Thursday, April 30, 2009

Senator Kate Lundy launches a public discussion on high speed broadband

Illustrating one of the ways in which parliamentarians are now actively engaging the public online, Senator Kate Lundy has posted in her blog about a series of online 'Public Spheres' she will be hosting to,

facilitate regular topics of interest to both the general public and to the government.
Discussed in her post, Public Sphere #1 - High Bandwidth for Australia, this type of online initiative provides a significant opportunity for broad participation from the Australian public on high interest topics.

This approach to public engagement is critical for the future of democratic governance in Australia. My thoughts on the topic are well stated in the following quote from a post by Matt Crozier of Bang The Table, Opportunity and Need,
The ways in which government have traditionally engaged, by hosing [sic] events that require attendance, by asking for submissions or by market research cannot engage most of these people [CT: The broader community] because there are barriers to participation. It is difficult to participate in a meeting if you are not confident and articulate or if someone who is more so is hogging the floor. Many people don't feel comfortable writing submissions, either that or they can't be bothered. Market researchers get hung up on by busy people so their sample (no matter how demographically representative) is always self selecting and biased towards more activist groups in the community.

The great thing about online engagement (as a compliment [sic] to these other techniques) is that it breaks down these barriers. People can get involved easily and at a time and place of their own choosing. My faith in the rest of the community has grown as we have watched them engage on all sorts of issues. We have councils talking about their management plans getting 400 people visiting, looking at the plan and occasionally commenting when previously there were meetings to which nobody turned up. We have raging debates about heritage issues, transport and anything involving pets. The minorities are there too, sometimes noisy, still trying to dominate the debate and very welcome but more and more people are joining in, visiting and having a say. Why? Because it's easy and they are interested. Its all very gratifying and will lead inexorably to greater community ownership of decisions and better more enduring results.

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New Zealand government releases guidelines for online participation and blog case studies

Following the examples of the US, UK, Australia and other countries, New Zealand has released principles for interaction with social media.

New Zealand has also gone a step further and released a guide to social media monitoring, to support government agencies in listening to the many conversations citizens are holding online and engaging in online conversations with citizens.

Also available are a set of case studies on how the New Zealand government has used blogs to constructively educate and engage citizens, although you must be a registered participant in the E-Initiatives wiki to view these case studies.

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Reaching fragmenting audiences and maximising online engagement

At about the time this post will appear on my blog I'll be speaking at the Hitwise/Australian Marketing Institute breakfast in Canberra on a topic related to Maximising engagement online whilst reducing costs.

My presentation will explore ways of identifying where audiences are going online to help organisations form appropriate strategies to target them with messages or for engagement.

This is an increasing issue for all communicators. Effectively media has fragmented, with tens of different media channels from traditional TV, newspapers and radio to a plethora of new channels such as Pay TV, console games, PC games, mobile devices and millions of websites.

Communicators have chosen several different paths to addressing this fragmentation challenge.

The first approach is the 'ostrich' - ignore all the new channels and focus on the 'traditional' mass media. This strategy continues to work - particularly for older demographics - although advertisers are paying more and more for smaller and smaller audiences.

The second is the 'spend more' approach - throw more dollars into communication in order to increase reach and frequency across different media channels. Unfortunately this also suffers from the cost curve - more money buys less media each year.

The third is the 'shout louder' approach - start spending on new media channels, but do so only to send out messages rather than encouraging conversations. Unfortunately this approach is often counter-productive. Just like shouting at someone who does not speak English, it neither improves message cut-through nor demonstrates respect for the medium or audience.

The final approach I'll discuss I call 'go with the flow'. It involves finding out where your key audiences choose to gather and then respectfully engaging them in appropriate ways. This approach requires more upfront planning and strategising than the other approaches (which may be why fewer organisations employ it), however it reaps much larger long-term benefits. Rather than simply serving as an advertising tactic it serves to create a communications and engagement platform through which organisations can interact with their key audiences on an ongoing basis.

There's no secret as to which approach I prefer as a communicator.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Free courseware for social media courses - beginning with 'Managing social media PR crisis communications'

Noted Australian social media expert, Laurel Papworth, is releasing a range of courseware to support people running social media courses under a Creative Commons License, allowing reuse for non-commercial or commercial purposes.

