Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cut costs by expanding your intranet

Cost cutting is a fact of life across public and private sectors.

At some point every few years (or every year in some cases) organisations decide that the most effective way to improve productivity or profits is to reduce expenditures.

Intranets are a common target of cost cutting, either by delaying improvements to infrastructure, cancelling new functionality, reducing author training or cutting intranet staff numbers.

In some cases these decisions are justified, however with intranets often lacking high-level representation and sponsorship, there are cases where these cuts have serious negative impacts on the entire organisation.

So are there ways to position an intranet to avoid damaging cost cuts, and even increase the budget to the area in order to generate savings elsewhere?

I believe there are - and ways to make the intranet a central tool in a cost savings approach.

It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but I often advocate increasing intranet funding during cost cutting exercises as a lower cost channel for engaging staff and sharing information.

However for this to get traction, there are some preventative steps I believe an intranet manager needs to take to position the intranet,

1) Quantify and promote usage and satisfaction with the intranet
The value of an intranet is largely measured on the amount of use it receives by staff. This measure is, however, often more driven by perception than by actual numbers.

This is because senior leadership is generally the group least likely to make extensive use of an intranet - they have staff to make use of it on their behalf. However this group may (mistakenly) believe that intranet usage reflects their own personal use of the channel.

Quantifying and promoting the actual levels of intranet usage and satisfaction (and what functions staff are using) helps senior management understand the true value of the channel to the organisation beyond their personal experience. This leads to according it a higher priority within organisational planning.

During cost cutting this knowledge can shift the discussion from the potential savings in cutting back on intranet services to the increased cost of shifting to less efficient (and more expensive) communications and information sharing channels.

2) Identify a senior-level sponsor

Given that an intranet can benefit all parts of an organisation, provided the intranet's benefits and usage are quantitified and promoted, it becomes easier to identify a senior-level sponsor.

The most useful sponsor (for an intranet manager) is the senior executive with most to gain from an effective intranet - normally from a group with a significant need to share information or communicate in the most efficient way possible.

It is also important that the sponsor's area is regarded as business critical by the organisation, thereby ensuring they are well listened to in senior meetings.

3) Take appropriate steps to increase intranet awareness and usage
This should be an ongoing activity for all intranet managers.

Find out what tools or information would aid staff, make them available via the intranet and promote their availability.

This progressively grows an intranet's presence within an organisation while providing cost-savings as people aggregate towards the channel rather than using less efficient ways of accessing the tools and information they need in their roles.

4) Identify business processes the intranet can perform more cost-effectively than via other channels
This is the 'meat' in the cost-cutting sandwich. Before, or during, cost-cutting initiatives, it is important to identify productivity gains and business process efficiencies that can be moved by shifting functions to the intranet channel from other channels.

Start by building a list of potential efficiencies based on areas of savings including;

  • Communication (savings versus travel, meeting time, printing, distribution, telecommunications and physical communities)

  • Information collection (forms, surveys)

  • Information velocity (increased information transmission speed = increased business efficiency)

With the above preventative measures in place, the next time your organisation needs to cut costs your intranet can be positioned as a tool to support cost savings rather than as a service to be trimmed.

Also see:

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Blog post discussed in podcast report

I've posted earlier about how the Holz and Hobson report picked up on one of my posts and decided to use it as the central topic of one of their radio shows.

The show was held a little over a week ago, and I realised I'd not yet linked to it in eGovAU, so here it is.

FIR Call-In Show #7: The employee communications-intranet connection

The show can be downloaded or listened to online.

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Greater transparency in government - the US theme for 2008

The most exciting change I'm seeing in US politics at the moment is the degree of top level support and enthusiasm for transparency in government.

Nextgov has published an article, Obama says he would use IT to open government, which details the strategies the Democrat nominee for President says he will mandate for the US Federal Government to increase their accountability to the public, reducing waste and improving openness.

In the plan, Obama says he "will require his appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet as the agencies debate and deliberate the issues that affect American society. Videos of meetings will be archived on the Web, and the transcript will be available to the public. Obama will also require his appointees to commit to employ all the technological tools available to allow average citizens not just to observe, but to participate and be heard on the issues that affect their daily lives. Obama will require Cabinet officials to have periodic 21st century fireside chats, restore meaning to the Freedom of Information Act, and conduct regulatory agency business in public."

Obama has indicated that he will push the use of blogs, wikis, social networking and other strategies to create a government more connected with constituents.

The full plan is available at Government Executive.

It's both an ambitious plan and an exciting experiment in the government arena. If Obama gets the opportunity to execute, it will be interesting to see the consequences of more open government both in the US's domestic market and in international relations.

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Virtual government conferences - when will they start in Australia?

I find conferences a very useful avenue for networking with other egovernment and online channel professionals. I often get ideas or insights that I can share across my team and agency - and implement in our sites.

However the attendance cost continues to rise. Sadly both the commitment in time and price means that I've been cutting back to a few selected courses each year.

I've partially offset the price factor by speaking at events (giving a 40 minute presentation to attend a 2 day $3,000 conference is equivalent to an 'hourly rate' of $4,500).

However this still leaves travel and accomodation costs and the time required to participate (which I can never get back).

A solution I'm seeing more of around the world is to hold virtual conferences - such as the Cognos Virtual Government Forum being held using INXPO's platform.

There are options for similar events via platforms such as Second Life and Webex, as well as ways to use free tools to achieve a similar end.

While these events have a lower networking factor than a face-to-face event (though it can still occur), they provide a similar presentation experience - with the capacity to pick and choose between canned or live presentations and engage in chat-based Q&A sessions or panels.

You do not need to leave your desk, and can tune out for other priorities, then catch-up again at your leisure.

So given the large size and low population density of Australia, when are we likely to see some locally run virtual conferences?

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Australian Human Rights commission launches site to name and shame government agencies failing accessibility measures

Further to my post, Australian Human Rights Commission prepared to name and shame government publishers failing online accessibility, the Human Rights Commission has now launched a website that lists government agencies failing to meet their legal obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

The site, named Webwatch is visible in the Human Right Commission's site.

The media release announcing the site's launch, WebWatch launched amid moves to improve website accessibility, also made reference to a motion passed by the Senate regarding accessibility of information which helps underscore the importance of making government information accessible online.

The Senate yesterday agreed to the following motion, put by Tasmania’s Senator Stephen Parry at the request of Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Community Services, Senator Cory Bernardi:

That the Senate:
(a) notes the difficulties experienced by people with a disability, particularly people with vision impairment, in accessing some formats of Senate documents online; and
(b) calls on the Government and the Department of the Senate to ensure all Hansard and Senate committee documents are made accessible via the Internet to people with a disability as soon as they become public.

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What do job seekers think about your department?

Just as organisations can use social network sites to judge the relative merits of potential staff (per my post Locating and learning about future public employees), websites are allowing people to judge the relative merits of potential employers.

How does your department rate?

There's no doubt that people research potential employers online, and in a 'seller's market' for skilled labour it's critical for employers to put their best foot forward.

There are some fantastic job seeker/careers sections in organisational websites - with IBM, Microsoft and Intel having always stood out for me as offering exceptionally good information for job seekers - not surprising given the calibre of the people they wish to attract.

My agency is progressively improving its job section for a similar reason. There's a limited pool of talented people and we need to present them with good reasons as to why they should choose us over other organisations - whether public or private.

