Thursday, June 02, 2011

Coping with the challenges of two-speed government agencies

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about 21st Century society vs 19th Century laws and policing. My post discussed the interview and arrest of Ben Grubb, an Australian Technology Journalist, by Queensland Police in the context of the challenges for legislators and law enforcement in remaining current and relevant in a quickly digitalising world.

A second issue arose on Twitter related to a response by @QPSMedia to a question. The QLD Police Media Unit stated publicly that Grubb had been interviewed but not arrested.

Unfortunately this was untrue at the time. Grubb had been placed under arrest. @QLDMedia corrected their statement as soon as they were made aware of the changed situation (and took a little flak over their correction for "being too informal" - but that's the value of Twitter, short, fast and personable).

My understanding in this case is that the Queensland Police Media Unit had checked and obtained high level clearance for the original 'interview' tweet. As far as they had known the original information was correct at the time of tweeting.

I'm not about to criticise @QPSMedia for providing information they believe is correct at the time and then amend as soon as the error is recognised - that's actually very good practice. Frankly, considering the Queensland Police is a 24-hour organisation with 15,000 staff and over 5.2 million interactions with the public each year, it is unreasonable to assume that every interaction will be perfect.

Even if you could effect a communications accuracy rate of 99.999% (with humans mind you, not machines) this would still leave room for one mistake each week (52 per year).

What this particular situation does highlight for me is a major challenge for government agencies as they begin adopting social media. They are becoming two-speed organisations.

The small teams in agencies that manage online channels and engage via social media are developing the culture, systems and processes to support rapid, open and less formal communication. They have, or are becoming, attuned to how to communicate effectively online and often provide broader advice and support to other teams in using these channels.

However the areas that haven't embedded social media in their toolkit - the much larger 'rumps' of these agencies - are still operating on pre-internet systems and timeframes. Their focus isn't speed, but quality and diligence. They seek to ensure that information is triple checked before it is announced and that policies and communications are carefully deliberated and crafted to be precisely accurate in every particular.

This means that whenever there is a need to respond quickly to public needs in a crisis or event, the social media team is ready and able to rise to the challenge (as @QPSMedia did in the Brisbane floods). However they may still struggle to source relevant, accurate and timely information from the rest of their organisation (as did @QPSMedia in the example I first provided).

This may create communications and engagement breakdowns or slowdowns, leave agency social media teams looking ineffective or evasive and damage their ability to manage online relationships and incidents in effective ways.

These slowdowns may ultimately impact on the overall reputations of agencies, leaving them looking slow or ineffectual.

So how do we manage these two-speed government organisations?

In the long-term we might see agencies capable of operating at internet speeds, with systems and processes that allow them to manage their data flow and quality needs while also meeting the public's desire for fast information.

In the short-term, as our organisations evolve, it is critical to consider bridging tactics to allow agencies to operate at both speeds - deliberative and internet.

These tactics can include preformatting messages wherever possible. For Twitter a former staff member in my team termed these 'Tweetplates', which could be pre-approved by management and then reused without additional approval requirements.

Material or entire websites that aren't time sensitive can be prepared, reviewed and approved ahead of time, then used as needed in crisis (such as a list of hospital locations or standard emergency instructions). They should be reviewed periodically to keep them up-to-date.

It is also possible to use delaying tactics - to a point. Rather than answering a question immediately it is acceptable to acknowledge the question, indicate that you're working on an answer and that you will provide the answer as soon as possible. Of course it remains necessary to actually answer the question when you said you would.

Are there other tactics I've missed? Add them in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. The key is to fail faster and have a tested risk management strategy around embarrassment. Just look at how Pixar coaches it's animators to deal with embarrassment (or fear thereof) in collaboration:

    The idea of a communications/media unit that is prevented from communicating is absurd. The idea of any organisation that is 100% perfect is just as fanciful.