Representing a selection of the material Laurel has created over the last five years, this courseware provides individuals and organisations with materials useful in training staff to support social media initiatives.

The first courseware, Social Media PR Crisis Communications is now available for download. Physical colour versions can be published on demand for a small fee via Lulu.

Terms of use and information on further releases is available on Laurel's blog.

Laurel has also launched a Social Media Forum to support conversations around Social Media.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Excellence in e-Government Award finalists announced

The Department of Finance has announced the ten finalists for the 2009 Excellence on e-Government Award (e-Award).

Having followed this award for three years, I believe that this is the best set of finalists I've seen to-date and represents the gradual maturing of Australian Government online initiatives.

I've linked to more information on each of the finalists below to make it easier to locate and review the various initiatives.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

If this type of collaboration is possible, think what is possible for government online

As reported in Beth's Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, the Youtube Symphony Orchestra recently performed at Carnegie Hall.

Per the post, How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Upload Upload Upload, the orchestra included over 90 musicians located in over 30 countries and while auditioned by professional musicians, the final players were selected by crowdsourcing.

If it is possible to bring together a symphony orchestra, and have it play a mash-up symphony online (and then together in Carnegie Hall), think of the music government agencies could make by collaborating online with each other, with other organisations and with the public.

Learn more about the symphony here.

And read about how new media is changing the entire media mix, from the perspective of the music industry in this ebook, Orchestras and New Media (PDF).

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Do you walk the talk?

I have been having a few conversations over the last two days with a variety of web managers regarding the level of commitment by their organisations to their online channel.

The response has been mixed. Some have a great deal of support and resourcing, others have interest but no resourcing and others have neither interest nor support.

One of the differentiators appears to be the level and range of online activity by the web managers themselves. Those that model the behaviour that they want their organisation to exhibit appear to be more effective at achieving their goals, obtaining the resources and support they need.

In other words, they are walking the talk.

This is not a new or radical approach. When teaching children it is important to model the behaviours you wish them to emulate. Equally in workplaces executives are expected to model the conduct and attitudes that staff are expected to follow.

When executives model poor behaviours it is more likely that staff will similarly behave inappropriately as, by example, the executives have given them a license to do so.

My questions to you are:
Do you use the tools and mediums you wish your organisation to adopt?
And have you worked to encourage senior executives and your Minister's office to model use of the online channel that you wish staff to emulate?

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do Australian governments agencies need to appoint Social Media / New Media Directors?

A rising trend in overseas governments is to appoint people specifically into a role such as New Media Director with a responsibility for developing guiding an agency or department's online participation initiatives.

In the US Federal Government this type of role is becoming so important that it is becoming a political appointment (as are the various Secretaries, CTO and CIO positions) rather than simply a bureaucratic hire.

To my knowledge there are few if any Online Media, New Media or Social Media Director or SES role across the Australian Public Service and a search of APSjobs resulted in zero results for all three terms.

I am interested in your views;

Do Australian government agencies need to begin formalising their commitment to new media channels by hiring appropriately qualified individuals as their New Media or Social Media Directors?

Is the talent pool in Australia deep enough to support this?

Should we keep the role buried in another area, such as the Online Services or Online Communications Team or within a Media or other Customer Communications group?

Should the Australian government engage with new media channels at all?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The US air force embraces new media

The US Air Force is one of the most proactive users of new media amongst government organisations globally, seeing the internet as another channel for engaging potential recruits, the public and for conducting military operations.

The approach being taken by the US Air Force, and increasingly by other US government agencies, is that all of their staff are public relations spokespeople and if properly equipped will support their agencies in engaging the public online.

The US Air Force regard this spokesperson role as so important to their future operations that they've produced a video and book emphasising to their staff how critical is it for airmen to participate online in blogs and forums, and setting out the guidelines for how they may do so in an appropriate manner.

