Friday, November 28, 2008

Small steps into online consultation for government

It can be a challenge for government agencies to get the level of buyin required to build or buy the infrastructure required for online consultation.

Questions get asked at senior levels around security and privacy, the risk of consultations being hijacked, the level of resourcing required, the concern about publicly getting few (relevant)responses or contrarywise the risk of getting to many and the risk of excluding groups who do not have access to the Internet.

Plus there may be resistance from IT, limited understanding of the medium (which gives rise to many of the earlier concerns) and the education curve required to lift senior executives to an appropriate level of understanding to feel comfortable with initiatives.

However there are approaches which take small steps toward online consultation that can aid in building organisation comfort. These are easier bite-size ways for government agencies to begin 'eating the elephant' that is online consultation.

Email feedback
One of the easiest steps is adding an email channel for feedback which allows interested parties to more readily respond with views on a service or program. This is a cheap and easy approach to introduce with limited management overhead as it simply a non-digital mail respond mechanism.

Online surveys
There is also the online survey approach, which asks visitors to a government website or email recipients their views on a given topic. Appropriately targeted and promoted this can provide valuable input,key audience insights and new ideas, aiding in setting the terms of a broader consultation.

These are reasonably easy to set up using commercially available products such as Surveymonkey or Questionpro.

User ratings
Next is the ability to ask audiences to supply their key priorities and then rank them communally, using tools such as Uservoice, which I have implemented on this site to give me guidance on the topics you'd like me to talk about (see the feedback tab at the left of the screen).

These systems can be moderated to manage user comments and can be used to gather a prioritisation of different approaches using a simple voting approach.

Participation in existing online communities
Next it is possible to engage with pre-existing external communities and ask them to ask their audience about your initiatives and programs. This is more confronting for a government agency as the moderation is left in someone else's hands - usually unpaid volunteers. However it can uncover some of the deep seated issues very quickly, allowing an agency to develop the material required to correct mistaken impressions or mitigate external fears.

This can also feed into other public debates, allowing the agency to provide Ministers and other spokespeople with appropriate pointers on how to address various concerns.

A key consideration is that these discussions are very much on the public record and outside the agency's direct control - which can be scary for many senior public servants and officials. However these discussions will happen regardless, therefore, in my view, it is better to turn over the rocks and develop an understanding of the real concerns before they are raised by the media or 'on the record' on the floor.

A key benefit of these discussions is that an agency can issue a 'thank you' at the end of the process, which makes people feel heard. This can also address some of the key issues or misunderstandings, thereby also placing the correct information on the record (provided it is in clear english).

Commercially moderated forums
The next approach is to use a commercially moderated forum, which provides some safety around how the moderation is managed, via an organisation such as Bang The Table.

This is a more controlled environment, but still out in public. Appropriately supported and managed it can provide a venue to elicit strong audience views with less control issues for government.

'Owned' forums
Finally agencies may create their own forums (which could be a blog, online forum, wiki, video feedback or other type of social media tool) to elicit feedback, as has been done with Future Melbourne.

This requires significantly more ongoing resourcing and commitment by an agency, and can also suffer from growth pains as many in the audience have to learn about and then build trust in a 'government mouthpiece'.

If these issues are handled well this can become a sustained community whereby the agency can converse with audiences, not just on spot consultations but over time.

Choosing the options
So clearly there are many different option for government to 'get its feet wet' which can reduce the risk, cost and commitment by agencies while they decide when, and if, online consultation will work for them.

Most important is to start using at least one approach and building some organisational knowledge, confidence, and small wins that aid in the future as departments are pushed to become more active in this space.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

eGovernment best practice from Utah's CIO

Ari Herzog has begun a series on social media best practice in his blog, AriWriter.

Kicking it off is a fascinating interview with Utah's Chief Information Officer, David Fletcher, providing an insight into how Utah has implemented its online strategy, taking it to win the Best of the Web award for US state governments twice (so far), in 2003 and 2007.

Drawing a few highlights from David's piece...

The state has over 830 services online, was an early adopter of blogging by public servants, services such as Twitter (as covered by USA Today) and online chat (24x7) and the use of video online via Youtube. Do I need to also mention they use wikis?

For many of these initiatives Utah is leveraging free online technologies rather than reinventing the wheel and spending large amounts of public funds. And Utah isn't keeping the performance of a secret - they publish their analytics online.

In August this year the state instituted a 4-day work week for public servants, based on Utah's ability to provide so many services on a 24x7 basis online.

Amazingly, although the state only has 2.6 million residents, the Utah state portal receives over 1.1 million unique visits per month. That's a much higher rate of citizen online participation with government than we see in Australia (for example reportedly gets around half this number of visitors (not even unique visitors) for 8x as large a population).

The state has also cut down the time for businesses to register at local, state and federal levels - cutting what could be a several week process down to 30 minutes.

A number of their services have over an 80% adoption rate - which I take to mean that under 20 percent of registrations come via other channels.

And if you want to learn more about the state of Utah's online presence, you can visit David's blog or find him on Twitter at @dfletcher - he's truly walking the talk!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From the TV to the net - politics in evolution

I've been following the blog of the Hon Penny Sharp MLC, Red Leather, as one of the best examples in government of blogging and a strong proponent of the use of the online channel.

In late October she gave a speech to the NSW Parliament regarding the level of online engagement by NSW MLCs.

Published at her site under the title, Politics online, the speech flagged the enormous influence the online channel has on voters today, and the level of attention NSW politicians were giving the channel.