What should be in a jobs section
Some of the features I consider important in a jobs section include;

Procedural information
  • Complete job information - everything a job seeker needs to apply online
  • Support tools to make it easier to apply for jobs - particularly for those who are not good at expressing themselves on paper (but shine in interviews) or are unfamiliar with the documentation required by your organisation (such as public sector selection criteria)
  • Explanation of the process and timeframes for recruitment (so they don't take another job when they've heard nothing for four weeks) - even better is to provide a 'package delivery' model whereby they can log in to see where their job application is up to in your process at any time (like Fed Express and DHL)
Organisational selling
  • Information helping employees to understand your organisation's purpose and goals
  • Details on why your organisation is a good place to work (pay is rarely the top reason!)
  • Social aspects of your organisation - how do the strangers you employ become part of your organisational family
  • Developmental opportunities, training and challenges
  • Community initiatives - how does your organisation participate with the broader community and 'give back' effort, time and support

Locational information
  • Information (profiles) on your locations (what it's like to work in particular offices)
  • Support for people who may be relocating (particularly for Canberra or country town locations)
Career profiling
  • Profiles of different career tracks and jobs in your organisation, based on people doing those roles and why they like them
  • Career selector tools which support people in finding the jobs in your organisation which best match their disposition and skills (such as at DEEWR's Jobjuice site) 

Beyond your own website
It's also important to consider factors beyond your own website.

Job seekers are influenced by their peers, by news and community sites, social networking sites, online encyclopedias, by recruitment websites and by specialist employer rating sites such as Glassdoor (discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald article, In good company).

Personally I keep a eye out on highly influential sites for Australians, such as LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Facebook, as well as the job sites and popular forums discussing child support topics.

I also monitor where people go when entering and exiting our websites, which provides an indication of other sites which may influence job seeker preferences.

What does your organisation do online to help attract the best applicants?

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Participative budget edemocracy initiative in Brazil provides insights into the future

Brought to my attention by a reader, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais, has begun using evoting to support it's participatory budget setting process.

Documented in the research report, e-Participatory Budgeting: e-Democracy from theory to success? (PDF), the experience is a very interesting example of the use of evoting in increasing direct democratic participation by the public.

Belo Horizonte is a city of 2.3 million people and 1.7 million voters.

It has used a participatory budget setting process since 1993 to prioritise spending across a range of public works, with the budget directly allocated by voters growing to US$43. This works on the basis of voting in each of the city's districts for specific works within that district.

In 2006, the city launched a Digital Participatory Budgeting (e-PB) involving a fund of US$11 million in addition to the existing participatory budget.

The e-PB allowed registered voters to exclusively vote online for one out of four potential public works for each of the nine districts of the city.

Based on the research report,

According to the administration, the launching of the initiative had three main drivers: i) to modernize its PB through the use of ICTs; ii) to increase citizens’ participation in the PB process and iii) to broaden the scope of public works that are submitted to voting.

The approach seems to have worked. While the traditional PB approach attracted around 1.5 percent of voter participation, the e-PB attracted close to 10%, greatly increasing the direct democratic involvement of citizens with the running of the city. It also allowed the PB process to consider public works of interest to all city citizens, rather than those only of interest to the inhabitants of a specific district.

As part of the e-voting process the city adinistration's website featured a forum where citizens could discuss the potential public works initiatives in a moderated environment.

The voting process took place over 42 days with voters able to vote separately for each district's public works - allowing them to vote up to nine times, once per district.

The security of the vote was managed by using unique voter IDs, termed electoral title numbers, which Brazil issues as part of a compulsory identification document to all voters.

Public voting points were established at 187 points across the city to avoid disenfranchising people without internet access. A mobile internet bus was also used, moving from place to place to between areas with the lowest internet access and those with the highest voter concentration (city centre).

While the IT involved in the initiative was significant, the research paper points out that significant factors in the success of the initiative were the communications campaign and ability for voters to interact online to discuss the public works.

The e-PB attracted 503,266 votes by 172,938 voters, or 9.98% of eligible voters.

While this might seem low by Australia's compulsory voting standards, it was seven times greater than the number of participants in the traditional participatory budgeting process, which only received 1.46% of voter participation in the same year.

Interestingly, the research report found that there was no correlation between socio-economic status and propensity to vote, meaning that the e-PB was not weighted towards more highly educated or richer voters (who are more likely to be internet users).

Also a minimum of 30% of votes were recorded from outside the city's limits. Given that only citizens of the city were eligible to vote, the research report found that the internet approach provided an effective avenue for residents who were not present in the city at the time to vote.

The research report has a lot of additional information on the IT systems and communications approaches used, as well as the use of the online forum.

It is an excellent read for any administration looking at introducing a level of electronic voting, either for offices or for policy or budget measures.

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Red tape reduction via smarter online forms

There's a lot of activity in the online forms space across Australian government at present and it is proving to be an area of real cost savings and environmental benefits for public sector organisations at all levels.

Business.gov.au has supported a centralised whole-of-government approach to business focused forms for several years now and its forms section has grown significantly, particularly in the last twelve months, as agencies have recognised the potential, geared up and invested in the area.

This has been recognised in an Australia article looking at initiatives by councils, Online forms cut council red tape.

The AGOSP (Australian Government Online Services Portal) initiative at AGIMO is also implementing a forms capacity, via business.gov.au, for citizen forms, and this offers significant benefits for any agencies looking to leap into the realm of 'smart forms' - online forms that can be prepopulated or adjust in response to customer answers and then send the data back in a secure format (as email or directly into agency systems).

If you're an Australian public sector organisation at any level who needs to collect data from customers, it's worth checking this out and viewing the presentation given by Anthony Steve of business.gov.au.

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Intranet Innovation Award winners for 2008 announced

The Intranet Innovation Award winners for 2008 have been announced, and their details, together with an executive summary (PDF) containing two case studies of award winners is available at Step Two's website.

The case studies feature an example of collaborative information sharing via a wiki used by staff of one organisation to track competitors and an innovative intranet people finder that improves staff networking and discovery by combining elements of both Twitter and Facebook.

I was inspired by both of the case studies, but a little disappointed to see only one government site mentioned in the awards this year - the Department of Human Services (South Australia) was commended for their CEO blog.

I hope there will be a greater public sector presence next year.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Locating and learning about future public employees using social networks

I am a reasonably active LinkedIn user (view my profile here).

It's one of my professional networking tools for keeping track of 'people of interest' to me - from business contacts to potential employees and employers.

It, and similar social and professional networks, are also useful recruiting tools for managers and HR professionals seeking to find or screen job applicants.

This isn't news to US HR teams. A recent survey by Careerbuilders.com, as reported in Reuters, found that 22 percent of hiring managers screened applicants via social networks.

From the article, One in five bosses screen applicants' Web lives: poll, of the managers screening applicants, 24 percent found information that solidified their decision to hire, while 34 percent found information that made them drop the candidate from the short list.

I also tend to Google people before making short-listing or hiring decisions (or when hearing about or meeting them professionally). It helps me build context and understanding and it draws on publicly available information (provided by the person in question), so there are no privacy considerations.

In terms of the full hiring process, for HR professionals and managers the online channel doesn't replace resumes, selection criteria and interviews, but it can certainly supplement this process by adding depth.

