered with an open mind, based on best practice examples, rather than media spin)
  • Draws accurate conclusions and presents logical arguments that address key issues.
    (drawing accurate conclusions and presenting logical arguments involves understanding the underlying material. Public servants need a working understanding of social media in order to do this for initiatives which could be supported by its use)
  • Explores various possibilities and generates innovative alternatives.
    (social media is a key tool for exploration and the discovery and support of innovative alternatives)
Whatever system is used in your public service, there will be key ways in which social media knowledge and capability will empower and support staff to perform their roles effectively.


  1. ''Snake oil' salespeople' love it. I agree entirely with the comments above. As we have discussed many times it appears that many people see this activity as a nicety but not core business and make decisions about access and involvement of their staff and agency based upon limited knowledge. I find they are also unwilling to be convinced otherwise. We can however conitue to perceiver.

  2. Nice Craig, thanks once again!
    There are of course a number of capabilities in the APS. Under "communicates with influence" EL and SES band one are expected to "Select the most appropriate medium for conveying information and structure written and oral communication to ensure clarity."
    Notably only SES band 2 and 3 "Create meaning for the audience by using analogies and (sic) stories to illustrate key points." Metaphors, similies and irony seemingly not necessary.
    This is the speech writers approach to communication. It demonstrates a failure to understand that communication exists outside a human to human interface and assumes the aim of communication is to announce something, but leaving those to one side it makes the massive assumption that EL and SES officers will have developed sufficient understanding of the many and growing communications options to be able to make an informed choice.
    Further, when these (mandated) capabilities are evaluated the evaluators themselves are often poorly versed in communication generally, let alone in ways of harnessing social media.
    This is a failure to identify core competencies necessary to underpin the core capabilities; and this is where the whole thing starts to come unglued.
    The Integrated Leadership System (ILS) was developed from a program for senior managers that was introduced in 1999, The ILS was launched in 2004 (along with Facebook).
    By 2004 it should have been blindingly obvious that there is more to communication than speechifying and that the internet presented the potential for a fundamental shift in our understanding of "what is communication".
    Terry Moran said in March 2010 "Capability and skills gaps across the APS have been exacerbated by sporadic workforce planning and a lack of clarity about capability requirements."
    While it is important to look at our potential to engage with and better utilise social media, our collective failure (with one or two exceptions) to do so is a symptom rather than the disease. The real cure is understanding and implementing core competenties;(for example, to my mind there should not be a public servant who is not at least an intermediate user of MS Excel and MS Word.)
    When I am assessing applicants for positions I am required to rate them against the ILS capability map. In addition I tend to ask "tell me what xml is" and "explain what a relational database is". Put simply, in my area if you don't have more than what I would regard as basic computer literacy then you will not have the skills to perform adequately.
    Failure to recognise the cultural and technological shift that is happening all around us is likely to expose any enterprise to unnecessary risk. Surely this is one area where we need to heed Moran's warning and start to get some clarity on what capabilities are required to manage an effective and engaged government sector capable of utilising the available resources to maximum effect and with sufficient strategic strength to keep abreast of developments.
    We could possibly take a look at the in house professional development courses offered to most public servants. I can easily sign up to communication courses that teach how to write a better departmental minute but struggle for approval to send staff on an SEO course. That really says it all.

  3. When government owned agencies that are supposed be 'thought leaders' in tech and education dismantle their employees' blogs like Education Services Australia did - are you really surprised?

  4. A great Discussion.I totaly agree.Most of the people believe Facebook and Twitter are the only SEM platforms but more than that.


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