In it she asked the following question of the NSW Members of Parliament (my bold),

Political participation of all citizens is being transformed by new media; 80 per cent of Australians have access to broadband and of those, 75 per cent are regular Internet users. For them this is the most important source of information. Without change the traditional ways of gathering and communicating information, such as newsletters, television advertising, direct mail and traditional mainstream news media, will become less relevant as large portions of the population no longer get their primary information through these mediums. This will have a significant impact on the participation within our democracy. The question I ask tonight is: what are we, the elected representatives in New South Wales, doing to make ourselves part of the transformation of political participation?
She also answered this question, having had an intern research NSW MLC use of the online channel,
Only 39 of the 136 members of the New South Wales Parliament have personal websites. Only 12 of the 39 websites had recently updated information; 18 others had media releases as their only current information; three were a few months old and were out of date, and five were a few years out of date. Only seven members of the Parliament are using Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, polls and online petitions.
As a comparison (also from Penny's speech),
As a comparison, 655 out of 746 members of the House of Lords have their own website. It is also worth noting that the House of Lords recently launched a combined blog from numerous Lords from various parties. The is worth a look. In the United States, all 100 senators have their own website.
Many people may remember the first televised political debates in Australia - they were only around 30 years ago - and how awkwardly politicians first engaged the medium.

Compare that today with the picture perfect polished performances of our pollies (most of the time).

I believe we will see a similar curve with online usage. The 2008 US Presidential election represents the first electoral watershed - equivalent to the first televised debate.

It will be very interesting to see how future internet politicians use the internet - and how their departments and public officials will be expected to embed the medium into their day to day activities at departmental and agency levels.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

How much would your department pay for a 10% improvement in customer satisfaction?

I've been reading an article in the New York Times regarding the public competition Netflix has been holding.

The competition, named the Netflix Prize, has a prize of US$1 million for the individual or group who can improve their movie/TV recommendations engine by 10%.

The article, If you liked this, sure to like that, discusses how Netflix's programmers had gone as far as they could with their available resources and skills, so the company decided to make a large slice of their information available publicly (anonymised to protect privacy) and see where others could take it.

There are now over 33,000 teams around the world competing to come up with insights and algorithms to improve Netflix's recommendations, with a public leaderboard tracking the top forty (the best is currently at 9.44%) and a forum where the teams collaborate on improving results, sharing tips and code.

I can't help but think about this in the context of government.

Every agency struggles to provide the best possible outcomes and customer service with the resources they are given. However few departments or agencies look outside for help - even to other government bodies.

I'm sure there are many complex problems in government that could be looked at in a similar context to the issue Netflix is facing - ranging from simple IT programming issues, to customer service maximisation (such as the most effective placement of face-to-face locations to cover audience needs) and those huge thorny issues, such as devising fair policies or reforming tax regimes.

I wonder if government would be more effective if it allowed talented people to devise potential solutions (for kudos or prize money), which could then be tested, reviewed and the best solutions potentially adopted.

This isn't just a pipe dream. The UK government is running a competition at the moment, asking the public to come up with innovative ways to use government data to add value. The US and Japanese Patent Boards are piloting having the public examine patents and provide views before they are granted and New Zealand had the public write the Police Wiki Act 2007 (on how the police are to act towards the public).

I cannot think of any Australian examples - if anyone know of some let me know.

Clearly there's all kinds of guidelines and governance required for Australian governments to feel 'safe' in inviting outsiders to assist us in improving governance in Australia - but what do we really have to lose?

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Government etiquette on Twitter

Neil Williams of Mission Creep has published an interesting question around how government should use twitter in a post, Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow.

It talks about the agency twitter account his employer runs - which is working well - and whether they should 'follow' others (which allows you to see what others are saying on twitter) or whether this is too Big Brother.

The post doesn't answer the question, but does present some views on the topic.

Here's mine....

Twitter is a very loose two-way mechanism. Its design does not foster the level of debate that is supported via a forum or allow for the level of indepth personal commentary (with comments), as does a blog.

The two things it does really well are placing short stream of consciousness messages, announcements and comments into the public eye and allowing for brief Q&A style exchanges of views, without enormous depth or follow-on.

This has made Twitter an increasingly popular medium for government (and for corporations), particularly in the US, to announce VIP schedules, status information (such as traffic status) and notices pointing to indepth website or media information.

It it less used as a method to respond to customers and constituents - but in its two-way mode can be used to gauge public satisfaction and collect top-of-mind responses as part of a consultation process.

It is important to have a goal when using any tool and, depending on the goal and level of resourcing, following has its place.

If it is being used solely as a one-way mechanism (as the BBC, CNN and NewsCorp do for article notices), there is little value in following others.

However if you wish to engage and extend the reach of the channel for your agency, following and responding to direct questions/comments, humanises your organisation and integrates you into the Twitter community. It does require ongoing resourcing and monitoring, which is beyond the capacity of many organisations - but perhaps not Mosman council.

I think the big brother concern is more linked to unwanted follows - following someone before they follow you, however if someone chooses to follow your government department's Twitter feed, if appropriate for the goals of your agency, you should follow them back (perhaps with a notice somewhere to state that you do so).

I can only think of rare occasions where a government department on Twitter should follow individuals who have not followed them - though following some of the one-way twitter feeds.

What do you think?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

How do you sell the idea of a social media strategy in government?

Nick over in the WA egovernment blog Web 2.0 showcase, posted an excellent article back in August entitled, Selling the idea of a social media strategy.

This focused on approaches for encouraging government departments to look at social media - at least as a research tool to understand what people were saying.

Nick referred to an article from Jeremiah Owyang, How to overcome social media scare tactics.

The basic approach Jeremiah recommended was to understand how the market was using social media, set a goal and, where possible, experiment internally where failure costs less.

This is a good approach, but the third step is not always appropriate or desirable.

For example, my agency has been participating in a public forum for some months as a pilot online engagement strategy. The approach taken followed the first two steps recommended by Jeremiah but not the third.

Firstly our communications group had already spent over a year following forums and blogs as part of our monitoring of public channels. This was part of the agency' broader ongoing work to understand the general mood and key issues of our customers.

Secondly the agency set a clear goal as to what it aimed to achieved through forum participation - and communicated this in the forum so that other participants could understand the basis on agency engagement.

However, due to the nature of the discussions taking place, and the technology available within the firewall, it was not practical for the agency to trial a similar approach internally. Plainly speaking, your staff do not always act in the same way as your customers, particularly on different technology platforms.

Moving back to Nick's article - selling the idea. I was actually surprised at the level of support to establish the pilot.

The research previously conducted via reading blogs and forums had helped build the agency's understanding of these channels and reduced concerns around entering unknown waters. Through this it had also become clear that the online discussions were robust and that sometimes complex questions or issues were raised that the agency may have found difficult to fully address via the intermediary of traditional media.

