Monday, June 30, 2008

Who reads blogs anyway?

I have to admit that for a long time I've been a blog skeptic.

Who actually sits down at their computer to read someone else's personal journal?

I think this has been one of the barriers I had towards blogging myself - I felt that I'd get better mileage out of talking ideas through with individuals face-to-face, or speaking at conferences, which I try to do a couple of times each year.

However I've seen decent growth in the readership of my own blog, which 'lives' within quite a niche topic in the weeks - not months - it has been live. It is already reaching 80 or more individuals each day.

The top blogs in Australia and the US are now close to rivaling the level of readership of print publication transplanted to the web.

Taking a quick look around the web, I've seen some compelling figures on the number of internet users accessing blogs, such as from Forrester, who published the following table in their Groundswell report.

If you consider that Australia is more like Britain, but has touches of the US, lets say that around 14% of our online population read blogs at least once a month.

Based on an internet using adult population of 13 million, that's roughly 1.7 million people per month, as of a year ago (Q2 2007).

Those figures may not light up your world, but I find them fairly impressive given that blogs only really became reality around 10 years ago.

More recent figures are even more impressive.

In Charlene Li's blog there's a great video interview talking more about various approaches being taken by companies. Charlene is a co-writer of Groundswell and one of Forrester's lead analysts on the topic of social media).

There's also a social media profiling tool where you can review engagement by demographic group - including for Australia. The difference between under 35 years and over is profound.

I've been so impressed with the work done by Forrester in this area that I'm buying copies of the book, Groundswell, for our senior executive team.

So are you blogging yet?

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Social media initiatives at my agency - what is your agency doing?

Part of my interest in social media at the moment is related to how I'm encouraging its use within our agency.

I'm very interested in hearing about what other agencies are doing.

At work we have a team rolling out a community of practice using a wiki-based system, with an extranet to follow. I hope to replicate this for other areas of the business that could benefit from such a system.

We have a rating/comment system being implemented into our intranet to further help content authors and the intranet management team (part of my team) understand where our content requires significant improvement to meet staff needs. It's not quite social media, but it's a step towards it.

After our major 1 July deadline we will be documenting a strategy and approach for internal blogs and forums, with the support of our Internal Communications team - then hopefully introducing the enabling tools with ICT's assistance.

We are also preparing to engage more actively in public online discussions around our agency and its services, in a measured and structured manner. Around this I'm looking seriously at whether we should introduce online participation principles, as has occurred in the UK.

We have initial plans, with some buy-in from our Media group, to trial the enhancement of our media releases to make it easier to get them into Digg and Reddit, and potentially deliver them via Twitter or similar tools.

Finally I'm encouraging the members of my team (currently spread across several states) to make use of appropriate tools to aid contact and collaboration. Phone and email work reasonably well for us, however I want to explore how we can further improve engagement in a less interruptive way. Over time I'd love to extend this to other areas as appropriate - I'm already aware of more than 60 Facebook and Linkedin users in the agency, so the grassroots growth is already occurring.

If your agency has any social media initiatives underway that others could learn from, please let me know

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sneak peak at Google Ad Planner

Last week I discussed how Google was preparing to announce the release of it's new Ad Planner tool.

It's now available in beta with selected Google customers and an Ad Planner sneak peak is available online, with an image of the interface which demonstrates how the tool can segment site reach by demographics including gender, age, education, location and income.

The tool enables marketers and PR professionals to get a clearer picture of the demographics of different websites to aid them in effective communications and advertising targeting.

It also enables effective planning of online media buys, either through setting reach goals or media mix.

Does this remove the need for media buyers?

Certainly not yet - however I believe Google is gradually disintermediating this group as it moves further into television, radio and print advertising alongside its online search cash cow.

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Useful introductory resources for social media

I'm on a bit of a social media kick this weekend due to all the fantastic resources I've found on the topic in the last several days.

I wanted to flag a couple of these in particular that I found useful, and may be useful for others.

My first great find was a CIO magazine article from May this year, Enterprise 2.0 - What is it good for? (A 12-step guide to getting the most out of Web 2.0 tools and making it safe-for-purpose).

This article provides a good step-by-step approach to getting your toes wet in the social media space, starting with creating a Web 2.0 strategy, getting buy-in from all Senior Management (as it's not simply a technology decision), establishing ownership, developing appropriate policies, monitoring and response times.

The seond resource was the Cook & Hopkins Social Media Report - 3rd edition.

As a free online resource this is an enormously valuable tool for establishing a basic understanding of some of the social media options out there. If you're new to the area, or need to provide information to someone who is, this resource can provide a good starting point.

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Anyone still going viral?

I remember viral advertising being the flavour of the month a few years ago.

Every ad agency out there was touting the concept - create some tool, video or website that would capture the popular imagination and create enormous online 'word-of-mouth' at a low cost.

However when it came to execution, it was very hard to create a viral ad. No-one could accurately pick what would fly and what would bomb.

These days I don't see the word tossed around very often - everyone, including me, is talking social media.

However that doesn't invalidate viral marketing.

If you can create that buzz, the approach still works. The challenge is in the buzz (which this BMW ad has managed to create).

I've not seen much in the way of innovative government advertising for some time - not since the ten-pin bowling grim reaper - The reaper can still be viewed online at YouTube and has been featured on The Chaser. The original ad was created over twenty years ago.

Does this reflect the difficulty of creating viral ads? Or the loss of creativity in government advertising?

Have you seen any online advertising lately you just had to pass on to at least one friend?

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mid-point - Australian egovernment strategy - how's your agency tracking?

I'm very interested in receiving comments on how different government departments and agencies are tracking towards meeting the goals of the 2006 e-Government Strategy (which runs to 2010).

We're close to the midpoint and I've not seen much in the way of progress reporting.

Background for those unfamiliar - the 2006 e-Government Strategy, Responsive Government: A New Service Agenda outlined four main goals in its vision for 2010:

  • To meet user needs
  • Connected service delivery
  • Value for money
  • Public sector capacity (to deliver on the other goals)
The strategy is a good one, and I support it both as an online veteran and as a public sector website manager.

There are a number of challenges to delivery of the strategy across government, and it would be interesting to understand how various agencies are meeting these.

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Make government data freely available

An interesting article was released in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology earlier this year discussing a view that government should focus on providing usable data online rather than full-blown websites.

Titled Government Data and the Invisible Hand , the premise was quite simply explained in the abstract:

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design [web ]sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.
This approach is very much at odds with the current approach both in the US and Australia, where in most cases the respective governments provide both the data and all the interpretation designed to meet the needs of specific audiences.

Via the current approach, data can becomes difficult to extract, or is presented in a way that is not useful. On that basis these websites are difficult to use. They are also expensive to develop and maintain and difficult to keep current.

The approach in practice

I've encountered both approaches in Australian government websites.

In a past role, managing the website for a private sector water and energy utility, one of the consistently most trafficked areas of our website was local weather. This section had only a peripheral involvement with the main focus of the site, however the level of usage made it important to retain.