And for anyone seeking a new job, it is worth reviewing what you've said about yourself online - to ensure that you are representing yourself professionally.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tapping into the return of the innovative individual

One of the primary changes resulting from the growth of the internet has been to place professional media tools and distribution capabilities in the hands of individuals.

Any individual with access to a computer and internet connection can create and distribute prose, poetry, commentary, software or services to millions at little cost. Add a microphone and they can conduct talkback or share original music and ass a low-cost digital camera with video capacity and they can also share photos and video.

As detailed in Paul Budde's article, The rebirth of the innovative individual, this is a return to the individual creativity stifled by 'big media' through the 20th century.

The private sector in Australia has already begun effectively tapping into this media change - but how about the public sector?

Car, computer and shampoo companies have supported customer-created television commercials. Prominent political bloggers have been invited to political rallies and 'mummy bloggers' courted by large consumer goods companies. Online musicians have hit the top of the charts and been 'discovered' and online programmers have contributed solutions to major corporate software solutions.

We've even seen other media, newspapers, radio and television channels add the capability for individuals to break stories and provide video and audio coverage used around the world.

On the public front, in other jurisdictions we've seen some government efforts to tap into this space, from the New Zealand police wiki Act (an Act of Parliament written by the public via a wiki) to the UK cash prizes for mashups (where the government is rewarding the best applications built using government information).

In Australia I have not seen any developments on this scale.

Certainly we have a few mechanisms to listen to citizens via different online consultation channels, but listening isn't the same as collaborating.

I am not aware of any major initiatives in Australia where government is saying to the public,

We don't know how to achieve the best outcomes in this area, so if anyone has a good idea put it forward and we'll both reward and use the best of them?

This can be challenging step for any organisation used to be the source of answers, rather than the facilitator of solutions.

However, as the private sector is discovering, the new approach delivers excellent outcomes.

I'm hopeful that within a few years we will also see Australian governments using collaborative approaches to write legislation, generate program ideas, produce creative and develop (online) applications and systems.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Can government collaborate in online service development?

I have participated in the beta testing of software for over 20 years now - it's a great way to get an early look at new developments and to have a level of influence over the development process as a customer (in one case I was even hired as the lead designer on a subsequent product).

Lately I've been participating in a number of private betas for online applications. One of these has just gone into public beta (SlideRocket - an online presentation solution designed to compete with PowerPoint). In this case the developer has made their full issues and fix list available publicly and there is quite an active community helping them improve the application, such as through their User Voice section.

This has made me think about how government develops online services for public use - what prevents us from considering collaborative development in this way?
There are obvious upsides and downsides to a public beta approach for any organisation.

On the minus side, it exposes the service early, meaning that government doesn't have as much time to determine the message for the release and providing detractors with an early opportunity to attack.

It also puts a lower quality solution 'out there', providing opportunities for the public to draw a negative view of the service due to its less than fully developed state. This can make it harder to draw people back when it is more fully developed.

Thirdly, putting a public beta out provides malicious elements more opportunity to find security holes and cause damage.

On the upside, a public beta provides for a much more rigorous level of scrutiny by the public and experts before the service is finally release. This allows issues to be identified and addressed and improves the usability, functionality and stability of the service. It also comes at a lower price tag than running 5,000 focus groups around the country (and internationally).

It also allows several bites at the cherry for government announcements. Firstly comes an announcement on the public beta, positioned as an opportunity for the broader community to test, reflect and comment on the service. Then comes the release announcement, where the government can launch the service - more confident it will hit the mark.

On balance I believe the downsides can be mitigated through careful communications management, whereas the upsides provide enormous efficiency benefits around the consultation area.

It does require a change in project management approach - unforeseen bugs and feature issues will be raised through the public beta process and need to be managed adequately.

I'd also suggest that there would need to be less focus on date/cost and more on adequate service quality to meet customer needs.

I believe this is a broader focus change needed in IT development anyway. I am quite concerned by large projects defined around delivery dates rather than meeting the appropriate level of solution performance for customers.

I wonder which of my upcoming projects is appropriate for consideration in a public beta... I can think of several immediate options.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Gershon recommends procurement integration

The first public comments from the government on the Gershon Report are beginning to emerge, with The Australian reporting on Thursday, Tanner targets agency wastage in bid to save $1bn.

The article basically focuses on duplication of effort and costs by departments who separately procure IT equipment, software, services and office rent.

My feeling is that another Gershon finding will be that there are insufficient links between departments to support more uniform procurement practices, which reflects the historical situation where most government agencies have been operated as discrete businesses, with separate and unique processes, standards and IT systems.

I am also hoping that internal systems will become a focus for efficiency improvements. While improving government's customer-facing IT systems directly improves visible delivery of services, improving internal services provides for indirect service benefits. 

This extends from;
  • allowing public servants to spend more time being customer-focused through spending less time grappling with inconsistent and/or low usability internal systems, 
  • through reductions in frustration and workplace stress (which impact service quality),
  • through easier hiring and transferring of staff who need to adapt to fewer systems in job changes, and 
  • better information flows within and between agencies to cut delays.
I am hopeful that we'll see some reform following the Gershon Report towards making government more efficient and more effective at service delivery. Supporting both cost savings and service quality improvements at the same time.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Why you should pay attention to intranet search logs

My team keeps a close eye on what people search for in our intranet.

It helps us identify patterns in staff behaviour and better support their needs.

In browsing for other online information, I came across a case study from 2006 about a government agency which provides a similar picture of the value of paying attention to intranet search logs.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Improving an intranet staff directory

My team has been throwing around approaches for improving our internal agency staff directory on the intranet to make it more of a knowledge resource for staff.

As this is the most used tool in our intranet (people need to contact other people), improving the service contributes measurably to our staff's capacity to collaborate and discover the information necessary in their roles.

The more we can streamline people discovery, the more time we can save staff.

Thus far discussions have focused on our own experiences across a number of online staff directories over the years.

For my contribution to the discussion, from my experience over a twenty year span, the first staff directories were based on the paper phone directories used before intranets were common - alphabetical lists of names, titles, teams and phone numbers, divided by region or area.

These lists - and intranet directories - were useful in finding a known person, were you could identify their name and area.

However they had more difficulty in locating unknown people - subject matter experts - as area and team names did not always reflect their activities and without knowing who to contact it was hard to find an appropriate name.

Also traditional staff directories are only name, number and rank - they do not provide details on skills, relationships or communities, which help link people collaborate more effectively.

Therefore I've described three cases I want our future staff directory to cover.

1) Locating details for known people

  • Finding contact details and physical locations (the basics of a directory)
  • Discovering the skills, subject matter expertise, internal networks and communities of these people (a profile-based approach to help staff broaden their engagement with others)
  • Placing these people in the organisation structure (via a dynamic organisational chart - therefore enabling staff to identify substitutes and managers when people are absent)
2) Locating experts
  • Ability to search on skills, topics or networks to find people with the expert knowledge required (the experts might be unknown to the searcher, or known people for whom the searcher was unaware they had this expertise)
3) Engaging networks of knowledge
  • Ability to search for networks of people sharing specific skills or subject matter expertise, in order to link in with them to form formal or informal Communities of Practice

As part of these cases, we're considering Facebook and LinkedIn style features, such as,
  • staff profiles, to provide staff with the opportunity to humanise their listing and be more visible as an expert in their field
  • optional staff photos (so you can identify with a person when calling or emailing, or recognise them when first meeting)
  • linking of skills, topics and interests, so that clicking on a word provides details on other staff who have indicated similar expertise or knowledge
  • Listing affiliations, to internal project teams and other formal and informal networks or communities within the organisation, to assist the formation of Communities of Practice and to build staff engagement with the agency.

