Thursday, March 03, 2011

What is muting Australian public servants online?

Over the last two years we've seen a concerted effort by governments across Australia to increase the level of online engagement, debate and discussion involving public agencies.

In 2009 the Government 2.0 Taskforce, commissioned by then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and chaired by Dr Nicholas Gruen, conducted a six month process of engaging public servants via online channels, pioneering the use of blogs, Twitter and Facebook to demonstrate how it was possible for the public service to effectively communicate, engage, consult and be consulted online.

Late in the same year the Australian Public Service Commission replaced its Interim Protocols for Online Media Engagement (originally released in late 2008, with the updated Circular 2009/6: Protocols for online media participation.

Early in 2010 the Australian Government released its response to the Government 2.0 Taskforce's final report, agreeing with all except one of its recommendations (and simply deferring the remaining recommendation to after another related review was completed).

Since then we've seen the MAC innovation report, Empowering change: Fostering innovation in the Australian Public and the Ahead of the Game report from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, outlining steps to reform the public service.

There's been the Declaration of Open Government, the initiation of the Government 2.0 Steering Committee, the launch of GovSpace (a blogging platform operated by the Government and open to all agencies to use).

We've seen more than 260 government agencies and councils join Twitter, wide ranging activity on Facebook and a proliferation of social media policies at local, state and Commonwealth level.

Agencies in Australia are using social media in ways that would have been unacceptable and unachievable even two years ago, some demonstrating world class engagement online. Some states have comprehensive action plans in place and official usage of social media by agencies in some places is approaching one hundred percent.

I don't have the same level of information about Commonwealth agencies (there is no central register of activity or survey results, as there are for some states), however most have established some form of social media beachhead in support of campaign or corporate needs.

With all this official usage you might expect to see vibrant and active online communities of public servants discussing shared issues and best practice, or to see public servants listening to and contributing actively to online policy discussions.

Many groups set up for public servants seem to have reasonable memberships - several hundred people at least - however most of these members are silent, with at most 10% carrying on a halting conversation.

Blogs and forums established to discuss public issues are dominated by the same regular contributors, providing valid and thoughtful views for the most part, however still representing a fraction of the more than 100,000-strong Australian public service.

So what is going on? If over 75% of the Australian online public are actively using social media (as Neilsen has reported), what makes public servants different, what is muting Australian public servants from participating online?

There are a large number of public servants who keep their personal lives very separate from their work lives. They happily connect to their families and friends via social media channels, but don't perceive them as professional development or business tools.

I also still encounter public servants unaware of the Australian Government's Government 2.0 program. They either have never learnt about it through their usual newsgathering channels, dismiss it as an IT initiative, or are simply uninterested as they don't perceive Government 2.0 as having any direct relevance to their work or career.

There's also a number of institutional barrier in place. Despite the growing official adoption of social media in government, the 2009-2010 State of the Service report indicated that only 31 percent of APS staff and 28 percent of service delivery employees have access to social media and networking tools in the workplace.

Where there was access to social media and networking tools, the report indicated that the tools are being under-utilised for various reasons, including lack of staff awareness or interest (similar to my point above), or there was a lack of resources and agency policy restrictions.

In addition, only 10% of agencies reported that they had technical guidance available to employees on how to use social media and networking tools. Staff may not always feel they have the permission or the education required to use social media in a professional manner at work.

This is compounded by the use of adaptive filtering tools which do a fantastic job of blocking inappropriate websites, however may also block appropriate and important websites and social media channels used actively in agency business. As these tools work on the basis of blocking categories rather than individual sites, a simple misclassification by a vendor can limit a department's access to key sites for days or weeks. Social media channels - with a wide range of fast changing material - are often prone to being blocked.

There's also pressure on staff due to workload. There's limited time to innovate, experiment or improve work practices via social media and Government 2.0 approaches when staff are flat-out getting their jobs done the 'old' way.

So where does this leave Government 2.0 and social media adoption?