Therefore the agency's decision to conduct a pilot was based on a number of factors, such as a genuine need to broaden our understanding and commitment to a medium growing in influence (amongst others).

As a particular bonus, what the agency learns via the experience will help if there are future needs for crisis management via the online channel.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How does the government maximise information distribution while minimising copyright risk?

It has always struck me as a little contradictory that while one of the government's primary goals is to build citizen awareness of various services, issues, initiatives and opportunities, at the same time many government communications and publications (than need to be) are protected under rigid copyright disclaimers.

I've even seen situations where government agencies require that organisations formally request permission before linking to their websites, although this is almost totally unenforceable and contrary to one of the primary reasons for using the internet.

These copyright disclaimers and reuse permission processes were designed for a useful purpose, to stop the misuse, misrepresentation or reselling of government material.

This is fair enough. However in many cases the copyright restrictions go so far (all rights reserved) as to work against government communications objectives, making dissemination of government information more difficult, costly, slower and less effective.

Who loses out? The public.

Who benefits? I'm not sure anyone does.

Do legitimate approaches exist to protect government interests but still allow appropriate reuse of information?
At least one does, Creative Commons licensing.

This issue of how do organisations and individuals allow selected but not universal reuse of content is not unique to government. It matured in the open source software area, with a solution devised by the Free Software Foundation named GNU General Public License.

This license was specifically developed for software, but prompted the creation of a similar licensing arrangement in 2002 for other creative works such as websites, audio, video and print publications named Creative Commons. Creative Commons is now in use in 43 countries around the world (and growing), including Australia, to allow selective reuse of otherwise copyright-protected content.

What is Creative Commons licensing?
Creative Commons is a flexible form of copyright designed for the evolving copyright needs of the modern world.

It allows a copyright holder to retain some of their rights, while permitting greater latitude for others to redistribute, extend and reuse licensed material in ways permitted by the holder.

Six main types of Creative Commons licenses exist, depending on the level of control desired by the copyright holder (with a seventh type permitting totally open access). Licenses are country specific and a new version of these licenses for Australia recently completed consultation and is in draft.

Has Creative Commons been considered by the Australian government?
It has been discussed by government over a number of years - and adopted in Queensland.

For example it states in the Stanley Declaration, 13 July 2007, Australian National Summit on Open Access to Public Sector Information,

"The adoption and implementation by governments of an open access policy to public sector information (PSI) will ensure the greatest public benefit is derived from the increased use of information created, collected, maintained, used, shared, and disseminated by and for all governments in Australia."
More recently it was recommended in the Federal Government's VenturousAustralia report Review of the National Australian Innovation System released by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (Recommendation 7.8) that,
"Australian governments should adopt international standards of open publishing as far as possible. Material released for public information by Australian governments should be released under a creative commons licence."
This was also commented on by the Minister, Senator Carr, in what others have termed a fairly strong endorsement.
"We are and will remain a net importer of knowledge, so it is in our interest to promote the freest possible flow of information domestically and globally.

The arguments for stepping out first on open access are the same as the arguments for stepping out first on emissions trading – the more willing we are to show leadership on this, we more chance we have of persuading other countries to reciprocate.

And if we want the rest of the world to act, we have to do our bit at home."

Where can Creative Commons copyright licenses be used on government products?
While the Queensland government has permitted use of Creative Commons Licensing for several years under the Queensland Information Licensing Framework, other jurisdictions are not as advanced.

Victoria is considering Creative Commons in the Inquiry into Improving Access to Victorian Public Sector Information and Data, but this will not report back until 30 June 2009.

AGIMO is apparently looking at the national framework, though I have no information on their timeline or prioritisation of this work.

I am not aware of the situation in other jurisdictions - can anyone tell me?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's in a name? Choosing the best web addresses for government

The other day I absentmindedly typed in '' to go to the Victorian state government's main site.

However I was surprised when my browser threw up an error, saying there was no such site.

I realised my mistake, it should have been instead, however this got me thinking about all those people in Australia and overseas who would expect to type 'victoria' to find Victoria, rather than 'vic' and not have the experience that I do to find the right location.

I did a check on other states, from Western Australia to New South Wales, and found that in every case the state abbreviation was the only address accepted to get to the state portals.

In every case I received an error like this one (for

Given the small cost of registering another address and pointing it to the same location, would it not make sense to register, and the rest rather than take the risk of people getting it wrong and being directed to the wrong website by their web browser?

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Is there a groundswell of demand for collaboration tools in your agency?

This is based on some thinking (and rewriting of a reply) around a post by Stephen Collins from Acidlabs on the topic of how and why to implement 'Enterprise 2.0 technologies in organisations, entitled Enterprise 2.0 - Identify problem. Determine solution. Then tools.

Stephen was making a good point - that it is important to identify the needs before introducing the solution (or the tools), also noting that it was necessary to engage in some experimentation and 'intrapreneurship', rather than spend months on painstaking research.

In my travels and conversations with peers I've become aware that many of them are seeing needs emerging within organisations for better collaboration tools - people are seeking better and more cost-effective ways to work together to achieve organisational objectives than via shared drives, email, telephones and cross-country business trips.

However in most cases this need is forming in a 'lumpy' manner. Some groups in the organisation are happy with the tools they've used for years, others are seeking something better - particularly where budget limitations and rising costs are making old ways of working too expensive.

Within my agency I've had around eight groups approach me over the last few months seeking tools to allow them to collaborate or communicate more effectively within the agency or with external parties.

Most of these groups were not aware of the others.

Each by themselves did not have a strong enough business case for an organisational investment in new technologies.

However by aggregating their needs I'm close to a position where I can demonstrate a strong organisational ROI to senior management.

I can picture other agencies being in a similar position. Many small groups expressing needs that could be met by 'Enterprise 2.0' tools, but without a clear big picture view across the organisation of the overall need.

I recall a story I once heard regarding a large bank back in the early days of personal computing. They brought in someone to audit the use of computing technologies across middle management and discovered that hundreds of line managers had individually bought Mac personal computers because the Supercalc spreadsheet was so compellingly useful for them in their jobs.