This approach to engagement is discussed in a post in the Local Government Engagement Online Research Blog entitled Great Video & eBook of the U.S. Air Force using New/Social Media, which considers the Air Force's initiatives as,

truly an inspiring example of how we could use new/social media when we start using these tools with our head and heart rather than using policies or rules and regulations as our starting point. For me, new/social media can only be successful when it has or creates and invigorates meaning in our lives and to the lives of people who use them. And most important of all, the value of social media lies in the people, not the technology. Then the connections made and communities created will then generate greater services and value than we could ever think of.

The video below was originally developed for Air Force personnel to encourage them to use new media to 'win the information war' by providing positive messages about the Air Force to counter negative messages distributed online by enemies of the United States.

And the ebook developed by the US Air Force is available online as New Media and the Air Force (PDF).

Given the political sensitivity and national security implications of defense forces, if the US Air Force's acting director of public affairs, Colonel Michael G. Caldwell (also a blogger at From an Air Force Colonel), is prepared to state publicly that "We want 330,000 people to be in Public Affairs," (reported in the WebInkNow post The U.S. Air Force and social media: A discussion with Colonel Michael Caldwell), what is stopping any government agency with less political or secrecy sensitivities from engaging at least as actively as the US Air Force?

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Monday, April 20, 2009

See you at the Managing Your Online Content conference in Sydney this week

I'll be speaking at the Managing Your Online Content conference from Ark group in Sydney this Wednesday on the topic of Aligning your web content strategy with organisational objectives.

I'll be making an effort to log the conference online, either via Twitter (#MYOCG09) or via a liveblog on this blog, if I have access to wi-fi at the venue.

If you're attending, come and say hello to me at some point.

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How much time should it take government agencies to participate in online social media?

While the timeframes for developing and distributing publications, media releases, and even website news items is extremely well understood by government departments, often there is a much lower understanding of the level of effort (in time) required to engage communities online via different channels.

Fortunately there are now several guides available to provide insight into the timeframes required and therefore the resourcing a government department may have to allocate to do justice to online participation.

The chart below is from the Museum 2.0 blog post, How Much Time Does Web 2.0 Take?

It demonstrates how much effort out a a week different types of engagement legitimately take - from a Twitter stream (under an hour per week) up to a running a community (over 10 hours per week). Of course if you are doing multiple activities along the line there are some efficiencies - by automatically posting new blog notices to Twitter and a community and by reflecting themes and materials across channels.

Another chart is from Beth's Blog: How Nonprofits can use Social Media, in the post How Much Time Does It Take To Do Social Media?. This discusses online participation by level - from listening (5 hrs/week) through participating (8 hrs/week) up to community building and social networking (20 hrs/week).

My own experience is that I spend around 4-5 hours per week maintaining a (mostly) daily blog - of course as it's my personal blog I do not have to go through multiple approval levels and the level of comments is reasonably low which reduces the amount of screening time (though I'd appreciate more comments).

If your agency is participating online, what has been your experience of managing these channels?

And do you feel that your time is well spent?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Digital etiquette - are government agencies adequately prepared to engage appropriately online?

Etiquette is important in every form of social engagement. When Australians meet others for the first time we exchange names, shake hands and make light conversation before getting down to the main topic of conversation.

Other cultures have different social etiquette. Many hug or kiss cheeks on first meeting, exchange business cards (sometimes with two hands), meet over a meal or at drinks and talk about families and personal interests, even exchanging small gifts, before discussing business.

Likewise for any individual or organisation engaging online it is important to understand the appropriate digital etiquette or netiquette for the online world - and for the specific medium in use.

I've learnt netiquette over the last 15 years by participating and running forums, blogs, twitter streams, newsgroups, email newsletters, IRC and social networks. However many other public servants, while they may have browsed the internet for years, may not have the same experience with human interactions online.

As government moves to use the internet for more conversations it worries me that one of the risks that may not be well understood or managed is the experience and capability of the public servants assigned to moderate or participate online to employ appropriate etiquette for the situation. They simply, through no fault of their own, may not have the level of understanding of netiquette they need to avoid an online misstep.