We did not run this weather service ourselves. Instead we used a raw data feed provided by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) for free. The data was simply customised and represented in an attractive way in our website.

Ours was not the only organisation using this data - a number of other organisations had built businesses though providing weather information - sometimes combined with video, maps, commentary or other feeds. These sites collectively attracted more traffic than the BOM itself.

To my recollection, provided this data was not packaged and directly resold commercially, the BOM had a policy of giving away the data freely.

This approach helped ensure that the public were able to access accurate information, to the public good. It is important to note that BOM data was collected and processed by people and equipment already paid for out of the public purse.

On the other hand, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provided a great deal of the data I used in my day-to-day role.

This data was preprocessed by the ABS into tables or excel documents. These were often chunks of information that were not much use to my audience.

My team spent many hours manually deconstruct and reconstruct the ABS data into different forms to make it useful for our corporate needs.

The ABS did not provide data as a raw feed. While the ABS did gave away its data for free online - and this was fantastically useful - the overhead that went into its website inevitably made it less timely, therefore reducing its value in a commercial sense.

So, in comparison:

  • Gave its data away for free online (public access to public data)
  • No data analysis required (lower cost to the agency, faster to market)
  • Referrals from everyone reusing the data (reach)
  • Enormous innovation in how the data was 'mashed' with other sources / analysed and presented (lower cost to agency, transference of risk of misinterpretation to private sector)

  • Gave its reports away for free online - but not the raw data (public value but less timely)
  • Provided intensive data processing (quality assurance but higher cost to the agency, slower to market)
  • Limited online reuse, therefore fewer referrals (lower reach)
  • No innovation in data analysis and presentation (higher analysis/presentation cost to agency, any risk of misinterpretation stays with the agency)
In my view BOM's approach seems to be both lower costs and risks for the agency and delivers greater public benefits, greater data use, innovation and agency reach (referrals).

Bt the way, it's worth pointing out that BOM is the most trafficked government website in Australia. ABS, despite a wider range of statistics, is much further down the list.

Can the data approach be used across other agencies?

I believe it can. Even in my agency we release numbers and resources which could be indexed and provided in a raw data form for reuse.

We also have a website estimator for calculation purposes. There are around a dozen similar estimators that do a similar job - several providing virtually the same result as the official estimator. However those 'fan' estimators cost nothing to the public purse to create or maintain.

So if members of the public are prepared to create these tools, why should the agency?

Granted this last example is a little more tricky than that - the estimation process is time-consuming and maximising accuracy is a key goal.

However there are other government websites and tools which could and would be delivered by private organisations and individuals, if only the government allowed access to the data stream.

Level the playing field

Note that the article does not suggest that government should stop analysing data and presenting this analysis in websites.

What it suggests is to provide the raw data on a level playing field, thereby allowing private and public organisations the same capacity to use it.
The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.
This means that government agencies such as the ABS can continue to provide reports for people who choose not to do their own analysis.

However it opens the field to innovation and the use of various data sources to make connections that government, in a siloed form, is not as able to do.

This levelling is critical - if the government wants to see innovation it should not hold back the 'secret sauce'. The data needs to be available in a way that allows private and other public enterprises to use it in an equal way.

Open systems are available today via standards such as XML and RSS - look at how Google syndicates maps and ads or how Facebook allows the creation and dissemination of applications.

In conclusion

Government has a crucial role to play in the collection of data across the country. This is a task well suited to the public sector as it is in the public interest that this be available.

However government doesn't have the systems or culture to be best suited to interpret and combine this data or make it useful for individuals and organisations.

Government should provide interpretations - however it should not hold an artificial monopoly over this.

By allow other organisations to access the raw information innovation in its presentation can occur more rapidly, providing deeper insights for the public good.

Make government data freely available.

Does anyone have other examples of where government collected data has become freely available? I'd love to blog about the successes.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The online impact of the US election - implications for Australian government

I've previously blogged about the impact of the online channel on Barack Obama's campaign and how it contributed significantly to his nomination as the Democrat presidential candidate.

There have also been broader implications for the US government scene, as captured in a Pew report released last week.

Pew has been one of my favourite commentators over the last six years due to the down-to-earth nature of their reports on online usage. I take their analysis as a prediction of where Australia will be in the next two to four years.

Their latest report, The Internet and the 2008 Election, surveyed normal Americans on their engagement with the 2008 US presidential election via the online channel.

What it found was that 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or SMS to get political news and share their thoughts about the campaign and
23% say they receive emails urging them to support a candidate or discuss the campaign once a week or more.

Now those might not sound like high percentages, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Three elections ago (in 1996 - when Bill Clinton became US President), those figures would have been virtually zero. That's the speed at which the landscape is changing.

Secondly, keep in mind that only 60.7% of Americans eligible to vote actually did vote in the 2004 presidential election - and this was the highest percentage since 1968.

While given that Americans who do not vote may still follow the elections and receive emails about it, the following figures do take on much greater significance in light of the number of 'active voters' in the US.

Pew found that 19% of Americans go online once a week or more to do something related to the campaign (one-third of 'active voters'), and 6% go online to engage politically on a daily basis (ten percent of 'active voters').

It also found that 10% of Americans (fifteen percent of 'active voters') use email to contribute to the political debate and that 1 in 10 of those using SMS (4% of the adult population) are sending or receiving text messages about the campaign or other political issues on a regular basis.

Obama supporters were much more likely to use online communications. They outweighed Clinton supporters by 74% vs 57% and McCain supporters by 65% vs 56% (comparing online supporters
that have gotten political news and information online).

Statistics aside, what does this mean for government?

The first implication is that online is now an important channel for electioneering. The last big shift in media use by politicians was more than forty years ago when Kennedy trumped Nixon in the first television debate - signalling a shift in politics from voice to image.

The online shift means that different values become important. Image will remain important in politics (in today's consumer-driven society how could it not), but consistency, substance and depth are also becoming critical.

When citizens can read or listen to a candidate's speech and instantly check their voting record and comments over the past ten years (such as via OpenAustralia) it becomes very clear to the voters when politicians are modifying their positions and dishonesty becomes a critical issue.

This isn't really new - one of the first well known instances was in 1998 when the Lewinsky scandal regarding President Bill Clinton was broken by the Drudge Report.

A second maor implication is on public sector management and governance. It's not only the histories and stories about politicians that become available online, it's also the performance records of government agencies and top public servants.

Where there are close ties between politicians and ministerial offices, politicians can be judged by how their departments engage and conduct themselves online. Individual senior public servants may also find their public comments or lack thereof also coming under intense scrutiny in a political sense.

Does this mean that government agencies and public servants need to hide under their shells and say as little as possible online?

I don't think so.

Firstly, this approach would not work. Citizens are very capable of creating their own websites, transcribing or recording comments and press releases and republishing or referring to them to demonstrate real or contrived inconsistencies in positions or behaviours.