Involvement in all of these areas would be optional, allowing staff to better self-manage their privacy. However, as in any situation involving information sharing, you get greater value when you share than when you silo knowledge.

Over time this approach lends itself to integration with collaboration tools, forums, wikis, groups and blogs, as well as team-based tools such as group calendars and mailing lists.

We've been looking online for reference material on the topic of staff directories, drawing on the experiences of a number of private sector organisations who have implemented similar types of directories.

A couple of the resources we've found useful include,

I'm very interested in the experiences of other government and private sector organisations in this space - so drop me a comment if you have suggestions to add.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A glimpse at the future of the semantic web

Fresh+New, a blog written by Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum, has brought to my attention Aza Raskin’s Ubiquity, a very interested look at the possible web of the future, using semantic browsers to provide a more connected experience.

More details are in Seb's post, More powerful browsers - Mozilla Labs Ubiquity, or on Aza's blog.

Below is the video introducing Ubiquity.

Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

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US Air Force planning to create its first virtual air base

According to the NextGov article Air Force opens bidding for virtual air base, the US Air Force is preparing to launch a virtual air base where airmen will attend courses in a 3D virtual world.

Simulators have long been used in training pilots and astronauts, due to the fatal consequences of mistakes by novices. This air base takes it a step further, with the Air Force looking to support up to 75 simultaneous users in a geospatially accurate real-time training environment.

As described in the NextGov article,

The service initially hopes to create two furnished virtual classrooms that can stream audio and video, and to allow users to design their own avatars in uniform with a variety of physical attributes and appropriate rank. The synthetic base also must include buildings, vegetation, signage, roads, security, a flight line with planes and the ability to exchange documents, photographs and video. Once it buys the software and training, the Air Force expects delivery within two weeks.

The system, termed MyBase, is seen as a key component in the Air Force's future training programs. Here's a video from them explaining more...

This type of learning environment is adaptable to many different functions - including virtual seminars and roadshows, collaborative meetings, presentations, media events, group-based activities and real-time or time-delayed course training. Several universities in the US have already made courses available via 3D virtual worlds such as Second Life.

In Australia we've seen some exploration of these technologies by the Victorian state government in its Melbourne Laneways project for public consumption.

My view is that some of the more immediate benefits for the public sector are in internal use of such environments by geographically diverse agencies to create learning and collaborative environments.

In fact the ATO has demonstrated such an environment already in its ATO Showcase as one of the innovations they are exploring for future roll-out.

For public use of these environments today by government the equity issue needs to be well considered.

Personally I've always felt that gradual degradation is an appropriate approach, providing a virtual 3D environment for broadband users, degrading to voice and powerpoint for 'thin' broadband and dial-up users, down to distributed multimedia for computer users without internet connections and to hardcopy or physical meetings for those without computers.

The other consideration is the proportion of the audience falling into each of these groups, and if this has not been established I'd be very cautious about providing more advanced options.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When too much public information is public

Related to my previous post, AZcentral reports that, Death notices removed from county Web site.

Privacy concerns and identity-theft fears prompted Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell to halt public viewing of death certificates on the agency's Web site.

"There is so much personal information on them: a mother's maiden name, what they died from," Purcell said, adding that her office has been fielding complaints for years about the office's practice of posting death-certificate images. The office quietly took them down last month.

These are legitimate concerns - there are situations when exposing publicly collected and held information in a more easy to access and harder to control manner is not to the public's benefit.

The question government continues to grapple with is where to draw this line.

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How public is public information?

Over in California a controversy over the level of public access to public information flared up where the The Bee newspaper in Sacremento published a searchable online database of public sector officials and their salaries.

The newspaper simply pulled publicly available information together into a single source - no information was assumed or obtained illegally.

This has led to storm of protest which the newspaper responded to in a From the Editor Special: Response to questions about state employee pay database.

Over time we're also likely to see more Australian public information also being matched in this way - the tools to do so are readily available today.

For instance, it would require minimal effort for a media outlet or individual to mash together and republish information from GOLD (Government On-Line Directory) with APS salary ranges drawn from agency careers pages - providing a fairly accurate picture of the salaries of senior public sector officials in Australia.

Pulling together names of public servants listed in Hansard reports, media releases, websites and from published event attendence lists or meeting minutes, could also be combined with White Pages details, salary figures and office locations to identify and locate many public workers. Add a Google search and you can discover sporting affiliations, past roles, comments made online and further information about individuals - particularly those with distinctive or unique names (such as myself).

Each of the pieces of information by itself doesn't breach privacy - so can matching them together create a breach?

If so, how do you prevent information matching - shut down the internet and close the public libraries?

I'll leave the last word to an article from Government Technology, Web 2.0 Challenges Notions of Public and Private Information;
...everything we know about records management is wrong. Sure, that's hyperbole, but Barton [Founder of Glassdoor, now publishing salary information on the web] isn't exaggerating when he claims, "People's appetite for this information ... is effectively infinite." Once again, the Internet will show us what happens when public records are actually public.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

The growth of e-health in Australia

Futuregov has an excellent article, An Australia quest for e-health discussing progress in the Australian e-health scene.

It is good to see that there is a clear understanding of the need for a national approach - tying states into one consistent system, rather than individually building separate systems in each state at additional cost.

In the geospatial area, WA and QLD have launched state-centric systems, with other states considering their own systems. This has taken place while AGIMO plans a national geospatial system within the AGOSP program. They share the same standards, however I'm not clear on whether they have shared technologies and costs.

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Tools for user experience design - card sorting

In the last few years I've witnessed the rise and rise of design and particularly usability/user experience design as a professional area.

In the mid-90s, when I was conducting wireframe-based user testing, observing user behaviour in applications and asking users which functionality was most important to them before building websites, there was low awareness in Australia of the value of usability and correspondingly few people working specifically in the area.

Today, alongside the increase in the number of usability consultants we've seen the arrival of online tools that assist web teams in conducting their own testing. 

I'm going to do a series of posts on different topics in the area over the next few weeks.

For now, here's information on card sorting that your web team might find useful.

Card sorting

What is it
Card sorting is an approach that assists web professionals and information architects understand how their audiences group concepts, topics or items - people's 'mental model' of information.

This helps them build a structures that assist their audiences in finding what they are looking for when navigating information, websites and applications. 
It also identifies complex areas needing more work. This includes where there are significant differences in understanding terms or in the relationship between items.

It is one of the easiest and cheapest design processes to use, can provide or validate key insights early in projects (before design work takes place) and can be quite fun for participants.

How is it used
Traditionally card sorts are conducted using cards (or sticky notes) in a physical space. 

Tools and resources
Card sorting is well documented online.
There are now ways to conduct card sorting online, through tools such as:

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Australian Human Rights Commission prepared to name and shame government publishers failing online accessibility

On Friday the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, at the Australian Human Rights Commission released a media statement, Climate change secretariat excludes people with disabilities, indicating the Commmision was prepared to 'out' government publishers who did not meet Australia's mandatory accessibility requirements for online material.