This was summed up for me in an article published by a group of teenagers as part of the Digiteens 2008 project on Digital Etiquette, expressing how they saw adults engaging with others online,

Let's face it. Most adults do not know how to use the internet correctly. Most of the adults that I observed do not know how to navigate through the internet without running into some sort of problem. In my opinion, adults that do not know how to use the internet are just as bad as children that do not know how to use the internet. Most of the time, when children and teenagers do not know how to use the internet, they tend to participate in very bad behavior on the internet. They post bad pictures, start gossip about other people, or get involved with relationships. I have noticed that some adults think that just because they are older, they are immune to that same bad behavior on the internet. The truth is they act just as bad. Whether adults realize it or not, they are just as bad as kids on the computer. The phrase, "You are acting like a two-year old" comes into play here. To all adults, lead by example. Help your kids know how to act on the internet by knowing how to act on the internet yourself.

So how can agencies minimise the risk of a netiquette gaff damaging their online reputation or creating an unwanted incident?

Firstly agencies can look for courses teaching netiquette for their key staff. However these are currently few and far between. In fact the topic may be a lucrative training market in coming years, similar to the importance placed on media training or teaching people how to write briefs and media releases.

Next there are books and websites on the topic of netiquette. However they may provide contradictory information or only cover one medium or country. Likewise it can be hard to establish which are authoritative or simply opinion.

Employing intermediaries to engage on government's behalf is also a possibility, though not always a good one. While an external organisation can provide effective moderation of a forum, it can harder for them to speak with your voice authentically. One of the key rules for blogging is to 'be real', so outsourcing your blog to an agency is itself poor digital etiquette and runs the risk of leading to a backlash.

Learning by doing is always an option. There are plenty of online conversations going on that can be watched and participated in to learn the ropes. After all this is how many of us learn - through trial and error - to get on with our classmates at school and workmates in the office.

Agencies can also attempt to hire experts as staff - although there are few in this space, particularly in Australia.

Finally agencies can draw from their internal expertise. Most agencies will have at least a couple of staff who are experienced bloggers, forum participants or moderators. These individuals can be advisors or play an active role in supporting the agency's engagement online.

So is your agency 'netiquette-ready' to engage actively online?

If not, what strategies are you employing to become netiquette-ready?

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Government should engage their community online

Crispin has published a post, Why (Government) Organisations Should be Engaging their Community Online, over at his Online Community Engagement blog providing eleven reasons why government should be engaging its community online.

This is a nice piece and I thought I might add a few more that spring to my mind.

Global reach
There are many Australians overseas at any point in time who cannot easily take part in a locally held event. Online provides a cost-effective way to allow these people to have their say.

Private yet controllable
The internet both allows people to protect their privacy and allows governments, via moderation principles, to manage the tone of a discussion and maintain order. For governments who require a certain level of decorum but equally are required to protect the privacy of citizens, internet engagement tools provide a nice balance, when properly implemented.

Supports diversity
When properly designed and managed, the internet can supports engagement with hundreds of thousands of Australians with physical or mental disabilities who may not be able to hear, see or attend other types of engagements. While we can rely on able-bodied representatives, sometimes government is better served by engaging directly with the people impacted by policies.

Speed to market
Online engagement can be set up extremely quickly, drawing on pre-existing online tools. This makes it a very rapid way to get feedback and start conversations during fast-changing situations.

Early warning and resolution
Online communities can provide early warning of building media events. Often the original issue can be identified and addressed before it becomes a more significant - and often over-exaggerated or misreported - story in the mass media.

Keeping it real
Many government departments operate as faceless bureaucracies, where people often feel alienated, disenfranchised or disengaged due to the lack of a human face. Online engagement allows a government department to provide its customers and clients with a face and demonstrate that staff are human beings who care about their customers and work. This genuineness is critical for building human relationships and provides a basis for productive working arrangements.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Crowdsourcing government policy and service delivery improvements

Are many heads better than one (or a few)?

In the past the answer was often no, because the mechanisms used to collect, collate, rate and assess the suggestions and recommendations of hundred, thousands or millions of people were cumbersome and time-consuming.

In fact whilst our society was originally built on the democratic principle of crowdsourcing (where we ask what everyone thinks then pick the most popular candidate or solution), except in very small communities it has become impossible to place more than a few major issues or decisions in front of the population for comment.