Secondly it's not a bad thing to be held for public scrutiny. Without this scrutiny there's no point to having a democratic process. Politicians and public servants should be held accountable for their views and positions and, to some extent, their past choices.

Finally, online discussion is a benefit to getting accurate information into the public eye.
Once a conversation begins it becomes possible to contribute to it, clarify the issues and ensure that an accurate view is visible. This does require substantial agility - online conversations occur in real time and government doesn't have the time to consider, reflect and rework a statement over weeks before making comments. There is the need for rapid responsiveness, often within hours rather than days.

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Follow-up on real-time government - video stream available online

A quick addition to my post on real-time government, here's more background on how online technologies are being used to enable real-time government.

Watch Congressman's Culberson video stream for an explanation of an approach he's using to reach his constituents as a 'real-time representative'.

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Why should government care - how many people use Firefox/Safari/Opera anyway?

I've noticed a tendency in Australia for government agencies to focus on having their websites work perfectly in Microsoft Internet Explorer, but not always quite so well in Firefox, Safari, Opera or other web browsers.

This isn't limited to the public sector, private sector organisations face the same issue of cross-browser compatibility.

On one hand there is the Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and a suite of other standards which relate to web accessibility, as well as state accessibility laws, that organisations - particularly government departments - are required to comply with.

On the other hand there are resource and testing limitations which constraint what organisations can do.

It is clearly important for organisations to support as many web browsers as possible, as the fewer the browsers supported, the longer the tail of people who will not get a satisfactory experience on a website.

There's also the possibility of legal risk. There's already been a high profile court case in Australia on accessibility, regarding the Sydney Olympics (for a great analysis of it by Joe Clark see Reader’s guide to Sydney Olympics accessibility complaint)

Applying web standards is te obvious approach, but not always the simple solution. The standards are quite complex and open to interpretation. Even when your web professionals believe you've met the W3C standards there can be variations in how your site will display in different 'standards-based' browsers.

Specifying which browsers you support is another approach. Simply choose the most used browsers and support those, with custom style sheets to address any page rendering differences. This will catch a good 95% of the market in the top four or so web browsers, but leave a tail of users with older web browsers or less well known products who may not receive the same experience.

So what is the best solution to ensure your organisation meets accessibility standards, delivers the intended experience and doesn't bankrupt itself in the process?

Unfortunately I don't have the knife to cut through for this Gordian knot, every organisation needs to weigh the considerations and decide its own best path.

I can provide a few further references to feed this decision.

Links to various accessibility legislation and guidelines are listed above. Most states in Australia also have government web standards they apply which can provide some guidance on the topic.

As for browser market share, below is a chart detailing the latest share figures from a major statistics collector.

Alongside outright browser shares, it is critical to consider web browser versions as well. While Internet Explorer has a 74% share (down from over 95% before Firefox was introduced), of this roughly 47% use IE7 and 27% use IE6 or earlier. Similar splits also occur for Firefox and other browsers.

Another good source for browser usage is your own web logs, which can provide a more audience specific view of who accesses your website. My agency uses Webtrends to analyse this data, but the majority of web log analysis tools will provide similar information.

Web browser shares
- Q2 2008
Wikipedia - Usage share of web browsers

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Real-time government - not as far away as you think

I was able to take part in an inpromptu live online video and text discussion this morning between Congressman John Culberson of Texas and initially with the Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and then with Grover Norquist, the President of Americans against Tax Reform (pictured below) at a fund raising event in the US.

While I'm not their constituency (although I am a Director of an oil company with production interests in Petrolia), there were a number of others watching who were, and it was a fascinating look at the democratic process in evolution.

The online discussion was an opportunity for Congressman Culberson to directly reach and represent his constituency, asking and answering questions put to him.

The entire discussion was managed through the use of free online social media technologies, Twitter was used to inform the Congressman's constituents that the discussion was taking place and then Quix was used to capture the video on a mobile phone and stream it live to the internet , presenting it on a page where people could text chat directly with the participants, receiving verbal replies.

As one of the first in I was privileged to be mentioned by name - making it the first time I think I've been mentioned by an elected US Congressman.

That type of closeness - between individuals and their elected officials - is now becoming available, and we'll see how soon these technologies are in use in Australia's community Cabinet meetings and similar events.

Below is a screenshot I took of the event (see me at right logged in as CraigThomler).

The Congressman will also be conducting several further interviews through the evening using the same tools and the permanent record will be up at Quix.

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Review: Funnel Back''s new search feature - Flusters

To provide a little background, Funnel Back is a search technology developed and commercialised by CSIRO.

It has been deployed in as their Whole-of-Government search technology as my agency's website search tool (as a hosted solution) and in many other agencies and companies across Australia and other countries.

It's a reasonably good search engine if some time is spent configuring it and I've been happy with the search success levels we achieve (though always trying to improve them).

AGIMO recently invited my agency to participate in the live pilot test of Funnel Back's new search feature - Fluster (50kb PDF).

In brief Fluster helps users find what they are looking for by offering alternative phrases to refine their search terms.

An example of this in action is visible in - simply use the search and look at the Related Search area at the right of the page.

We've been trialing this feature within our site for a little over a month now and I have an initial view on how Fluster has been performing.

How Fluster is doing
Initially I was concerned about the relevancy of the topics and phrases that Fluster would choose to display. This hasn't proven to be an issue, Fluster is providing highly relevant results.

However I'm not convinced that people are using the tool effectively. We've seen no measureable change in the search success rate and I do not have evidence that visitors to our site are using the Fluster Related Search area when searching.

This could be an education issue. We currently present Fluster in the search results page without any form of help, meaning that our visitors are not guided to the tool.

It could also reflect that improvements are necessary in the reporting of Fluster use so we can determine if the tool is assisting people find what they need. These reports are still being refined by Funnel Back.

Another factor I keep in mind is the trend towards more sophisticated internet users.

A large proportion of people are very familiar with Google and other 'generic' search engines and have learnt to use phrases rather than individual words to increase the relevance of results.

In fact, the average length of a search term in Google exceeded four words at the end of 2007 - at least according to WebProNews which reports that People Are Finding More Words To Search With.

This means that people are already refining their own search terms, potentially reducing the value in having a search engine do it for them.

In conclusion
So my preliminary conclusion is that Fluster can add value to search results.

However more time will be required to really understand the impact it is having and test ways to help people use it effectively.

While internet users are becoming more sophisticated, this doesn't negate the value of Fluster. There are always new people coming into the user pool and even experienced users may on occasion find that Fluster suggests a topic or phrase that they had not considered but leads them to a relevant result.

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Top level internet domains for dollars

If you have a spare US$50-100,000 you may be able to buy your own top-level internet domain from ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

ICANN moderates top level domains around the world. These domains, such as .com, .net, and, are the basic naming structure of the internet and control what organisations and nations can do online.

Previously there were very tight controls over the naming structure and an extensive review process before new top level domains were created - of which very few were.