“I recently said that, if things did not start to improve, the Australian Human Rights Commission would have to start naming government publishers that are not taking the effort to make their documents sufficiently accessible for people with disability,” said Commissioner Innes.

In recent weeks there have been several accessibility-related media stories in Australia which have helped emphasise the importance of accessibility, not simply as a tickbox for web design, but as a baseline requirement for government material - published online or in other forms.

In this particular case the Human Rights Commission was targeting a specific document released originally only in PDF format. All that was being requested was that it be also published in another format as well (such as HTML) to improve accessibility.

"The Garnaut Review Supplementary Draft Report, Targets and trajectories, was released a week ago, but many people with disabilities still can't access it because it is still only available in pdf format", said Commissioner Innes. "These sort of documents should be published in RTF or HTML as well as pdf so that they can be read by all Australians."

For the record, I had a quick look at the Garnet Climate Change Review website and most of their documents are available in HTML as well as PDF.

It is possible to make modern PDF documents accessible, using the accessibility features in Adobe Acrobat Professional 7 or later. This requires an understanding of the tool and some time for larger documents - a straight PDF conversion of such documents from another format (such as Microsoft Word) generally doesn't meet Australia's legislated accessibility requirements.

Why is achieving accessibility so hard?

Given that PDFs can be made accessible, why does accessibility seem so elusive?

In my experience, across both private and public sector, I've found that generally that the webmasters, content publishers, designers and developers have a clear understanding of their obligations under Australia's mandatory accessibility requirements. They also generally understand and have access to the processes required to achieve it - although sometimes funding and timeframes are very tight.

Outside the web area it is often a different story. Generally most people across the rest of the organisation are less aware of the requirements. This can include document authors, communicators and senior executives.

There's no blame attached to this - accessibility isn't a large part of their jobs. These staff rely on the organisation's web specialists and graphic designers to tell them what they must do and assist them in meeting the requirements.

In fact this media release is a good tool to use in this education process.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

A compelling reason to ensure government website and intranet information is current

On Monday this week United Airlines in the US experienced a 75% drop in their share price (from $12.30 to $3.00 per share).

This was due to a 6-year old news story on a newspaper website that was accidentally tagged as current and distributed across the US financial press through Bloomberg's online News Service.

The story has received widespread US coverage, such as this report in Wired, Six-Year-Old News Story Causes United Airlines Stock to Plummet.

An accident some would say - but a very disruptive one. The stock price rebounded when the error was uncovered, but only to $10.19 by the end of Monday. That's a 20% loss in investor money (much more for investors who had sold in a panic) because of old news. The longer term damage will include a loss of reputation and trust in the news provider.

What's the learnings for government - or for any organisation?

One of my takeaways is that it is critical that your website and intranet content remains current. Out-of-date information can lead to financial loss for customers as well as media and political pain for organisations.

It has always disturbed me how poor most organisations are at maintaining current information in their websites.

Senior executives get extremely concerned if staff are providing out-of-date information to telephone or face-to-face customers on a one-to-one basis.

No reputable media team would release material to media outlets that they knew was out-of-date.

Printed publications are regularly assessed to ensure that they provide the right information. If they don't, and the mistake is critical, they are recalled, pulped and replaced quickly - costing tens or hundred of thousands of dollars to do so.

However organisational websites often remain dank swamps of old and inaccurate information.

This is despite their ability to be publicly accessed enmasse and have the information they contain trusted and acted on by any customer, citizen, media representative, community group, corporation, public agency, Minister or Head of State in the world with internet access. That's over 90% of Australians and over 1 billion people who can access your website information at home, office or public location.

Intranets are not much better. Your staff rely on having access to the correct information to make the correct decisions. Mistakes can have serious impacts on peoples' lives, on the organisation's reputation and on peoples' careers.

Organisations place enormous attention on training customer-facing staff - the intranet is a critical tool for the between times, for managing ongoing job training and information dissemination that is difficult and expensive to deliver on a periodical basis.

In the communications stakes an organisation's website and intranet are, in my view, the most important tools for presenting accurate and timely information to outsiders and to insiders.

No organisation can afford to rely on having the media publish releases, or fund a dedicated team of face-to-face communicators in every office to answer staff questions.

We rely on digital tools to communicate outwards (and increasingly to collaborate inwards). So let's use them appropriately, rather than half-ticking boxes and creating a larger and more dangerous mess.

Outsiders and insiders alike rely on an organisation's website and intranet for a clear picture of its activities, intentions and approach. People judge an organisation's commitment to openness and honesty from what they see as well as what they hear.

So if an organisation's website is evasively written, shallow or out-of-date, that's the message customers and media take-away, act on and react to. Silence breeds contempt.

Yes it is hard work to keep organisational websites and intranets up-to-date and it requires significant awareness, engagement, support and appropriate resourcing across an organisation.

Business areas need to be aware of where (and when) their material is available and be held accountable for maintaining it.

Executives must appreciate the importance of communication as a concept and specifically of the online channel as a delivery tool for communications - and collaboration, but that's a different story.

This doesn't require just a change in processes or business rules. It is a cultural shift in mindset - a challenging change for many people and possibly a generational one.

But it's one we must make, and the pain caused by not changing continues to grow with time.

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Making e-voting count

The US has had a number of voting dramas over the last ten years, probably none so well documented as that of the Florida recount in the 2000 Presidential election that saw George Bush Jnr win.

As a result of the paper ballet issues uncovered by this and other elections, the US has introduced e-voting systems, but from a report in Infoworld, could have open the door to larger and more dangerous threats to the democratic process.

The article, Let's impeach e-voting, considers a recent software patching issue with e-voting machines and how simple it would be for proprietary paperless anonymous voting systems to be deliberately manipulated to provide a result.

This isn't a theoretical possibility - there have been several cases where US e-voting systems have resulted in statistically curious results and at least two elections where the outcome was changed by the application of a software patch.

As the systems in use do not retain a physical copy of a vote, being entirely paperless, there is no effective way to validate that the machines are tallying votes appropriately. All that can be determined is whether the total votes submitted is correct.

This is an election disaster waiting to happen - or perhaps it already has, how could we tell.

I hope that when Australia seriously considers electronic voting we look into systems providing some kind of guarantee that the outcome bears a striking resemblance to the votes of citizens.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

What share of your communications spend is on digital channels?

MarketingVox has release the article, Marketers' Top 10 Wish List for Agencies of the Future, which reports on a US survey sponsored by Sapient of two hundred CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers).

The report indicates that more than a quarter of marketers said that half to all of their marketing is now done via digital channels. It also reported that nearly 40 percent foresee that in 12 months from half to all their marketing will be done via digital channels.

So what about in Australia?

In Australia we're a few years behind the US (which makes the US a useful predictor of our future).

The 2008 Australian Digital Marketing Trends Survey sponsored by NextDigital, involving 200 communicators across industries (including government) indicated that only around 10 percent of organisations dedicated between 25 and 50 percent of their marketing spend on digital.

However this was projected to grow to 40 percent of organisations within the next five years (by 2013).

It also found that in 2007 only 4 percent of Australian organisations were spending more than 50 percent of their marketing dollars on digital channels, but this was expected to grow to 19 percent in five years.

How is your organisation allocating its communications dollars?