However the internet has begun empowering organisations to consult their customers and government their citizens in more rapid and effective methods.

These tools, often termed 'ideas markets' allow large groups of people to comment on proposals or suggest ideas very rapidly (matching similar ideas to reduce duplication). They also allow these groups to prioritise these suggestions by voting them up or down and adding further comments.

Dell launched such a site in 2007 named IdeaStorm to source product improvement ideas from its millions of customers. IdeaStorm now provides more than 60% of new product ideas and improvements for Dell, helping to turn around the company's declining market share and adding several major new products to the company's line-up.

In fact Dell was so impressed that it used the same concept a second time, opening a similar site named IdeaStorm for Healthcare and Life Sciences, an online community for collecting ideas on how to improve health care with IT solutions.

Other companies have used similar sites to listen and better understand their customers and prioritise suggestions. This includes organisations as diverse as Starbucks, Sun, Nokia, Sony and Random House.

It also includes the US's President Obama, whose site ran an ideas market termed the Citizen's briefing book before his inauguration to collect and prioritise suggestions for the top issues he should focus on once he took office. Over 70,000 people participated, providing tens of thousands of ideas, prioritised by over half a million votes.

President Obama repeated this experiment with his recent virtual Town Hall Meeting, allowing citizens to suggest questions for him to answer. It drew over 92,000 participants who asked over 103,000 questions and cast 1.7 million votes, using freely available software from Google.

It is now inexpensive and fast to establish an ideas market. Little IT involvement is necessary as many do not require internal IT resources (servers and network) and most support moderation and other controls to prevent inappropriate suggestions or comments. Commercial out-of-the-box solutions include Google Moderator (used by the US President) to UserVoice, Get Satisfaction, IdeaScale and Salesforce Ideas (used by Dell)

Just like other suggestions processes ideas markets can be non-binding. Dell doesn't implement all the ideas it received - and uses the opportunity to explain why it cannot implement some suggestions.

President Obama only directly answered the questions he and his advisors chose to answer, but used the other 103,000 to improve their understanding of public concerns. I also expect they will answer a number of further questions through their actions over the next twelve months.

So could we use this process right now for Australian government?

Frankly I don't see why not.

Our citizens are some of the most highly educated in the world. We already ask them to engage in many ways, from providing their stories on road safety, to submitting questions to Ministers, to participating in community cabinets or expressing their views via consultation submissions or, recently, via online blogs (such as by the DBCDE).

Into the future I expect to see Australian governments provide even more opportunities for citizens to engage and contribute with even lower barriers to entry. This also means increasing workloads for public servants, who need to collate and prioritise the responses received.

So why not build in the mechanisms for citizens to collate and prioritise suggestions themselves, improving consultation outcomes while reducing government costs?

It is a win-win scenario here, as it is overseas.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Challenges for gov 2.0 in the US - how many are mirrored in Australian government?

The Register has published an article, Google force feeds Web 2.0 to US gov, providing some key insights into challenges the US government is facing in implementing government 2.0 (or egovernment) initiatives - largely due to embedded policies and processes within legislation and the bureaucracy.

Some of these issues, and potentially other issues that do not apply in the US, have not been resolved in Australia either - generally they require significant whole-of-government co-ordination, consideration and support from political levels to address and resolve.

I think that this is one of the remaining barriers to greater use of the online channel in Australian government. The risks of not engaging online, in many cases, outweigh the political and bureaucratic risks of engaging. No-one wants to get their hand caught in the fridge.

So my challenge to readers of my blog is - what are you doing to help resolve the issues around online participation in government?

If you're a public servant are you engaging with your peers and educating your colleagues?

If you're outside of government, are you providing the evidence and support your government customers need to help them overcome these issues?

Are you willing to take a leadership role in driving Australian government's online success - or are you waiting for others to take the lead, and any potential blame - on your behalf?

It's not simply about earning a pay packet, it's about supporting Australia's evolving democratic processes into the future.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

How will a national broadband network help Australian government agencies?

Yesterday's announcement of the Australian Government's plans to build a national broadband network has created a huge amount of buzz online.