However the new regulations effectively allow any organisation - private or public - to register top level domains, subject to a much simpler review process and a payment.

I do not expect to see much impact on government in Australia - the domain is well established and strongly mandated. However it now becomes much easier for states or councils to consider different naming - such as .nswgovernment or .sutherlandshire

In the private sector it's hard to say - previous releases of top level names have not seen significant attrition from the .com (or in Australia) names, but the alternatives haven't been that much better.

However with any top level domain name now possible, there is the possibility for greater fragmentation.

Time will tell.

More information on this decision is available at ItNews,
ICANN proposes greater top-level domain name flexibility.

There's also a good opinion piece over at VentureBeat, ICANN threatens to change the rules of the domain name game

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Slides from Web Directions Government now available online

I heard some good reports from people who attended Web Directions Government back in May.

For those of you, like me, who missed it, Web Directions South has made a number of the presentations and podcasts available online via their blog, Web Directions Government resources now online.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Participate in the Global Intranet Survey

Last year my agency participated in the Global Intranet Survey for the first time.

The report from the survey has proven very useful in our intranet planning and given me a number of ideas that we've been able to apply in the ongoing management of our intranet.

The survey is on again this year, we're participating again and I'd recommend the same to other intranet managers.

Sign up for the Global Intranet Survey 2008

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International view: government mostly failing online

Earlier this year The Economist released a special report on egovernment, entitled The Electronic Bureaucrat.

The report's conclusion was that whilst there were a few good examples of egovernment initiatives, most could not be considered successful.

It's a fascinating read regarding international views and experiences in the area and flags changes that government needs to make to be effective online, including;

  • personalising services for citizens, storing preferences to make returning easier,
  • delivering 24/7 availability,
  • making online services at least as easy to use as the equivalent offline processes,
  • being as well designed and easy to use as online services provided by the private sector - as this is what customers expect, and
  • engaging with other online services - making content findable in search engines and cross-publishing with online news and social media tools to leverage reach.
This reflects a philosophy of taking government to where the people are, both physically and intellectually, adapting government to meet citizens' needs, rather than attempting to change citizen behaviour to meet the way government wishes to function.

Key points in the report include that technology is only half, or less, of the picture. As much time is required to review and redevelop government strategy, structures and processes as to put in place enabling systems.
One big lesson is that e-government is not just about computers; it involves redesigning the way government works.
The report also suggests that competition is important, and huge scale centralised projects are much less successfully than smaller ones.
Still, the experience of the past ten years suggests a common pattern of which all countries, rich and poor alike, should take note. Centralised schemes tend to work much less well than decentralised ones, and competition is vital.

My key takeaway from the report was that while government around the world sees the importance and value in moving service delivery and citizen interactions online, few have made the structural, cultural and process changes required to fully embrace the channel.

This reflects my own experiences as to why government is slow at embracing social media.

What's your takeaway?

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Do you practice what you preach? Personal use of online services

As the business manager of my agency's website and intranet I see it as part of my responsibility to understand what is happening in the medium and use the same tools being used by our website audience.

It's similar to the concept of walking 1,000 miles in another person's shoes.

For instance, this blog. One of my goals in writing it is to better understand bloggers - their motivations and

I'm also an avid user of LinkedIn (for professional networking) and Facebook (for social networking), not to mention (collaborative bookmarking), Twitter (micro-blogging), Gmail and Hotmail (web-based mail), Google Apps (collaborative documents), Friendfeed (social streaming), Flickr and Photobucket (online photo storage), Slideshare (online presentation storage), Basecamp (project management), Digg (user-rated news) and a number of other services.

These systems are generally complimentary and often work together extremely well.

In fact on any given day I'd probably interact with roughly half of these services.

Each week I look at a new tool - such as The Awesome Highlighter or Timetoast - to help keep me current with what is possible in the online space - some of it is mindblowing.

How about you?

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Considering using Microsoft SharePoint for government websites and intranets? Consider your options carefully

I've seen a lot of hype about SharePoint, Microsoft's solution for, well, just about anything related to online.

The product has been promoted as a Information Management system, as a Web Content Management system (Web CMS), as a replacement for shared drives and file systems, as an enterprise search tool and even as a platform for enterprise applications.

Amazingly enough it can fulfil all of these roles. However like other jack-of-all trades, it's not necessarily the best product for any one of them as detailed in this post, Advice for (prospective) SharePoint customers.

I've particularly been seeing a lot of push for SharePoint in the public sector.

Where agencies have selected a Microsoft technology path there's many good reasons to consider SharePoint as well - less complex environments to maintain, easier to train and recruit staff, there's plenty of synergies that can be leveraged with other Microsoft products.

However when considering any product for a role as important as being the engine of your online channel it's valuable to understand your options and undertake appropriate due diligence before investing public funds.

For instance, the initial purchase price of a Web CMS solution is a very small part of the picture, there's the lifetime cost to consider as well.

Generally I'd expect to use the same platform over a 3-5 year window at least, with substantial ongoing development to meet changing organisational needs. The cost of this development can be substantial.

Another major consideration is the staff costs related to content authoring and publishing. This is the real cost to staff in terms of the time required to use a system in the workplace. While a Web CMS might be cheap to purchase, if it is difficult or time-intensive to use that will seriously compromise the success and the viability of your online channel.

Other factors to consider include content migration, the split of responsibilities between IT and business areas, the cost of extensions to the system and the overall network and hardware costs of the system.

So while SharePoint is one options - and I've seen excellent implementations of the technology in agencies (such as in DEWR) - there are over 140 Web Content Management Systems available for purchase in Australia.

Many of them work very well within a Microsoft environment.

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Google to release a web measurement tool to track target audiences

Google looks to be entering the market Hitwise and Neilsen are already competing in - audience tracking online, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Google to Offer a Tool To Measure Web Hits.

This differs from web log reporting in that it tracks website visitors across different websites to provide a behavioural picture of audiences by demographics.

I've used the Mosaic audience profiling tool within Hitwise to gain a good idea of whether my agency's site was effectively targeting the correct audience (it is) and to look at other websites with which we shared our audience.

This benchmarking has allowed us to identify appropriate press and magazine channels to target for communications activities, to identify websites that we may consider partnering with and to get a clearer picture of what our customers want and do to improve our publications and services.

It will be interesting to see how effective Google's service will be in the same area. With over 130 million unique visitors per day the organisation already has a wealth of data on what people do online and where they go.

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OpenGovernment now in Australia - something all public servants should be aware of

Regardless of how egovernment progresses, Australian citizens are moving forward to create the tools they want online.

The latest example is is a site named Open Australia.

Built based on the UK site They Work For You and the New Zealand site of the same name -, Open Australia feaures a fully searchable record of Hansard, provides MP voting records and details of their appearances in parliament and allows people to receive a notification whenever their MP speaks. has rated this as "Quite possibly the best thing to happen online for democracy in Australia this year"

At the moment the site is focused on the House of Representatives, which means I cannot get a notification on all speeches by my Department's Minister, who is a Senator.