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The business case for social media within a government department

Brought to my attention by the Victorian eGovernment Resource Centre, the below video from Shel Holzman provides an excellent summary of the value of social media as an set of egovernment tools within government intranets.

It addresses common misunderstandings and myths that have limited take-up, case studies of successful social media use and talks through appropriate applications for different tools.

Shel's video should be compulsory viewing for senior public sector executives who have an interest in improving the capture and dissemination of knowledge within their workplace, reduce the knowledge drain as babyboomers exit the workforce or improving their project management capacity and success rate.

By the way, Shel's regular podcast, The Hobson & Holtz Report, was to have a live phone in on 21 August discussing the topic of my blog post, the relationship between a strong commitment to internal communications and an effective intranet.

This has been postponed until 20 September, in case you want to catch it. The timing is tricky for Australians and New Zealanders, but it will be available on their site after the event.

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US public invited to review proposed patents in egovernment Peer-to-Patent initiative

The US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO), is trialing opening the patent examination process to public participation.

This allows members of the public to review pending patent applications and provide input and feedback into the process of assessing patent claims.

In effect, the patent office is acknowledging that the US public has the capacity to improve the US patent process by providing due diligence and scrutiny that the USPTO is unable to provide.

Via the website Peer-to-Patent, members of the public are able to register to review a select set of 400 pending US patents, in an initial pilot program to assess the feasibility of inviting public comments on patent applications.

While I've only just become aware of it, this isn't a new initiative - the pilot has been running for over a year and has generated enormous interest across the patent community.

The Japanese opened their own version of the peer-to-patent site in July 2008, titled Community Patent Review.

This type of project reflects the crowdsourcing potential of the internet, inviting the community to participate, comment on and support (or indicate lack of support) of government-run initiatives, rather than being held at arms length and only consulted according to the government's preferred consultation medium.

Another example I have previously discussed is the New Zealand Wiki Policing Act 2008 which used an online wiki to suggest contents.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

egovernment across South-East Asia - towards seamless integration

The Economist Intelligence Unit has published a special research report, Towards Seamless Administration (PDF), on the status and challenges of egovernment across South-East Asia, including commments on a number of Australia's nearest neighbours such as New Guinea, East Timor, Singapore and Malaysia.

While Australia and New Zealand are not included in the review, the maturity of egovernment across the region should be a consideration in our planning and thinking.

Just as Australia has provided an example of stable democratic governance and has assisted in the development and security of our neighbours, I believe we have an opportunity and a responsibility to support them in their progress towards more transparent, low-corruption and democratic regimes through the medium of egovernment.

Why Australia should take on a regional egovernment leadership
In my view there are sound economic, social and political reasons for Australia to take on a leadership and supportive role for regional egovernment.

By helping other nations along the road we will facilitate the participation of Australian companies and individuals in the region, both in business and IT spaces, rather than seeing another nation or group, such as the US, Singapore or the European Union take on such a role and diminish Australia's potential economic benefit.

A similar rationale holds for the political front. Australia has a national interest in having strong regional ties and a level of political influence and this could be weakened should other nations become the egovernment leaders, particularly as regional governments could be influenced towards structures and models less attuned to Australian interests. This could also impact on our regional security and agreements.

Finally, and most important to me personally, is the social rationale. Economic development and progress towards an open and fair democracy has been generally demonstrated to be more effective at reducing poverty, increasing freedoms and encouraging more respect for human rights than providing aid or political pressure.

eGovernment as an approach leads to more open and transparent government, lower corruption and more equitable participation, as well as being an underlying driver of economic development by cutting red tape for businesses and individuals.

Therefore by encouraging and supporting egovernment and the enablers for egovernment across the region, Australia will have a positive and non-invasive impact on the wellbeing of our nearest neighbour states.

How should Australia support regional egovernment initiatives?
I've considered three ways in which Australia could make an immediate impact.

1) Model development - showing the way through our local egovernment initiatives

2) Thought leadership - sharing our expertise (technical and business) to assist other nations in developing their egovernment capacity.

3) Regional integration - developing underlying egovernment systems and technologies that can be given or sold to other nations to be deployed to kickstart their egovernment programs. This could include regional epayment, ehealth and online forms capacities (expansions of the efforts by the Reserve Bank, Medicare Australia and AGOSP), or specialised systems developed for customs and border management, led by Customs or Immigration with the involvement of regional stakeholders. Other systems that could be explored for regional applications could include online consultation, collaboration and procurement (such as via GovDex or AusTenders), our online Copyright and Patents systems and many other systems at both state and federal level.

Even with a minimal investment, Australia could enable our neighbours to make significant steps forward in effective governance. 

All it requires is some political and public sector leadership in the area.

I'd be interested in other views on this, or any information on egovernment initiatives already underway with our neighbours.

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Extending the appeal of fuelwatch - making it 'you'-centrinc

It's still unclear to me whether a national version of Fuelwatch will be launched due to the political discussions underway (the WA version is at www.fuelwatch.com.au), however a US site named Fuelly has turned the concept on its head to create a useful user-centric site, which would lend itself effectively to extending a Fuelwatch-style approach.

Fuelly, at www.fuelly.com, allows individuals to record their vehicles, fuel use and the prices they paid for fuel to track their car's performance over time.

It is a simple concept which lends itself well to tracking the price of fuel at outlets (just add the service station details and time/date of purchases when people record fuel usage) without the need for expensive monitoring by a central agency or by petrol stations themselves. The site's users will do the work, because they receive a pay-off - precise information on their vehicle's fuel performance over time, which can be compared against the baseline for the vehicle (or compare against aggregate results from others with the same model car).

This type of application works well in the Web 2.0 world. Known as crowdsourcing it involves getting a large number of individuals to each do a small amount of work for an individual payback. As the service grows, so does the payback - encouraging greater participation.

Through having a very large number of participants any inconsistencies get smoothed out - as Wikipedia has demonstrated through its ability to rapidly self-correct when errors arise, (much faster than Encyclopedia Britannica, which has to wait until the next year's edition).

The approach Fuelly takes could easily be extended to include more car-related features - oil changes, services and major overhauls, and could eventually link into insurance programs as a way for individuals to record their car-related activities over time. The concept could continue to expand into other areas of value to people, mash-up with maps (If I drive from Canberra to Sydney, given my car's performance level, how much fuel will I use and what will it cost me), to other types of vehicles and to overall energy use and carbon footprint (just add your electricity, gas and water bill totals). It could then self-fund through advertising and car-related services.

With that type of site you'd add a vast amount of utility to a simple fuelwatch, making it very sticky, useful for people and self-regulating and maintaining.

Of course, being an entrepreneur by background I think towards how to make such a development sufficiently useful to generate a profit.

In the government sector, with the profit motive absent, this might seem all too commercial, though it provides a positive driver to make the service more useful to people, as if it didn't get used, it wouldn't get funded.

Note that this isn't the only crowdsourcing idea that could work in government. Provided that government can identify appropriate opportunities, provide a robust technical framework, fund initial growth and promotion, many concepts would lend themselves to the approach.

After all, the crowdsourcing approach is about putting in place infrastructure usable for the public good, and that's really what governments are about!

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What's the legal liability in (hyper) linking?

The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US is investigating the legalities of website linking, putting forward a policy proposal stating that companies should be held liable for linking to other sites containing information related to their share value.