If you've not seen the news, yesterday morning the government announced that they have terminated the tender process due to cost concerns and shortcomings in all tender proposals. Instead the government will invest up to $43 billion over 8 years to build a national broadband network using fibre optic cables to 90% of homes and offices, offering 100Mbps broadband.

This technology is also future-proof. Using emerging technologies, fibre-optic cable can be upgraded further to Gigabyte speeds without significant additional investment and over time this is likely to get even faster.

So what will this mean for government departments?

There are many applications for a super-fast network - many of which are beginning to emerge in Japan (with 160Mbps broadband available) and South Korea (with 120Mbps broadband available and moving to Gb speeds).

These include telepresence, a step beyond video-conferencing which allows groups to work interactively together over extended periods despite being physically remote. Conferences could be held without people leaving their offices, both within Australia and internationally - saving vast amounts of money in travel and accommodation and generating environmental benefits as well as saving work hours.

This concept could be further extended to provide access to telepresence staff in government offices. Basically while every office would retain a base level of staffing for activities requiring live interactions, when one office is quiet and another busy the staff from one could be serving customers in the other, via teleprescence. This would dramatically improve staffing management, allowing every office to have the appropriate number of staff at all times. Potentially a core staff group could be available out of the current business hours government operates within, providing access to critical information and services anywhere in the country face-to-(virtual)face.

Equally government office staff could work more readily from their homes, holding conferences via telepresence where necessary and otherwise only commuting to their office for specific reasons, supporting greater diversity and workforce participation.

Medicine is another area that could be revolutionised. With high-speed broadband the ability to use telepresence to oversee and, coupled with robotic aids, to actually conduct operations becomes a possibility. This provides enormous flexibility for a national health system, allowing doctors to be located anywhere in the country (or even overseas) and still provide vital medical services at remote clinics across Australia. Termed telemedicine, this approach is increasingly being discussed and implemented overseas.

Also in the medical sphere, anyone who requires ongoing medical monitoring could be monitored remotely using their broadband connection. This would significantly reduce demand on hospital beds and allow many people to recover at home without sacrificing quality of care. Of course there would need to be a balance between the speed of access to medical personnel in emergencies, however ongoing monitoring would provide early warnings of medical issues and provide greater flexibility to respond appropriately.

Education is another service that benefits from fast broadband services such as telepresence and the ability to stream video and audio in real-time. Experienced teachers could teach classes anywhere across Australia, and students, also spread across the country, could interact in real-time - supporting home schooling, subjects with fewer students and better use of good teachers.

Infrastructure management also benefits from faster and more reliable internet speeds. Every piece of infrastructure in the country, roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, power plants and more can be monitored remotely. This would help identify issues before they become life-threatening and allow governments to pre-emptively address failing infrastructure. This type of technology is already in use in some international engineering projects, monitoring bridges and dams for stability and reporting back to central offices using the internet.

In the service provision sphere, all the services currently provided by government online or by phone could be provided in a far more interactive and engaging way. Full-motion video could provide walkthroughs on how to use services, and video-based help would be available. This would encourage increasing take-up, particularly as phone services gets integrated into online, meaning that people could easily start a telephone call then, using a video and internet-capable phone, directly receive the forms they need and be supported through an online transaction while continuing to speak with the government customer service operator.

These are only a sample of some of the opportunities for government to provide more cost-effective and convenient services using real high-speed broadband. Many others already exist and are being rolled out elsewhere in the world and more wait to be discovered.

Of course government will need to be more open, flexible and innovative in its thinking around the online channel. There will be the need to rethink the entire approach to many services.

However I believe that if the Australian government is capable of rolling out a real national broadband network it is also capable of developing innovative and effective services for citizens and business to run across it.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Getting started with Twitter in Australian government

Twitter has emerged as a significant channel for breaking news, announcement and discussions on political, social, environmental and commercial topics.

Over the last three years the service has grown to over 25 million users globally, including many senior business, political and entertainment figures. In fact it's been the fastest growing online channel, with over 750% growth through 2008.

Australians are major users of the service, with Neilsen estimating that there were 149,000 Australian Twitter users in January 2009.

So with 150,000 Australian Twitter users, how many Australian government agencies are using the service?