However I can track all mentions of him in speeches with a simple search (to the extent of being able to see which other parliamentarians named him) and have these delivered to my newsreader via RSS.

This type of site significantly lowers the barriers to accessing information on the activities and decisions of parliamentarians, which also impacts on the public servants in their departments, particularly those formulating policy.

The volunteers who built and manage the site are working towards including the Senate, Committees and voting records as well.

This type of site is designed to foster greater participation and accountability amongst politicians and it will be interesting to see what impact it has over time.

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Australian use of social media skyrocketing

Universal McCann have completed some excellent research on social media use based on a sample of 17,000 users across 29 countries.

The latest wave was completed in March 2008.

The key findings were that blogs and online videos have gone mainstream and are tools that organisations need to consider within their marketing and communications mix.

Social networks had reached critical mass. Note that since this research was completed, Facebook has overtaken MySpace as the market leader.

I've embedded the slideshow below, or it is viewable at slide share as Universal Mccann International Social Media Research Wave 3

The highlights for Australia:

62% of Australians online read blogs (up from 21% in Sep 2006)
29% of Australians online have started blogs (up from 18% in Sep 2006)

36% of people online (globally) think more positively of organisations that blog
32% of people online (globally) trust blogger's opinions on products and services

Social networks
50% of Australians online have created a profile on a social network (21% of the Australian population)

Shared videos online
77% of Australians online have watched online videos (up from 25% in Sep 2006)
28% of Australians online have shared videos (12% of the Australian population)

Listened to Podcasts
40% of Australians online have listened to a Podcast (up from 14% in Sep 2006)

Subscribed to RSS feed
24% of Australians online have subscribed to an RSS feed

The slideshow

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Usability testing - doing it like Google

Techcrunch has provided A Peak Inside Google’s Gmail Usability Lab.

It's an interesting look at how one of the most web-savvy companies in the world conducts usability testing.

It is not much more sophisticated than Centrelink's usability lab in Adelaide or Immigration's lab in Canberra.

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UK government principles for participation online - where's Australia's principles?

I've just found the UK civil service's Principles for participation online and are mighty impressed.

As a result I've slightly modified my profile, I'll also be promoting this in my office where I know we have at least several other bloggers and quite a bit of online engagement coming up.

In Australia, while we have an excellent Australian Public Service code of conduct, we do not have anything specific for the online channel.

This does raise the question - do we need a set of principles, or does The Code cover it already?

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eGovernment progress in New Zealand

In Development has linked to A report on the progress of New Zealand e-government.

This is the first official report from the NZ government on egovernment since 2004.

From a quick look I'd say it is doing reasonably well. They've done a lot to understand what citizens need and address this in clear and simple paths through various government agencies.

There's some excellent success stories in the report and I'm looking forward to sitting down and reading it in depth, probably this weekend, after which I'll provide some highlights.

It is also very significant for me that the report was released via an official NZ government blog (being run as part of a six month trial) - there is a lot of commitment being demonstrated via this approach.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

eGovernment via Twitter

It looks like in the US state governments are now actively using Twitter as a tool to get messages out into the public eye.

As mentioned by Static{fade} in eGov status updates via Twitter, a number of states are using it to make official announcements, distribute media releases and engage with stakeholders and citizens.

Given that McCain and Obama will tweet it out in Twitter debate (or at least some of their staff did), it's clear that social media is becoming a more and more useful channel for egovernment in the US.

I'll have to begin considering its use for promoting our media releases (as a first step).

Anyone else in Australian government considering Twitter?

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Making government recruitment effective online

This post in Shifted HR reflects an area I have my eye on - Recruitment in the Australian Public Service

In Allison's words:

HR areas in APS agencies need to stop focusing on the process of recruitment and use technology to do this. They should be focusing their energy in supporting, educating and training line managers on recruitment strategy, attraction and candidate management.

Coming from the private sector I am used to organisations having effective online recruitment systems. These remove unnecessary manual steps in applying for jobs, managing applications, communicating with applicants and filtering job seekers by abilities.

I'd like to upgrade the systems at my agency when we can give it appropriate attention.

What has been your experience in rolling out systems to support the recruitment process at your organisation?

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Managing the 'grey hair' drain

A big issue in government, as in the private sector, is the drain of experienced older people as they decide to change lifestyles.

Dow has followed an interesting strategy of developing an alumni social network, which helps keep ex-employees - both retirees and others - linked into the organisation.

This keep their experience on tap and can also serve as a pool of potential recruits back to the organisation.

Given how important the aging of Australia's public service has become on the APS agenda, I'd be interested whether any agencies are considering strategies like this one to help them manage future trainsitions.

Dow's article: "My Dow Network" Provides Dow People with New Way to Connect

Thanks to Web Strategy by Jeremiah for this link in his post, Gen Y Enter Stage Left, Baby Boomers Exit Stage Right.

Note that with new intranet social media tools being developed by Microsoft and LinkedIn, Dow's approach may become very cost-effective in the future, linking into people's existing online social networks.

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Do all your egovernment tools meet accessibility standards?

In Australia website usability is important, but accessibility is law.

While most government agencies are extremely diligent about meeting accessibility requirements it is also important to look at the accessibility of any online tools they use that affect their customers or clients.

For example, my agency uses a third-party email marketing system, Vision6 for electronic newsletters to customers and a US-based survey tool, SurveyMonkey for customer and stakeholder surveys.

Vision6 is an Australian company and has met all applicable accessibility requirements for a long time. We also make a point of offering plain text versions of all HTML emails we distribute through this tool to further ensure we're providing an email version that customers can readily access.

SurveyMonkey, being a US system, isn't required by law to meet Australian accessibility standards - although it meets the applicable W3C guidelines on which this was based.

Previously we used this service as no other web survey platform I had identified met the agency's requirements and was fully Australian standards compliant.

However they have just been certified as compliant with the US's Section 508 Accessibility requirements, which, according to SurveyMonkey, makes them the only online survey application that is Section 508 certified, as explained in their website, Your survey designs are now 508 compliant!

This isn't an Australian standard, however it is a very long way towards meeting it.

If you're unsure what the Australian requirements are, AGIMO's Accessibility section provides a concise and clear explanation.

If you're not sure how to test for accessibility, WebAIM has a good list of accessibility testing tools and when/how to use them.

Incidentally, the W3C is getting much closer to the second version of their accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) - after 5 years of work.

Webcredibility have a review of the new version in their site at WCAG 2.0: The new W3C accessibility guidelines evaluated.

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A different way to look at agency customers

My agency spends a lot of money learning about our customers with the goal of identifying how to provide them with better services.

These research processes quite often lead to huge presentations full of statistics that attempt to explain customer intentions and motivations.

If you have a maths bent, these presentations speak very loudly - however they don't always translate well for others and can be difficult to absorb and interpret.