These purchases were not authorised by the central computing department (who managed the mainframe). The individual purchases were made out of petty cash as each manager could not demonstrate sufficient need to have the central department take notice.

This was a collision between rising staff costs, increasing demands on managers to perform more complex calculations, greater technology availability and growing workforce skills. It led to the perimeter of the organisation knowing more about staff needs than the centre.

I think that we are in a similar time now. Traditional collaboration and communications approaches are rising in cost, while agencies are being asked to increase their collaboration and transparency. (Free) social media tools are growing in popularity on the internet and more and more of the staff joining the public service are experienced users of these tools.

Therefore I believe it's important for government departments to review what staff need to do their jobs and aggregating the needs of different groups to build effective organisational business cases.

Otherwise we'll see agency staff doing as the bank managers did - finding what they need elsewhere.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Disintermediating government online

Governments are being disintermediated online by citizen networks and private companies.

This reflects the self-organising and distributional capabilities of the web and raises some serious questions regarding what governments should focus on online.

The Bureau of Meteorology collects data from hundreds of weather stations across Australia. It is a Federal government bureau.

Weather Underground also collects data from weather stations across Australia - and around the world - but these are owned by citizens. It is privately operated.

Hansard captures the business of government, making transcripts of proceedings from the houses of parliament available to Australians online. It is a Federal government agency.

OpenAustralia also makes Hansard transcripts available, together with statistics on how often politicians speak, the ability to subscribe to get updates when your favourite member speak and more. It is a not-for-profit citizen operated website (and does all of this despite having to cope with government changes).

Google rivals (and is used by many more people than) for searching online information about government.

These examples reflect a growing trend on the internet - for citizen-led or private sector initiatives to equal, or surpass, the services offered by government online.

Some of the online services providing alternatives to government information are even able to be profitable, while the government service is simply a cost on consumers.

So why should government provide these services online at all?

Would we be better off simply providing the data and letting innovative citizens and companies repackage it for the public?

Could the government turn some online data into revenue? For example, allowing research companies to repackage ABS data into unique online analysis tools (while providing ongoing access to a free basic level.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear to me - government will be disintermediated online if it does not lift its game or make the choice to become a 'data warehouse' rather than a 'retail outlet'.

This topic has also been raised by the Gartner group, releasing a press release stating, Gartner Says Citizen Social Networks Will Complement, and May Replace, Some Government Functions.

Your thoughts
Should government continue to invest in online services where not-for-profit or corporate solutions exist?
Or should government focus on the areas where competition does not exist?

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Guest post: How you can increase traffic to Government websites with Government Press Releases

Today I welcome a post from guest blogger Cheryl Hardy, of the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development (DIIRD), State Government of Victoria, Victoria, Australia.

Cheryl manages eGovernment Research in DIIRD and is a prime operative behind the Victorian eGovernment Resource Centre, which was one of the global top ten nominees for the World e-Democracy Awards 2008, winning a Special Mention, just behind award winners such as

The eGovernment Resource Centre is, in my opinion, the single best resource for egovernment and online channel information in Australia.

How you can increase traffic to Government websites with Government Press Releases

You are a government web manager. Imagine you live in a perfect world. (Suspend reality for just a few minutes!) Imagine you had control over government press release content - (wow like that is going to happen!) then you could optimise its content and potentially bring a substantial increase in traffic to your website.

Keep imagining - To do this successfully you must use keywords (especially those that your target audience are using), in the content of the press release, and link these to strategic content pages on your website(s).

For example, the following press release was published on 15 September 2008 on a State Government website in Victoria: "BRUMBY GOVERNMENT UNTANGLES PLANNING RED TAPE".

There is some really great content in this release, but there are no links to where people can find out more information. Here is how I would have written this release (in my imaginary world) using keywords with links to relevant content, provided by Victorian Government websites, while making the content useful to the residents of Victoria:

Victorian Government untangles planning red tape

The Victorian Government has acted to remove unnecessary planning permits for some residential and commercial work, including rain water tanks and sheds in regional areas of the state.

Acting Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, said the Cutting Red Tape in Planning exemptions are part of the Victorian Government’s commitment to cut planning red tape.

It is estimated that up to 2,000 planning applications will no longer be required as a result of these changes. Victorians are encouraged to contact their local council to confirm what permits are required before they start any work so they fully understand the changes.

The implementation of Cutting Red Tape in Planning coincides with a reduction in permit application numbers from 54,788 to 49,587 over four years despite strong activity in the building industry.

During 2006-7, applications for residential alteration and additions, specifically targeted by the cutting red tape initiatives, dropped by over ten per cent. However, in the same period there has been ongoing increase in the number of building permits now at slightly over 100,000 reflecting Victoria’s growth.

The new exemptions will mean that:
  • Rain water tanks in rural areas no longer need a planning permit regardless of size;
  • Rain water tanks in industrial areas on longer need a planning permit provided they meet site and height requirements;
  • Domestic sheds under 50 m2 no longer need a planning permit in farming zones (This document requires the use of Adobe Acrobat Reader). You can also convert PDF documents into alternative formats; and
  • Minor domestic building work such as a pergola, deck, swimming pool no longer need planning permit in most areas that are not in a flood prone, heritage or environmentally significant area.
Cutting Red Tape in Planning is the Victorian Government's plan from which key improvement in planning have originated including:
For more information visit the Planning section on the Department of Planning and Community Development website.

Forgetting search engine ranking for now, providing links to all this content provided by the Victorian Government achieves two things:
  1. the reader of the press release can find out more information about the topic very easily if they choose to; and
  2. visitor traffic is then driven out to the content providers. This is traffic they would not have received using the existing format of the press release
Which press release do you think visitors to this site would like to read and which one do you think will drive traffic to government website(s)?

Do you have examples of press releases which could be rewritten to provide more usable content? Send in your examples - we could start a competition!

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

US President releases first weekly youtube address

One of the promises Barack Obama made in the US was to release his weekly address to the nation via Youtube.