Basically, if a link from a company's website pointed to false or misleading information about the company's prospects, it could be held responsible (under the proposed policy), leading to a fine or more severe action.

Why is this important in Australia?

Because it could be the thin edge of the wedge for linking. If a company cannot link to certain sites for fear of share information related liability (such as a public forum where opinions are aired, or a media publication which accidentally gets a story about the company wrong), it's not too many more steps to a situation where any hyperlinking may contain a legal risk.

If there was a risk for companies, there would also be a risk for government. What if that family-friendly site your agency linked to (even with a warning interstitial) was bought out by an adult products company, who promptly repointed it to one of their adult shops?

Would the agency linking to it become liable for the link? Or would extra legalese be required to discourage anyone going from one site to another, just in case.

This would make one of the fundamental foundations of the internet - linking - a very risky business.

Reported in WebProNews in the article, SEC Looks Into Hyperlink Liability, the SEC's approach does take into account the situation described above - where a clear warning exists, or the intention was not to cause offense or harm, so it's not really the thin edge of that wedge after all.

However I can see greater probity on linking leading to the kind of situation I described above - on the basis that by walling in the garden the customer is protected from 'bad' influences. It was the business model used with considerable success for a number of years by AOL.

Can you see a time coming where linking to other websites (other than trusted .gov.au sites) becomes too risky for your organisation to chance legally?

Is this a real option or should it be considered alongside foil hats?

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Safeguarding egovernment networks - what if you had over 1,000 unauthorised web servers connected to your network?

I'd feel concerned if I was the CIO of a government agency that found it had over 1,000 unauthorised web servers connected to its network.

This is the position the US's Internal Revenue Service is in at the moment, having identified 1,150 unauthorised web servers connected to its network .

As the servers are unauthorised, they are not regularly security patched, making them potential intrusion points for hackers.

As reported in Nextgov, in the article, IRS finds unauthorized Web servers connected to its networks, the IRS is now in the process of creating policies and procedures to prevent the unauthorised servers from accessing IRS data and will be undertaking quarterly reviews to measure compliance with security standards.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Facebook for US intelligence forces launching this month - time to revisit a whole-of-government intranet?

A-Space, an online collaborative space for US intelligence operatives, is planned for launch this month, giving all 16 US intelligence agencies a streamlined and effective tool for sharing information and collaborating - activities that have been criticised as previously lacking across US intelligence initiatives.

As reported in FCW.com, in the article, A-Space set to launch this month, after logging in,

analysts will have access to shared and personal workspaces, wikis, blogs, widgets, RSS feeds and other tools. To log in, analysts will need to prove their identity using public key infrastructure, and their agencies must list them in the governmentwide intelligence analyst directory.

Like many social-networking sites, each analyst will create an online personal profile, and colleagues can see what others are working on and the A-Space workspaces that they are using. In addition, much like Facebook, users can also post notes on one another’s profiles

The A-Space social network will include a search tool and data sets from six agencies at launch, with more to be progressively added.

We've seen several other western jurisdictions introduce cross-agency or whole-of-government intranets (such as Singapore), and there was a commitment made in Australia to establish a whole-of-government intranet by the end of 1998, which never came to fruition.

Perhaps it is time to revisit this.

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Getting the basics right - US presidential hopefuls fail website navigation

Forrester Research has released a report critiquing the navigation of the websites of John McCain and Barack Obama, claiming that both fail basic navigation tests by potential voters.

Nextgov reported in the article, Web sites of both presidential candidates fail to connect with users, that,

Forrester used five criteria in its evaluation: clear labels and menus; legible text; easy-to-read format; priority of content on the homepage; and accessible privacy and security policies. McCain's site passed two of those benchmarks: clear and unique category names and legible text. Obama's site succeeded in one area: straightforward layout making it easy to scan content on the homepage.

Neither site gave priority to the most important information on the homepage, or posted clear privacy and security policies, Forrester concluded.
This came on the back of another report by Catalyst, which tested seven criteria. The Nextgov article quotes that,
Catalyst asked individuals to perform seven tasks while evaluating each campaign site, including donating money, reading the candidates' biographies and finding their positions on specific policy issues. Obama's site stood out for its design and navigation, but users were confused about certain labels on the homepage, such as "Learn," which contained links to information about the Illinois senator's background and policy positions.

What were the lessons for all government sites?
  • A modern professional look is critical for drawing in users and making them want to use the site.
  • Effective prioritisation of information (most important at top) and clear, simple navigation are important for the success of a website, but if the look isn't right users won't stay long enough to use it.
  • Focus on the most important information and reduce the clutter, direct users to the most useful information, activities and tools for them.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Addressing customer service for the email channel

From my experience in government, both as a customer and as a public servant, I've discovered that when addressing emails from citizens, government agencies often treat email as surface mail rather than as a phone call.

This means that citizens who choose an electronic communications route can often expect response times measured in weeks or months, rather than in minutes or hours.

Personally I find this unacceptable.

In asking why this was the case I have been told that government cannot discriminate based on mode of contact. That we cannot respond faster to customers choosing to use email rather than surface mail - even though a wait of even a few minutes is considered unacceptable for phone calls.

I have also been told by some departments (by phone or via their websites) that they cannot respond by email at all. That to protect my privacy they must send messages via surface mail - that post is more secure, more convenient or more official - even if I am happy to accept the risks and choose to email them.

I saw a similar situation in the private sector five years ago. Companies were unsure whether to treat emails as a postal medium or a a telephonic one.

They did not have a clear understanding of how email worked technically and did not trust its reliability or security (compared to other mediums).

They did not have staff trained or processes in place to handle a high-speed written medium.

Fortunately, at least in the private sector, many organisations are now more mature in their understanding and application of email.

Treat email as a phone call, not as a letter

My solution to ensuring emailing customers get the right level of respect and service in both public and private organisations has remained the same - treat emails as phone calls.

Email is perceived by the community as a nearly instant form of communication, like the telephone or face-to-face.

None of us would let a phone ring for a month before answering it, so why subject customers choosing email to this?

Address security and privacy concerns in a positive manner

Email is often treated with suspicion by organisations, due to perceived security issues in how it is transmitted from place to place and the concern that it is easy to intercept.

However people have adopted email regardless of perceived risks due to its benefits - high speed and low cost with a fast response time. Today, throughout western countries, people send many times more emails, often of a personal nature, than they make phone calls.

Given that government organisations have a greater obligation to protect citizen information than do our customers themselves, how can this be addressed?

I have a three point plan I have successfully used in organisations (including my current agency) to begin to address these concerns.

Three steps to better customer service (by email)

1. Formally assess the risks of email alongside telephony and surface mail

Many organisations have a defacto email security policy, one that has grown from personal opinions, interpretations and often from misunderstandings about the medium rather than through an objective and formal risk assessment process.

This is easy to address - get the legal, technical and customer service people together in a room and assess the risks of each form of customer contact.

It is particularly important to assess relative risk, for example:

  • Are the security risks of email greater than for mail, fax, telephony or face-to-face?
  • Is postal mail guaranteed to be delivered?
  • Is it easier to steal letters from a mailbox than emails from a computer?
  • If people choose VOIP telephony, is this treated as email for security purposes?
  • Can different levels of privacy be enforced for different mediums/security levels?

Consider different scenarios, for example:

  • Are privacy considerations different when the customer initiates (email) communication (with personal information).
  • Can customers explicitly provide permission to receive responses (by email) for a set period (even if done by phone or signed fax/letter), accepting responsibility for security?