An approach that I find is very eloquent is to imagine that you have only 100 customers living in a village and look at their conditions, hopes and aspirations in this framework.

This has been used with great effect by Miniature Earth - which takes this concept and applies it to the entire globe.

There's also an application of it to companies, looking at large corporations or agencies from the same perspective of a 100 person village.

Brought to my attention by Steve Collin's Thoughtglue blog, you can view it at: McDaniel Partners: Are You Effectively Managing Your Most Important Asset?.

So using this concept for your customers, what do they look like, and where are they going?

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The issues with CAPTCHA security

CAPTCHA is a security technology for websites that works by making users verify they are a human by typing in a random string of letters or numbers displayed in an image.

You could consider it a Turing test for humans.

It is now widely used as it is easy to implement and has a reasonably good success rate in differentiating human and machine.
However it does have weaknesses and issues, and organisations need to think a little before they simply decide on the CAPTCHA path.

Here's some factors to consider.

CAPTCHA isn't accessible - straight CAPTCHA may breach accessibility law

CAPTCHA relies on presenting a graphic image of text to a viewer, who then reads the text and enters it into a text box. As computers are now smart enough to read clear images, the images used in modern CAPTCHA systems are usually 'messy' with random strokes and distorted letters (called reCAPTCHA).

For example:

These images can also be hard for some humans to read - the old, the young, the visually-impaired and even groups who would not consider themselves as having sight issues.

This means that visual CAPTCHA systems may be inaccessible under Australian laws regarding accessibility. This is a very important consideration for Australian government agencies.

There are approaches to get around this, such as either offering a selection of images, one of which (hopefully) is readable by the audience; or through offering an audio alternative, whereby someone listens to a series of letters or numbers - usually interspersed with other sounds - and types these in.

Note that the latter approach also has similar accessibility issues for those with hearing impairments.

Personally I have on occasion had difficulty using either a visual and audio CAPTCHA approach and my vision and hearing are both above average for my age group (Gen X).

CAPTCHA is breakable

There are several ways to break a CAPTCHA system.

The first is to simply have a large group of low paid computer users systematically interpret and type in the correct response.

Organisations in nations where labour is cheap are able to offer this as a service for hacking sites or preparing the way for automated systems to then use hacked sites and accounts for spamming and other illicit purposes.

Also as technology improves it becomes easier for machines to break CAPTCHA. Already we've seen a move from clear text to messy and distorted images - tested against optical character recognition to ensure they are not readable - in order to reduce the ability for computers to read the image.

It is only a matter of time before machines can also read these messy images - handwriting recognition and optical character recognition technology both continue to get better and are converging on this area.

Not endorsed by the W3C

CAPTCHA is not endorsed for use by the W3C.

The W3C has indicated in a working paper entitled Inaccessibility of CAPTCHA that CAPTCHA is inaccessible and the technology is not yet endorsed within W3C guidelines.

This means that it is not endorsed within the standard guidelines underpining website development in the public sector.

This doesn't exclude agencies from using it - it has not been specifically rejected by the W3C, it sits in a gray area and each agency would have to make their own decision.

So what next?

CAPTCHA has already advanced to reCAPTCHA - involving the messy distorted text indicated above.

Most reCAPTCHA implementations have also integrated audio reCAPTCHA as an alternative - in the hope that if people cannot read the image they can understand the sounds.

Some organisations, such as banks, use physical PIN devices, others have talked about using fingerprint or retina scanners attached to PCs.

However there is no clear successor to reCAPTCHA for widespread use on websites.

What should organisations do?

As there's no readily accessible and cost-effective alternative, organisations should strongly consider reCAPTCHA as a security measure in their sites, integrating both visual and audio approaches.

However they should also strongly consider offering an approach accessible to those who cannot see or hear the CAPTCHA security, such as phone-based identification or the use of secret questions.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why are government organisations slow at embracing social media?

This post was triggered by a question post over at Strange Attractor, asking Why isn't social software spreading like wildfire through business?

This is a question I have considered as well, in the last year from a government perspective.

It particularly puzzled me late last year when I made unsuccessful efforts to get a wiki in place for a very clear need within the organisation.

At the time it was clear that people in my agency wanted to collaborate more effectively, that they were committed to their jobs and highly able.

They were already making good use of the collaboration tools they had - meetings, documents, email and intranet.

At the time I believed the limiting factor was time. Everyone was overworked and stressed - people simply did not have the capacity to take on more meetings, read more documents or send more emails.

I also thought the solution was clear. To facilitate more collaboration what people needed was the tools to leverage their time for collaboration more effectively. I aimed to help them achieve this leverage using online social media tools.

ROI could be justified by travel savings, employee satisfaction and better quality outcomes.

However when attempting to introduce the wiki, I hit a brick wall and we went back to older approaches which, in my calculations, have cost the agency significantly more money and time and delivered an inferior outcome.

At the time I was quite disappointed and looked for an explanation of the cause within the agency's structure.

However after months of thought on this topic, I've arrived at the following conclusion as to why smart and able people resist the introduction of tools that would help them in their jobs.

It's command and control culture
The majority of organisations, both public and private, are structured as effective dictatorships. There is a CEO at the top, they allocate power out to trusted lieutenants, who transfer smaller amounts of power to underlings.

Each lieutenant has a particular area of power - be it Marketing, Sales, ICT, Operations, Finance or HR. They work together on the fringes where power must be shared to achieve the organisation's goals.

Now clearly this is an effective structure. It worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in medieval societies. Kings and Queens at top, ministers and advisers beneath them and fiefdoms owing allegiance to different groups.

However, by its nature this approach is divisive rather than integrative.

Each lieutenant competes over resources, recognition and money for their groups. There is only a small incentive to co-operate, and alliances do not always last very long.

Within each group underlings compete in a similar fashion, for power, prestige and position.

Again this isn't the most fertile soil for collaboration - except where there is direction from above or very clear and unequivocal win-win situations.

Now from my writing you may draw the conclusion that I am against this structural approach.

Actually I'm not. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a command and control approach. What is important is to consider the goals of the organisation and whether the means achieve those goals with the available resources.

As the goals and environment change over time, the approach needs to be reassessed to ensure it continues to deliver on the outcomes cost-effectively.

The impact of technology
Today organisations attempt to achieve a great deal more with fewer resources. Technology has already facilitated this.

Phones replaced telegraphs that replaced runners, computers replaced typing pools that replaced scribes.

These changes didn't happen overnight, but once a certain proportion of organisations made the change others had no choice but to also change or die.

This has happened with the internet as well. Entirely new companies have formed and become very successful in the last ten years. The 'dinosaurs' didn't die out overnight but are being forced to adopt some of the traits of newer organisations to survive.

This evolutionary process occurs faster in the private sphere due to competition over profits. Government, being funded by the public purse is not subject to the same degree of competition and has less incentive to risk change.

The network effect
Online social networks are one of the next steps in this evolution.