This signaled how serious he was about transparent and open government, and flagged the incoming US government recognition of the power of Youtube's large and growing audience - which publishes almost 10,000 hours of content per day (per Michael Welsch's Anthropological Introduction to Youtube).

Obama's first weekly address is now available online and demonstrates how polished his staff have become in the use of Youtube.

I hope we'll see a similar use in Australia of the KevinPM website, even going further to have the Prime Minister respond in a public questiontime to video questions posed by citizens - just as John Howard used his weekly radio talkback - but accessible to a broader audience.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Governments leading and fostering change

President-elect Barack Obama built his campaign on change, and is demonstrating an ongoing commitment to this approach via the site

It's a great living case study on how a government can engage its citizens online in a constructive way.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The rise of the video republic

Paul Johnston, posting at TheConnectedRepublic, has brought to my attention the following video and report on the rise of the video republic.

This looks at how people - particularly young people - are using online video to express their views, share opinions and shape the world views of their generation.

It's a fascinating watch and read and raises the question, how should government be involved in this discussion?

Regardless of what public sector and political leaders decide, this communications channel is growing in strength and will have significant implications on how countries are governed and managed into the future.

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Internet a more important information medium than TV, radio or print

The World Internet project recently released its Australian report (PDF), providing a mid-2007 view on how Australians access and use the internet.

The report indicates that, at August 2007, 72 percent of Australians used the internet (increasing to 86% when considering those in full employment), and highlights known divides in usage based on income and residential location, it also provides an interesting view on which media are most important to Australians.

The study found that 68.5 percent of users regarded the internet as an 'important' or 'very important' source of information.

In comparison only 32.6 percent gave the same indication for television, 46.6 percent for newspapers and 45.9 percent for radio.

From the report,

The difference is even more marked when we look just at the ‘very important’ rating. The proportion of users rating the internet as ‘very important’ (36.6%) is more than double that for radio (14.5%), newspapers (13.8%) and more than four times the figure for television (8.5%).

41.3 percent of users thought that most information provided by newspapers was accurate, compared to 38.6 percent for online information and only 29.5 percent for television.

The report also provides some interesting patterns as to how people use the internet to source information - with it being a key channel when stories where breaking, raising the need for organisations to ensure that their websites are updated quickly and regularly during news events.

Finally the report indicated that over 30 percent of internet users believe that the internet can give citizens more say about what government does - however largely citizens were skeptical that public officials cared about what people said online, which showed some disillusionment at how effectively government has used the internet to consult citizens thus far.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prime Minister joins Twitter

Following in the footsteps of other world leaders, today Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched an official presence on Twitter (at @KevinRuddPM).

For the unfamiliar, Twitter is a free 'micro-blogging' service which allows users to exchange short updates (up to 140 characters long), termed 'Tweets' in a way similar to SMS.

Unlike SMS, these updates are generally public (although private messages are possible). They are delivered via the internet to either the Twitter website or a separate client to a user's PC or mobile device. Any Twitter user simply clicks a 'follow' button to receive another user's public messages in their Twitter feed (becoming a 'follower').

Twitter has become an interesting social phenomenon, While many messages are simply status updates as to what person is doing at the time or a means of sharing interesting websites or online videos, others are used for exchanging information or as important alerts. One method growing in popularity is to use Twitter as a backchannel at events, to discuss the presentation and presenters. Other uses include distributing breaking news or emergency notices, providing customer support on products or even advertising jobs.

Considering how effectively SMS has been used in countries like The Phillipines to support the organisation of political rallies, it's no surprise that Twitter, with greater flexibility, has begun having an even greater influence.

Brack Obama used his Twitter channel to communicate his messages, attracting over 110,000 followers (John McCain only attracted 4,500 followers) according to Ariwriter.

Here's a video explaining more of the basics of Twitter.

If the PM is Twittering, should government agencies?

I'd advise extreme caution when considering Twittering officially in government. It is a narrow but deep channel which requires a serious commitment to be valuable.

As the tweets of users are not heard except by registered followers, if a particular user is silent for long periods, or blasts their followers with advertising, their followers will lose interest. Equally if treated as a monologue rather than as a social medium it's unlikely to be highly successful - although some news services (such as BBC World Service, CNN and News Corporation) as well as US Governors (who tweet their movements) have demonstrated that it can be effective for one-way information delivery.

Tweets remain 'on the record' - archived and findable online indefinitely, meaning that bloopers can be located by anyone looking up the person's Twitter account.

Public people and organisations should also be prepared to be watched and commented on, very often and very quickly, such as via blogs. The PM's Twitter presence has already been commented on in multiple places such as blogs, Welcome to Twitter, Prime Minister as well as traditional news media such as News Corporation and ZDNet.

Even name selection can be tricky - for example @10downingstreet is a spoof channel rather than the official Twitter account for 10 Downing Street.

Ultimately authenticity and listening and responding to other users is critical for most successful use of Twitter, which can be difficult for organisations with slow and complex approval processes for any public comments.

Some political Twitterers

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - @KevinRuddPM
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull - @TurnbullMalcolm

President-elect Barack Obama - @BarackObama
US Senator John Culberson - @JohnCulberson

UK Prime Minister's Office - @Downingstreet

Canadian party leaders:
Stephen Harper - @pmharper
St├ęphane Dion - @LiberalTour
Jack Layton - @JackLayton

And I tweet as well - @CraigThomler

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Teaching public servants to blog

The British government is funding a campaign, CivicSurf to teach British local politicians how to blog.

It would also be useful to public servants in understanding and communicating the benefits of blogging (as well as how to become bloggers themselves).

Thanks to Stap isi for referring me to the site.

The campaign includes the website, a booklet (PDF) and a video viewable in two parts as below.

Part 1

Part 2

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The 2008 Australian Web Analytics survey is now open

If you're interested in web metrics, pop over and complete the 3rd annual Australian Web Analytics survey at Bienalto's website.

Respondents will receive a copy of the survey results, which should provide insights into how your organisation compares to others in their use and prioritisation of web analytics area.

The 2006 and 2007 survey results are also available from their site.