Well there are three councils, Wyong, Mosman and the City of Sydney, and the project from DEEWR has an account.

Both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are using Twitter, as are The Greens and a few other politicians at Federal and State level.

This compares to over 90 UK councils using Twitter, plus many national government agencies and 10 Downing Street. In the US, well lets just say they're now a major user of the service, at both agency and political levels.

Below I hope to explain a little more about why and how government agencies can use Twitter.

What is Twitter
Twitter allows people to send 140 character messages ('tweets')to others around the world from their computers or mobile devices on a near-instant basis. If you think of the success of SMS on mobile phones, Twitter has extended this onto the internet.

After registering for Twitter you can choose to follow others to see their tweets and others can choose to follow you. You can send direct tweets to people following you, which are only visible to the recipient, but most tweets are visible to the public.

It is also possible to 'protect' your tweets which means that your tweets are hidden to anyone other than those you authorise to see them.

Tweets can contain links to websites, photos, videos or audio which can provide more information on any topic.

Using someone's Twitter name, starting with an '@' symbol (such as @CraigThomler) in a tweet makes it show up as a reply.

It is also possible to 'retweet' messages from others, and courtesy is that the name of the original message sender is included with 'RT' before their @name.

Using a hash symbol '#' before a word is used to designate a particular subject as a 'hashtag', for instance #BCC2 was used as the hashtag for the recent Canberra BarCamp. This is useful for grouping tweets on a given subject to make them easier to find later.

What can Twitter be used for?

  • Listening
    Firstly, with 150,000 Australians using Twitter there are a lot of conversations occurring. It's possible to track mentions of topics of interest to you in almost real-time using Twitter search tools, such as TweetGrid. This makes it possible for a government agency to keep on top of what people are saying about them and potentially identify emerging trends before the media picks them up.

    It also allows government a means to gather a feel for public sentiment on various policy-related topics and, finally, is a great way to experience and even ask questions at conferences that you are unable to attend.
  • Talking
    Twitter is a fast and low overhead way to distribute information, making it ideal for getting emergency and other types of announcements out very quickly.

    By linking to web pages with more information it becomes an effective way to send out disaster messages. Of course Twitter won't reach everyone, but people pass on the message, retweeting and speaking to others. Media outlets also monitor Twitter for breaking news.

    Twitter has already had an important role in a number of disasters, such as the Victorian bushfires, Hurricane Katrina, Mumbai attack and Sichuan earthquake and has the attention of disaster experts (here is a video featuring the Mayor of San Francisco and a found of Twitter discussing Twitter's uses in emergencies).

    Twitter also can (and is) used for traffic announcements, media notifications, new developments and basically any other form of outbound communication, to help spread information more rapidly in a targeted way.
  • Conversing
    Twitter is also useful as a conversational medium. While messages are very short, conversations occur all the time across a number of topics. People ask for support, information and share experiences all the time.

    Telstra, along with a number of international companies, uses Twitter as part of their customer support framework, listening for mentions of their name and then potentially sending tweets addressing questions or issues.

    It can also be used for asking what people think of a particular service, although this use is still limited to services that are appropriate to an online audience.
Starting out on Twitter
There's some simple steps to getting started
  • Personally set up an account and try out Twitter
    This will give you a personal feel for the service and how you might use it officially.

  • Build the business case
    Decide how you intend to use Twitter and why, explaining how the service will help you achieve your goals. While Twitter is free to use it does require a time commitment, so match your goals with appropriate resourcing.

  • Get the required approvals.
    Twitter could simply be a tool like your website, email or RSS for distributing your media releases - if so you might not require high-level sign-off to begin using the service for this purpose. if you're intending to respond to tweets, that becomes more of a public engagement issue and higher-level approval might be required.

  • Set up your account
    Setting up the account is simple, but you might want to spend some time thinking about the name you wish to use. Many names are already in use so you might need a few options in case your first choice is taken. You can set up your account as protected at first in case you do not want it visible yet.

  • Decorate your account
    Add a simply bio and customise the look to reflect the official status of the account. While Twitter supports limited customisation you can adjust colours and add a logo.