In some ways these networks are even more of a challenge for organisations than the introduction of personal computers, which could be integrated into a existing organisational approaches.

Command and control structures by their nature seek to control and restrict information flows in order to better direct and focus their resources (staff). They silo areas by specific functions - putting all the programmers here, communications people there and finance people somewhere else.

This approach makes command and control management easier, as teams are homogeneous.

It also leads to the formation of different cultures and approaches in different areas of the organisation. These can reduce organisational efficiency by forming isolated silos, each with their own language and customs - a Tower of Babel situation.

Traditionally command and control organisations have dealt with this issue by employing translators to allow information to pass between areas in carefully managed ways. These include people in roles such as internal account managers, business analysts and project managers.

However with social networks the goal is complete transparency. Almost all the barriers between silos come down to allow free communication and collaboration. The focus becomes the outcome, rather than the process.

Change is hard
Even in cases where organisations want to support the free flow of ideas and collaboration, achieving this is hard as the command and control culture simply isn't aligned to support it.

Pockets of collaboration can and do spring up, but widespread adoption requires widespread change.

This change requires visible and strong leadership from those who gain the most from command and control structures and have the most to lose in a network organisation - the executives at the top of the pile.

If these people do not enthusiastically adopt, facilitate and support the change it will not occur.

This is very hard for senior management as they have the largest stake in the existing structure.

They need to willingly let go of their silo power in order to harness an even greater power - that of the organisation acting in unison.

The challenge is to give up control in order to retain it
So that's my view of why organisations are slow to adopt social media.

It's not skills, experience, power or even need. It's a side effect of the dominant command and control culture.

I'd appreciate your comments and views.

Bottom bar - change in motion
By the way for a practical example of how difficult this change can be and how long it takes, look at China and the political change it has been undergoing for the last twenty years.

The nation is struggling with how to give up centralised political power without losing control - a struggle reflected in miniature in many organisations around the world.

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Intranet day - global event

It has felt a little like 'Intranet Day' in the last few days as I've posted a number 0f times about intranet developments.

It really was Intranet Day on 18-19 June - a global online event where intranet managers were able to discuss their intranet strategies and a number of large organisations such as the BBC, IBM and Microsoft demonstrated their intranet functionality.

The podcasts and slides from various presentations on the day will be available shortly at the IBF website.

I confess that I missed the event - hadn't even heard that it was taking place until it was over - so am eagerly awaiting these presentations. I'll post again once they are up.

If you also missed the event it is worth looking out for some of the Intranet Tours in Australia.

Or simply organise your own as I've done in the past.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The power of participatory culture - in government

Stephen Collins of Acidlabs has delivered an extremely powerful presentation on the power of participatory culture and the evolution of social media as an extension of the natural tendency for humans to form communities.

These communities empower organisations, fostering a positive culture, improving staff retention, supporting collaboration and breaking down silos - making individual employees, teams and the entire organisation more powerful, effective and successful.

The approach holds as well, if not more so, for government organisations as for the private sector.

I cannot recommend this presentation highly enough!

Slouching towards intertwingularity: The power of participatory cultures

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Visual bird's eye view of the internet's role in Barack Obama's US Presidential campaign

OK I admit it - Barack Obama's campaign, first for the Democrat nomination, and now for the US Presidency, fascinates me - hence my eObama post.

It's the first true online campaign for senior office in the world that has used the internet and social media effectively.

This visual representation of how the campaign ran, and the comparison of its success against others is fantastic for explaining how his systems work.

Developed by Xplane

View the image in full size

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Microsoft testing prototype of intranet social network

Microsoft is joining the race to add social networks to intranets.

Computerworld has reported that Microsoft is prototyping a Face-book style tool for providing employees with feeds and updates about their colleagues.

I'd expect this to be an extension of their SharePoint product, allowing them to leverage their customer base to defend again online-only alternatives, such as Linkedin, who recently announced their own initiative in this area.

read more - Microsoft testing prototype of Facebook-like social network | digg story

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Google trends launched for websites

Google Trends is a great tool for tracking the ebb and flow of ideas, products and personalities in the public eye.

I've used it, for example, to track customer awareness of an agency name change - which gave my agency a good handle on the speed at which our communications was shifting perceptions.

This is important for comms people in government bodies changing names due last year's Federal election (such as FAHCSIA vs FACSIA)

Google has now launched Google Website Trends.

In the words of Google, A new layer to Google Trends

Today, we add a new layer to Trends with Google Trends for Websites, a fun tool that gives you a view of how popular your favorite websites are, including your own! It also compares and ranks site visitation across geographies, and related websites and searches.

What does that mean for you?
In other words, communicators can now track the level of community awareness of their brand over time aggregated by all the search terms used in Google to reach their website. The reports also provide insights into the search terms used, and the other sites visited by these people.

For example a trend on Centrelink demonstrates how popular searches on the baby bonus have been in driving traffic to the site.

This can also look at the impact of campaigns on driving traffic (via Google) to a new site over time - such as this trend on the Do Not Call website (looks like ACMA needs to rebuild awareness of this site).

Here's a comparison of searches for the ATO and Centrelink sites as an example of the tool in action.

How do you use Google Trends?

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Breaking rules: Build your intranet outside your firewall

It's an established fact that intranets (or internal networks) grow and live within your organisation's firewall.

Or is it?

New approaches and technology are now challenging the concept that intranets must be stored within your organisation's direct structure.

For instance in Australian government there is Govdex. This wiki-based extranet system meets secret level Federal government provisions and is free for government users.

It doesn't stretch this system too far to consider it as suitable as an intranet platform for any small government agencies with no intranet budget.

As it is wiki-based it provides basic content management functionality, including a news tool and discussion board - which is more intranet functionality than most smaller agencies can claim now.

For example I've recently worked with another area to implement a secure Govdex wiki space as a micro intranet for a key community within my agency. This will expand into an extranet over time, but it functions now just like any other intranet platform.

Govdex isn't the only option on the horizon.

LinkedIn, a business networking site, is planning to release a series of work-related tools to support collaboration between staff members. These would sit in secure areas of LinkedIn, but on the intranet.

This was discussed in a recent New York Times article, At Social Site, Only the Businesslike Need Apply

One new product, Company Groups, automatically gathers all the employees from a company who use LinkedIn into a single, private Web forum. Employees can pose questions to each other, and share and discuss news articles about their industry.

Soon, LinkedIn plans to add additional features, like a group calendar, and let independent developers contribute their own programs that will allow employees to collaborate on projects.

The idea is to let firms exploit their employees’ social connections, institutional memories and special skills knowledge that large, geographically dispersed companies often have a difficult time obtaining.

Behind LinkedIn, other start-ups are also entering this space, providing for significant innovation to best address organsational space needs.

This is very interesting news for anyone with a small budget and need for a significant intranet.

Rather than investing in building or buying a content management system, developing social tools or managing intranet hardware and software, simply use openly available software to facilitate it.