Some of Bienalto's key findings from the 2007 survey included...
89% of businesses actively measure website performance
77% of respondents were satisfied with web analytics data 75% of the time or more
Google Analytics was the most popular web analytics tool.
Learn more about and complete the Web Analytics survey

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Which comes first, egovernment Web 2.0 services or government cultural change?

A debate has been going on in Europe recently regarding which comes first - successful Web 2.0 egovernment, or citizen-centric and transparent government.

One argument goes that government must first undergo cultural change in order to deliver effective Web 2.0 services.

The other is that government will undergo cultural change through releasing Web 2.0 services.

I think there's a little truth in both approaches - a government firmly committed to opacity will not be interested in rolling out interactive, citizen-focused services. They are too threatening to the powers that be.

Whereas a government that is already down the road of transparency will be helped along it by hearing, listening to and responding to the wants and needs of its citizens, as delivered online via Web 2.0 services.

Below is a presentation that summed up the area neatly for me.

E Leaders Osimo
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: ps20)

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Is the future portals or mash-ups?

While many governments around the world pursue the 'one portal' approach, a few commentators are arguing for a different type of model - many correct doors rather than one big door.

This means reaching out to embed government content in the websites citizens choose to visit rather than simply attempting to encourage all web users to go to a single central portal for all government-related content.

This approach is described well in the Read Write Web article, E-Government Meets Web 2.0: Goodbye Portals, Hello Web Services, which states, in reference to the online channel that,

Gartner's conclusion is that governments "should make sure that their information, services and applications are accessible through a variety of different channels, some of which are not controlled or directly owned by government."

This is similar to how government agencies already distribute physical publications beyond their own shopfronts - into libraries, doctors' surgeries, lawyers' offices and into the shopfronts of other government agencies. It also reflects how government has a presence at various community and commercial shows, festivals and other events.

In both these cases government reaches out into other organisations' venues in order to better reach citizens in the places they frequent.

I'm a proponent of this 'any door' approach being extended online. As an egovernment practitioner I do not necessarily care how people get to the information and services my agency provides online, provided that they get to them.

This means I am a supporter of central portals as an avenue outside my agency's own website to reach our customers. It also means I am a fan of greater cross-agency collaboration on information provision, where agencies with similar audiences work together to provide government information to citizens.

Most importantly it means I am a supporter of rss, mash-ups and embedded web services - any technology that allows my agency to reach beyond the confines of its own website to reach our customers in whatever websites they choose to visit - commercial, public or citizen-run.

After all, with research indicating that government sites only make up about two percent of online visits by Australians, if I want to magnify the effectiveness of my agency's tools and information online, I need to increase their reach.

For example (hypothetically), if my agency produced a video relevant to the customers of any organisation involved in the family law system, it would be worth our while to look at how we could reach beyond our own website traffic to the traffic of other involved websites.

Using Youtube, we could generate a video that can be embedded into any site across the family law system, thereby potentially magnifying the reach of its content.

Assuming that my agency has 10 percent of the traffic to the family law system, this could, with the agreement and support of other organisations, result in up to a 10x boost in traffic to the video - all targeted at the appropriate audience.

If we also had the video included in the portal this would lift usage further, but in a less targeted way, as the portal does not specifically target the same audience as we are attempting to reach.

The approach in this scenario applies for any type of government information distribution online. It also means that government needs to think more about how it provides information online, and how easy and attractive it is for other organisations to embed the information, not just link to it.

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Blogging catching on in the Australian public sector

I'm glad to see that blogging is beginning to become a more used tool within the Australian public sector, with the ABS launching Statistically Speaking, a blog for libraries in September, the Project Blog having been running since June this year (with a Twitter feed since October at @TrainingGovAu) and Stap isi, a blog for local government, around since late August.

There are also a number of councillors blogging in the local government arena (list at Stapisi) - and as the site states, it's not a blog if comments are disabled (thanks Julie for the compliment of copying my design layout).

I have been told that there is also a state government blogger in WA, though have not yet tracked down their blog (can anyone help?) and the SA government won a Commendation for an internal blog in the recent Intranet Innovation Awards 2008.

If anyone is aware of other Australian government public sector blogs please let me know.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Balancing customer, agency and political needs in an online world

Long-serving public servants are familiar with the challenge of balancing customer, agency and political wishes, with a clear understanding that the role of the public service is to implement the policies of the government of the day and not to be customer advocates or lobbyists.

In the commercial sector similar challenges are often faced between customer, management/board and shareholder interests, however often the choice of master to serve is less clear. Without customers a business fails, thereby failing to meet the goals of management or shareholders.

This influence doesn't exist in most of the public sector - citizens are not able to pick and choose their service provider, the government makes that decision for them, providing many services in a monopoly environment.

This monopolistic model has worked well for government over the last century, ensuring that the bulk of citizens have a consistent experience - whether by phone, print or face-to-face.

However the effectiveness of the monopolistic model doesn't fully hold in the online world. Suddenly governments are not the only organisations with universal reach, and suddenly citizens can create services that fill gaps left by government.

This has given rise to a multitude of sites where, for little or no cost, citizens are providing better and more cost-effective services than can the slow moving and cumbersome wheels of government.

These citizen-provided services are also totally citizen facing, without any need to answer to political masters, making them often better attuned to community needs.

How should government address the challenge of these 'competitors',
by crushing them out of existence (an easy task for legislators)?
by ignoring them (as often seems to currently be the case)?
or by embracing, supporting and encouraging them?

Personally I feel governments should embrace and support these 'competitors', helping them access government data in order to improve their offerings and aiding them in reaching broader audiences - even at the expense of the government's own sites.

Of course, this willingness to be transparent and collaborative doesn't occur over night - as discussed government agencies are not acclimatised to competition, and the skills of most agencies do not reflect the skills useful in a competitive environment.

However I hope that this changes over time and government begins to support and foster these competitors, learning from them how to better meet the needs of customers.

Here's a video about some of the work of these citizens in filling service gaps that government had not yet either seen a need for, or been funded to address.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Digital swarming - distributed collaboration and decision making

JD Stanley of Cisco has published a very interesting initial paper on 'digital swarming', an approach towards the use of collective intelligence to generate higher quality and faster decisions - with particular relevance to the public sector.