  • Get the word out
    This is best done initially online, via a website link 'Follow us on Twitter', via blogs, emails and tweets from staff members. This helps build an initial awareness of the service and potentially should happen before media releases in order to build a follower list.

  • Start tweeting
    Try and send out regular messages - potentially up to a few per day. This keeps the account active and, as people can view your history, allows them to see that you are active and the account isn't dead.

  • Monitor replies and conversations
    Keep an eye on the replies you get and any discussions that occur online out of your announcements. Even if you are not prepared to respond yet, knowing what people are saying will provide you with further announcement opportunities and builds a future case to engage in two-way conversation.
More information
Here's a great video explaining how Twitter works.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

What's the government's role in improving access to information about government online?

I love the work that Matthew Landauer and a small group of non-partisan, patriotic Australians have done to set up OpenAustralia.

If you're not aware of the site, it's designed to make the discussions on parliamentary floors visible to the public in an easily accessible way.

The site also provides information on Members' interests (on the record) and with further development could also support parliamentarian voting records, track bills and their amendments (and who is proposing them) and more.

OpenAustralia is modeled on (and uses the open-source software developed for) a similar (not-for-profit) UK site, TheyWorkForYou. Further sites of the same type are appearing around the world and attracting significant audiences - demonstrating there is a public interest in political processes and activities by elected representatives.

My question is, should this type of site be developed by individuals in their spare time, or it is an area that the Australian government needs to invest in itself to support the democratic process?

Below is a presentation with more information on OpenAustralia.

And here is a video by the founder/developer of TheyWorkForYou.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Is Australian egovernment innovation on life support?

I've been reading a post by James Dellow at his Chieftech blog, Using Twitter as a benchmark for Australian local government use of social media.

He compared the 90 out of 468 (approx. 20%) UK councils using Twitter to the 3 out of 677 (less than 1%) Australian councils using the tool to engage online, asked the question,

If you work in local government in Australia I would love to know more about what’s stopping you from experimenting with social media and social computing.

Of course the UK isn't the only nation making extensive use of Twitter and other online tools to engage citizens. The US is on a similar path, with over 300+ US government agencies and politicans officially using the service.

Governments across Europe and Asia are also adopting this and other online tools in a strategic and integrated way.

If anyone has an answer to James' question, I'd like to read it as well.

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Organising a Government 2.0 event in Canberra

Following on from the Canberra Barcamp last week, a subset of the organisers and a group of other volunteers are busy organising a government 2.0 event in Canberra.

The event, which is in initial planning stages, aims to bring together a group of government online professionals to share their experience and knowledge, building a reference group who can support each other in achieving their Department's egovernment goals.

While I am not expecting the event to be as large as the recent Government 2.0 Camp in Washington D.C., which had over 300 attendees and attracted a range of international visitors, I expect many of the most innovative egovernment professionals in Australia to attend and present.

You can find out more about the event, and be involved in the planning process at Gov2.0Canberra.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Google maps talk in Sydney by creator

Google maps were originally developed in Australia and one of the founders of the original company, Dr Lars Rasmussen, now a Google employee, is giving a talk at the Powerhouse museum, "From Australia to the World – The Rise & Rise of Google Maps" on 2 July.

It should be an interesting presentation both on how an Australian company 'made it' on the world stage (having to sell itself to a US company in the process) and on the importance of maps for visualising data.

Google maps have played a key role in informing and supporting people through a number of disasters (including Victorian bushfires) over the last several years - picking up the load where government provided services were not able to cope with peak traffic.

Note this isn't a criticism of government emergency services - it's a reflection on how public agencies rely on the private sector to support them, just as the government relies on traditional media to get disaster information out to the community rather than creating its own specific disaster TV channels, radio stations or newspapers.

Governments can use existing online services to support them in the same way - just as the Vic Premier's office relied on a free gadget creation tool, Facebook, Youtube and other free online services to communicate messages about the bushfires.

I think there is an ongoing need for increasing government collaboration with private services such as Google maps and other mapping services provided by companies such as Microsoft, OpenLayers and open street map.

Why should government provide a service where the private sector does it as well, if not better, than the public sector can?

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