Consider organisational capability, for example:

  • Are staff adequately trained to respond to emails?
    Just because people are good on the phone doesn't mean they are good at writing emails! An appropriate etiquette level may have to be taught.
  • Is the organisation appropriately resourced to address emails in a timely fashion?
    International benchmarks indicate that optimally emails should be addressed in less than four hours, with two days the maximum timeframe people are prepared to wait for adequate service. Can your organisation achieve this - and if not, what mitigations does it put in place to communicate this to customers (who will email anyway!)

Assess customer expectations, for example:

  • What do customers expect in terms of privacy in email and other mediums?
  • Do they expect the same detail level in responses?
  • How fast a response do they expect?
  • Do they expect organisations to answer as much as they can can and then refer the customer to another channel?

Out of this it becomes possible to correctly understand the medium's characteristics, the real risks, what customers expect and then determine the mitigations which diminish, remove or defer any critical risks.


2. Change internal policies that do not reflect law

Often side-effect from not having conducted a formal risk assessment, internal email policies may not always reflect the current laws of the land (policy is often stricter).

Once a formal risk assessment has been conducted, you should review and rewrite internal policies on customer communications to reflect the risk assessment outcomes.

These policies should include details on when and how a customer can choose to accept the risks and take ownership of the security of the process.

If you find that there are no written policies, write them down and communicate them widely. They should include the background and 'myth-busters' as well as the code of (email) conduct.


3. Review laws to meet community expectations

Sometimes it's the actual laws themselves which are out-of-step with community sentiment and concerns.

Laws are living things, frequently being amended and adjusted to address new situations and changes in social norms.

Privacy and security laws  are no different to other laws in this and require regular review to match citizen expectations - there is no 'right' level of privacy, it is dictated by public opinion.

As such, if your customer sentiment reflects a different view and acceptance of (email) security than do Australia's laws, feed this information back into the policy process.

Change is possible, and it will allow your organisation to provide better customer service as a result.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Online is a service option, not just a media channel

As I mentioned at the end of my earlier post about the Googlisation of the US election, we're now entering a phase in the internet's development where it is shifting from being a media channel towards a service channel.

Many organisations in the private sector have already recognised this and I am seeing the beginnings of this understanding in the public sector as well.

When the internet was first popularised by web browsers it was a technical toy, with the first websites for organisations commonly developed by programmers in technology teams and a few IT-savvy marketers.

Within five years the Marketing and Communications team began to take a leading interest, with a ferocious tussle for control of the platform between technologists and communicators taking place in many organisations. This battle is still going on in many organisations, where IT refuses to let go of certain aspects of web that sit more readily in the communications area, such as

  • design (including usability),
  • navigation (and a correlating interest in information architecture, which is more of a psychological discipline than a technical one), and
  • rich media development (which is often hamstrung by technical concerns online, unlike the radio and television experience where technology serves the medium).

While these battles continue, the internet has moved on, with the introductions of organisations whose sole or major service channel is online, including well known organisations such as eBay, Amazon and Second Life (yes it's a service channel!) and hundreds of thousands of lessor known, but still very successful players.

For these organisations online isn't an adjacent to other channels, it is their primary or sole channel, representing the core of their business.

This has led into Web 2.0, the communal empowerment of the web, which has seen the ease of generating and interacting with content skyrocket, lowering the barriers to creativity and demonstrating comprehensively that people want to participate and if the medium is sufficiently simple they will.

This has led to the current online 'mashup', where across the global internet we can see aspects of all generations of the web, technologists clinging to power, communicators using olde worlde 'shout marketing' techniques, sales organisations pumping products through ever easier purchasing funnels and the growing swell of social networks and people power.

Naturally many organisations are confused and bewildered by the complexity and scope of potential online options, most simply do not understand, with top management mired in views shaped by their experience and education.

The tendency for all of us is to fall back on 'safe' classical models, treating the online medium as a 'technology', a media channel add-on, a basic form-filling medium or a time-waster for habitual networkers.

However as billion dollar companies can be built (or destroyed) and the outcomes of political careers changed through the agency of the internet, it is a far more serious enabler than many organisations have realised.

My view is that it is now time to rethink how our organisations regard the online channel, casting aside preconceptions and experiential models and reflecting on the internet's relationship with us, rather than our relationship with the internet.

From my perspective I view online as an engagement channel - combining service delivery, consultation and communication into a single medium, an enabling driver at the core of how organisations interact with their stakeholders, customers, staff and shareholders.

Where customers do not have internet access the online channel still facilitates and support relationships, enabling improvements in internal information sharing, efficiency and interactions between organisations, thereby improving the experience of engaging via phone or face-to-face channels.

Many organisations are not sufficiently mature to have restructured around the internet as a central enabling driver and I see the online channel commonly 'owned' and 'managed' by Communications, IT or, at the intranet level, in HR.

I believe there is now a strong case in the public sector to begin shifting ownership into the service delivery area, using the internet as both an effective, lower-cost service option and as an enabler under telephony and face-to-face channels.

IT and Communications still remain involved, as their expertise is required to develop and shape the systems and messages delivered, but the bulk of measurable business outcomes are in service delivery areas - including interaction and delivery time metrics, customer satisfaction, service consistency and business efficiency.

At my agency, who I see as one of the leaders in thinking around the online channel, if still managing the technology challenges and building an understanding of how to apply the channel to address business goals, we've just made an internal shift reflecting the online channel being a service option.

We've shifted the management of our online channel such that our Service Delivery area owns the service delivery aspect of our online presence, with the delivery on their goals facilitated by my team in the Communications area and the technology team.

We're also beginning the process of increasing the Service Delivery area's involvement and influence over our intranet, which extends its focus on facilitating customer service provision through supporting front-line staff.

I am very positive about these changes, they are enabling us to make some immediate service quality improvements - some by managing customer expectations, some by changing system behaviours.

Over the next several years I expect to see enormous business value delivered for the government as this model becomes firmly embedded, both for customer engagement to improve our customer approach, as a channel for effective service delivery as well as information provision and by enabling staff to provide ever-improving customer service.

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ePetitions proposed for UK parliament

Last month the UK government endorsed a recommendation to accept ePetitions through the parliamentary website.

As reported in ePractice.eu, this builds on the experience of the 10 Downing Street website, which has accepted ePetitions since November 2006.

Under the recommendation electronic petitions will be hosted on the UK parliament’s website, allowing individuals to add their names and choose to receive updates on a petition's process.

In the past, using paper-based petitions, there has been an average of 100 petitions per year, with the largest receiving 4.5 million signatures.

ePetitions in the UK have already proven to be even more successful. In its first year, the 10 Downing Street site saw more than 29 000 petitions submitted, carrying a total of 5.8 million signatures.

Other nations have also successfully introduced ePetitions, with New Zealand's Wellington city council holding regular ePetitions via the council website.

In Australia Queensland has also held ePetitions via it's Get Involved website. The state has taken the further step of commercialising their ePetitions technology (PDF), turning it into a government revenue stream.

Tasmania has also held ePetitions on a trial basis via the Parliament of Tasmania ePetition site.

Perhaps this reflects another way in which representative democracy can move closer to pure democracy, allowing interested parties to have influential involvement in major legislative change.

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