To quote,

Digital Swarming is about a digitally connected human and machine world. A world where dynamically forming, scaling, reconfiguring and disbanding collaborative communities swarm for a cause, learning from each other, lowering cost and cycle times, and producing outcomes and effects that are greater than an individual or small group could produce on its own.

I think this approach has huge relevance for the public sector, given the complex interrelated problems it faces where they relate to the economy, sustainability, education or public safety. The opportunity to accelerate public/private/people partnerships to achieve results is the effect we all are seeking. The Digital Swarming framework is meant to contribute to this goal.

He's looking for comments over in The Connected Republic

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Federal government to trial public consultation via Web 2.0 in 2009

Following up from AGIMO's 'consultation blog consultation', The Australia has reported that the Finance Minister has indicated that the Federal government will be trialling public consultation via Web 2.0 tools in 2009.

The article, Tanner eyes web 2.0 tools, begins the process of setting a direction for the Federal government, with Minister Tanner stating,

"The rise of internet-enabled peer production as a social force necessitates a rethink about how policy and politics is done in Australia," he said.

"In the longer term, governments will have to adapt to information's new online centre of gravity.

"This is not an undesirable thing; there are significant opportunities for government to use peer production to consult, develop policy and make closer connections with the citizens it serves."

I agree that it is not undesirable - in fact in my humble opinion it's a highly desirable approach, allowing more people to get involved with the decisions that affect their lives and helping educate people to the machinery of government.

Done well it may even help offset the people crisis the public service is facing, by encouraging people into the public sector.

I also believe that the government will be best served by drawing on the expertise of Australia's social media experts to achieve fast success.

Relying on traditional government communications and IT teams presents, in my view, a greater risk as they may not have all the relevant and necessary experience to effectively use social networking approaches in the online channel.

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Obama becomes the first internet President

With the conclusion of the US Presidential race, commentators are turning their attention to an analysis of how a relative newcomer could first defeat a more experienced contender for the Democratic nomination (Hillary Clinton), and then achieve a victory over an even more experienced Republican candidate (John McCain), albeit on the back of extremely low approval ratings for George Bush and some missteps by the Republican camp.

One of the key factors being identified, as was identified earlier in the campaign, was the polished use of the internet by Obama's team to build voter engagement and raise funds. Drawing on the experience of people such as one of the founders of Facebook, Obama was able to utilise online social networks to create the largest electoral machine in history.

For instance, as reported in Wired Magazine, Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency,

Both Obama and Republican rival John McCain relied on the net to bolster their campaigns. But Obama's online success dwarfed his opponent's, and proved key to his winning the presidency. Volunteers used Obama's website to organize a thousand phone-banking events in the last week of the race -- and 150,000 other campaign-related events over the course of the campaign. Supporters created more than 35,000 groups clumped by affinities like geographical proximity and shared pop-cultural interests. By the end of the campaign, chalked up some 1.5 million accounts. And Obama raised a record-breaking $600 million in contributions from more than three million people, many of whom donated through the web.

The Australian also commented on this in Obama surfs the web to the White House, where it states,
"No one's going to say Obama won the election because of the internet but he wouldn't have been able to win without it," said Julie Germany, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet.

"From the very beginning the Obama campaign used the internet as a tool to organise all of its efforts online and offline," Ms Germany said. "It was like the central nervous system of the campaign."

This type of campaign is not limited to political ones - it could as easily be used to build a sustained movement on topical issues such as global warming.

I wonder when we will see these tools used in Australia to influence a political outcome - or when government will begin to use them to its benefit (maybe next year).

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US Navy CIO encourages and endorses use of Web 2.0 technologies has reported in, Navy encourages use of Web 2.0 tools, that the US Navy's CIO Robert Carey, the first government CIO to publish a public blog, has endorse the use of Web 2.0 tools to improve communication and collaboration.

Tools that include wikis, blogs and Web feeds will give warfighters seamless access to important information, Carey said.

“Web 2.0 tools are useful in a global enterprise, such as the Department of the Navy, as they enable widely dispersed commands and personnel to more effectively collaborate and share information,” he said.

In my humble opinion this approach applies equally well to any public sector organisation with multiple locations.

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Excellence in e-Government Awards: 2008 Finalist Case Studies released

AGIMO has released their annual publication detailing case studies of the Excellence in e-Government Awards winners and finalists for 2008.

The publication is available via the link above on the Department of Finance's website, with hard copies available from AGIMO (contact details in the site).

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's a small world - more active social networkers than most country populations

Social networking is still often considered a pastime of the young or frivolous, however, like other new technologies before it, the extent and rate of adoption of social media tools is phenomenal.

The 'Other' James Brown, an active UK eGovernment blogger, has published the following list of the top 13 countries by population, including active social networks alongside nations.

Two social networks fit into the list, with active user 'populations' far exceeding the populations of most nations.

Position Country/Site Size
1 People’s Republic of China 1,326,640,000
2 India 1,139,240,000
3 United States 305,405,000
4 MSN Messenger 240,000,000
5 Indonesia 228,412,000
6 Brazil 187,878,000
7 Pakistan 164,582,000
8 Bangladesh 158,665,000
9 Nigeria 148,093,000
10 Russia 141,900,000
11 Facebook 132,100,000
12 Japan 127,690,000
13 Mexico 106,682,000

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41 percent of UK internet users visited blogs in August

WebProNews has reported that based on comScore statistics, more than 14.5 million internet users visited blogs in August 2008, 41 percent of active internet users.

That's around 25 percent of the entire UK population.

"Blogs have become part of the essential fabric of the Internet today," said Herve Le Jouan, Managing Director, comScore Europe.

"They live and breathe in real-time, helping quench media consumers' thirst for the most up-to-date breaking news, information, and analysis. It should not, therefore, be particularly surprising that they're increasingly displacing traditional media usage and carving out an ever-increasing slice of the online advertising pie."

comScore also reports that political blogs in the US have done well in the last year, with voters increasingly using this avenue to gain expert insights into the race for the White House.