So what would it take to make you consider building your intranet outside the firewall?

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Networking Australian government websites

As the business manager of a government website I'm always interested in how much traffic arrives from other government sites.

I can directly engage other agencies, building relationships, sharing content and processes, to the benefit of our mutual customers.

I see a real opportunity for departments and agencies to work together to help ensure that citizens are directed to the right website and can progress seamlessly across departments to complete different tasks with government.

This isn't only at Federal level. Similar transparently should exist at all levels, allowing, for instance, someone registering a company, to then seamlessly obtain all the permits they require to do business in their state.

However what I find from the website I manage is that only a very small proportion of traffic comes from other departments and agencies.

This can be read in a few different ways

  • Citizens do not do all their government business in one sitting, therefore do not need to move between departments, or
  • Government departments are highly siloed and do not support easy transitions between agencies - or even tell citizens when they need to do this.

Hitwise, using the data they collect on 3 million Australian website users, has produced a visual chart of the connections between the most trafficked Federal agencies. This is a very interesting glimpse of where the government is today.

Chart reproduced with the permission of Hitwise. View the full version.

With the current push towards the Australian Government Online Services Point (AGOSP) it will be interesting to see how this develops over time - whether can emerge as a central portal for government; and whether this is what citizens actually want.

What connections does your website have to other sites - and how do you use these to increase awareness of use of your site?

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What's relevant to Intranet Managers

What are the top priorities for your intranet?

There's a few interesting surprises in this quick poll by the organiser of the 2008 Global Intranet Strategies Survey, 3 surprises on the "relevancy list" for Intranet managers

If you don't currently participate in this survey I strongly recommend that you consider it for this year.

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Government intranets challenges and how to meet them

Intranets can be an important business 'glue' for both private and public organisations.

They enable geographically diverse individuals to share knowledge and productively collaborate, areas within the organisation to disseminate information, help senior leadership reinforce corporate values, strengthen internal communication and help align management and staff with corporate goals.

Not surprisingly many of the challenges faced by government agencies in making their intranets effective and successful reflect the challenges faced in the corporate world.

There's a lot government can learn from business experiences if it chooses.

Jeremiah Owyang has developed a useful list of challenges for intranets which resonate with my own experiences. Followin is a summary of his list from his blog posts about Intranets in brown and some of the strategies I employ to address them.

  1. Leadership not employee focused. Web strategy is often owned by the Marketing department, or a dedicated web team, they have specific business goals to hit, and they are often aimed at marketing or customer focused –not employee focused.

    While my Online Comms Team lives within our Comms department, we very clearly define ourselves as custodians, rather than owners of our agency's intranet.

    When I took over the intranet function the existing team already saw one of their primary goals as to unlock the medium to enable staff. I've supported and reinforced this goal and advocated it to senior management by demonstrating the value the intranet can provide the organisation.

    We constantly test new things to improve the intranet for staff and actively foster innovation amongst our intranet authors, who are closer to the audience of our intranet than my group can be.

  2. Little love from IT: IT often owns the infrastructure, systems, and applications that the Intranet sits on top of, and they often are focused on ERP project and leave the intranet in a ‘maintenance and manage’ mode.

    Fortunately my agency does not suffer from this IT culture to an enormous extent, although in the past I have witnessed varying levels of commitment to the intranet. My biggest challenge in this area is to keep our IT team engaged and focused on the outcomes generated by the intranet, rather than focusing on the technical and bureaucratic processes that enable these outcomes.

    Achieving this is all about mutual communication, understanding and engagement while supporting the expertise of our IT team. It's an area I've not yet perfected (and neither has our IT group), but we've built significant forward momentum.

  3. Value not recognized: The intranet management team (if you have one) is perceived as a corporate cost as it can’t directly generate revenue further perplexing the problem.

    This challenge was one I faced, not regarding the intranet as a profit-generating product, but as an accurate, useful and highly frequented medium the agency could use to achieve it's staff communications and collaboration goals.

    I've invested heavily in appropriate intranet statistical and user satisfaction reporting, ensured that our content is relevant and up to date and worked on our approach to train and support intranet authors. The authors are particularly important as advocates of the intranet within business areas, as champions of the channel who are able to create the value our intranet provides for staff.

    Out of this followed an ongoing communications campaign to management and staff, ensuring that the organisation understood the frequency and purpose of intranet use and the number of vital resources for staff it contained.

    This has reinforced the intranet-aware culture in the agency and builds on the intranet's importance as a communications and engagement tool.

  4. Too many cooks in kitchen: Many constituents from Marketing, HR, IT, and every business unit make decisions at an enterprise level difficult, unwieldy, and often not worth the effort.

    This is still an issue for our agency and I do not expect it to go away. What I am currently building towards with my team is an approach that segments intranet content owners by their need for support and guidance in the effective use and management of the medium. Some owners require only light contact from time to time, others require ongoing support to build their knowledge and skills and thereby their effectiveness.

    Through this process my team works to embed intranet standards and thereby create alignment across different groups. While this doesn't reduce the level of consultation necessary, it does align the decision-makers, ensuring they all have sufficient information and insight to make key decisions.

  5. Decision makers oblivious: Management and decision makers don’t use the intranet, they rely on administrative staff for scheduling, sometimes emails, and any intranet tasks, the pains and opportunities are rarely seen.

    We're able to track intranet usage by individual, which provides a keen insight into which levels of staff most use our intranet. As with most organisations I've worked with, it is the front-line staff and middle management who rely on the intranet for the information to do their jobs. Senior managers have other resources to enable them to do this, and also tend to operate in smaller circles of peers, which reduces their need to rely on our intanet.

    To address this my team spends a geat deal of time ensuring there is awareness of the intranet and the value it delivers to staff. We are fortunate in that a number of key job tools for the majority of our staff are primarily accessed from our intranet, which helps embed its importance for the organisation.

Other challenges my agency faces includes:
  1. Consistency of intranet content, language, tone, depth and clarity. Where consistency is low so is trust in the intranet's accuracy and relevance. There's a great deal of work I still have to do to establish more effective training programs for intranet authors - in particular ensuring that this training is valuable for them in their careers to generate commitment in our staff to build these skills.

  2. Transforming the mindset from comms to collaboration. Our intranet is still very much an outbound communications tool used to spread messages, like ripples, from an inner core to our staff on the outer rim. Due to a number of factors this works well for my agency at the moment, however it does not help engender a full sense of engagement in the organisation for all staff or facilitate horizontal knowledge transfer between people at the same level in different geographic areas.

    To meet this challenge, we are gradually moving towards more of a collaborative model, within the limits of our infrastructure and management's safety zones. The eventual goal is to have our intranet become a living resource where staff can work together, support and mentor each other within a lightly moderated environment. This network-centric model, with some balancing from experts to ensure accuracy, provides more timely and direct collaboration than a more traditional 'command and control' environment.

What additional challenges does your agency's intranet face - and how have you addressed them?

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