Type rest of the post here

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Using egovernment to improve customer service

A useful article in outlines how egovernment has become a central plank in the UK government's drive to provide, Service, service, service: The new public sector mantra

The article looks at how the focus has shifted in the UK from the 2005 aim to get all services online to use the online medium positively to raise customer service outcomes.

"We have to accept that having all Government services online by [2005] is not as good as having better services online. The only reason we should be doing any of this is if we can deliver better services online."

That's an interesting thought when weighing up whether Australian government should be investing in placing more services online, or in improving the delivery of the services already available.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

US satisfaction with egovernment services rising

The US government has recorded the second consecutive increase in satisfaction, to an average 73.5 percent in the latest E-Government Satisfaction Index, part of the broader American Customer Satisfaction Index (private sector website satisfaction is at 80 percent).

As reported in CRM Buyer, 25 percent of sites achieved a rating over 80 percent.

The feature constituents were least satisfied with was navigation (37 percent were satisfied), whilst 96 percent were satisfied with search functionality.

Commentators are expecting the upward trend to continue as a result of the ongoing US financial crisis.

This upward trend will likely continue, Freed [Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results] said, if for no other reason than current budgetary constraints. With the U.S. government now committed to a US$700 billion financial rescue plan, money will be tight in all other categories. "E-government can deliver a huge payback because it is so much more efficient," he observed.

Type rest of the post here

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Building a catalogue of Government 2.0 best practice

A public wiki has been created to capture examples of best practice Government 2.0 initiatives from around the world.

It's just starting out but already has some great examples of how different governments are using tools like blogs, wikis, video and social networks to achieve their objectives and better service customers.

If you have an example to share, or want to learn from the experiences of other egovernment practitioners, visit the site at Government 2.0 - Best Practices

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Should the government provide online services where competitive commercial sector services exist?

In the past it has been the practice for many governments around the world to avoid playing in the centre of commercial spaces, where competitively priced services are already provided by private businesses.

Government interventions in these markets are managed through legislation and direct intervention as a last resort (in cases of market failure) - as we are seeing in the current financial crisis in some countries.

The philosophy behind this approach is often that in markets where the private sector is willing to provide goods or services, competing on price, options and customer service, it is less likely that a government can add the same level of value.

Instead government concentrates on the 'margins' - situations where people are unable to afford or access the mainstream private sector services.

This, in essence, is how the public housing and unemployment benefits systems function. In both cases there are private sector options (private rentals/home purchase and jobs), while governments provide safety nets for citizens unable to access these alternatives.

Should government follow a similar approach online?

Looking at the online world, the costs and barriers to providing information and services have declined, broadening the range of services that may be offered by private enterprise.

Reflecting this, should governments follow the same philosophy of avoiding playing in commercial spaces, again only focusing on marginalised citizens?

Or should government provide public alternatives to existing commercial services?

This is a big - and highly political - question, which can be seen by the Commonwealth government's stance on internet filtering. While there are many commercial products available (from retailers, ISPs and online) including both charged and free services, the government is pursuing an approach of providing its own products, licensed from commercial providers, to ensure availability.

Similarly, should government provide 'web infrastructure' tools such as geospatial services, when large commercial organisations are already providing these services?

Geospatial services are a case in point.
We've seen the WA and QLD governments roll out their own public geospatial services specifically for their own state use, with the Commonwealth soon to follow suite at a national level via the AGOSP program.

These services provide similar functionality to both Microsoft and Google maps, and in fact Perth's public transit authority has its timetables available in a Google maps beta (but not in the state's own geospatial service).

Equally, for search, the Commonwealth government licenses the FunnelBack search technology, designed in Australia by the CSIRO, for use in and other sites (including the CSA website) rather than implementing Google's free service, as the US government has done.

In both these cases governments have followed a competitive tendering process to select the technology that best met their documented needs. The solutions are also under the control of Australian governments, rather than being owned and operated by foreign owned companies.

However, as demonstrated by Sensis this month, as reported in the SMH's article Sensis concedes defeat to Google, sometimes where the market is going is also important.

Sensis is discontinuing its Yellow Pages search and maps technologies. It will instead rely on Google to provide both services. As Google search was reportedly used by more than 7 million Australians per month, rather than the 184,000 who used Sensis's search engine there's clear commercial reasons why Sensis would want to stop sinking funds into trying to keep up with Google and instead leverage Google's audience.

Is this a valid choice for government?
Rather than custom developing or tendering for services that copy publicly available (and generally free) online services, should government agencies 'piggyback' instead?

This is a hard question to answer. Various Australian government agencies already piggyback on publicly available services - such as MySpace, SecondLife, Youtube and Google Maps.

On average Australian government websites get 25 percent of their traffic from Google search (based on Hitwise's statistics) - far outweighing the level of traffic from the central state or Commonwealth gateways.

On this basis, Australian government is already piggybacking on publicly available commercial services - and highly effectively.

However when introducing its own internet filters, customised geospatial services or search tools, Australian government is choosing to not piggyback - taking on the burden of building usage and investing in the ongoing development of new features to remain current with the commercial market.

I'm not about to venture an opinion on whether or not governments should follow this route, these decisions may be made for reasons of national security, flexibility or specific public needs.

However the options should be carefully considered by the initiators of these projects.

The decision to 'go it alone' needs to take into account the competitive landscape.

What alternative services are available for citizens - which do online audiences already prefer and why?
Why should citizens choose the government alternative and will the government's service deliver the outcomes citizens desire?
Is the government prepared to invest in continuous development? Or will the service fall behind commercial alternatives?

Without a full consideration of these factors, like Sensis's failed mapping and search service, these government offerings may not, in the longer-term, deliver the benefits desired.

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Victoria releases egovernment landscape scan

Last week Victoria released the full text of the Victorian State Government E-Government Landscape Scan, conducted in August this year.

The paper provides a review of the last six years of egovernment experience for the state, some of the challenges being faced in balancing the needs of citizens versus the needs of government and the different maturity levels of different agencies, with some key insights into how the state can improve performance into the future.

It's a great read for anyone involved in the egovernment area from state or federal levels.

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