We have a strong and growing core of activity, with a small number of engaged participants and a wider group adopting these tools as their agencies recognise that the changes in Australian society preclude them continuing to use old approaches.

In many cases public servants engaged in communications and consultation activities simply have to include social media in their mix to generate effective outcomes.

Cost pressures are also taking their toll. As budgets tighten, public servants look for more cost-effective means to engage. I've often seem the most enthusiastic adoption of social media channels when budgets have been cut or in crisis situations where traditional media channels aren't responsive. Albeit this is sometimes constrained by a lack of expertise or shortages in manpower.

However many public servants still haven't made the link between social media and their jobs. They haven't had the time to reflect or consider - nor been presented with compelling cases of why they should adopt new tools - particularly where old ones continue to work reasonably well.

We haven't yet reached a tipping point, where the argument for and knowledge of the new approaches now available has overcome the resistance and systems geared towards more traditional approaches.

So in my view it is simply a matter of education, example, clear political and senior will and time - but how much time? No-one can really say.


  1. Commonwealth agencies need to seriously think about how social media can benefit their business before rushing into using it. Yes, it encourages community engagement, but they need to think about their target audience and set up a blog, facebook account or twitter account that can target this audience effectively. A number of Commonwealth agencies using social media at the moment are doing it wrong and have no audience. Why use twitter to provide updates of a Minister's speech when there is already a media section of their website and an RSS feed to ensure the public receive this information?

    And they also need to be serious about receiving feedback and comments from the community to enhance and develop policy. If the public don't think they are going their comments are going to make a difference, they are not going to bother contributing tho these forums. The small number of comments received for blogs as part of the National Health Reform website ( are a good demonstration of this.

  2. Great post Craig.

    You mention that there are a number of initiatives within government where communications (and other teams) have been granted permission to run social media activities on behalf of a department or program. In my experience this is often done without providing broader access to staff — as you suggest many departments still block social media site (or have filters that accidentally collect such sites).

    In this model, only a small number of staff are empowered to take part in these activities, and many of the previous cultural barriers remain in place, even for those authorised to speak on behalf of the department.

    This lack of access presents a number of challenges to adoption:

    * Staff are not familiar/confident with using these tools in a professional context, reducing their ability to identify opportunities for social media use for professional purposes

    * It is therefore more difficult to build a business case to support such activities, as there are few examples/ideas within the organisation demonstrating prior practice/outcomes

    * This has the potential to create a culture that is not conducive to effective social media engagement, where responsiveness and informal/conversational tone is important for success

    * Lack of awareness and experience also presents a greater risk that staff may inadvertently create a challenging situation when they use social media in a personal or professional context

    To my mind, this is why it's so important to provide staff with both access and adequate training. It also suggests that senior management should make clear to staff that they have permission to be active in these spaces, preferably through their own actions. I'm aware of departments whose ministers are active in social channels like Twitter — this simple act speaks much louder than any pronouncements or policies ever will IMO.

  3. Craig another great discussion.

    Grant is right ... There are limited staff in most agencies who have acces and permission to communicate and actively engage with either their peers in other agencies, professional bodies, service providers or the general public utilising social networks and tools.

    As time moves on and thinking about the next 5 or 10 years many of the current agency heads would have retired making way for a new cohort in the SES ranks; many of whom have grown with the internet, social networking and the digital environment. At present there is a lot of fear and distrust over the whole idea which is having an effect upon staff morale and prospective recruits.

    Added to which many staff of a certain age bracket aren't interested because their children drive them crazy about the meaningless conversations they have online, thereby dismissing the notion of usefulness of online social interaction.

    Once again we are back to the passionate driving this forward and trying to convert the sceptics along the way.

  4. A timely post Craig. and i second Grant's comment that:

    'only a small number of staff are empowered to take part in these activities, and many of the previous cultural barriers remain in place, even for those authorised to speak on behalf of the department.'

    this is the case in many agencies that are new the social media space. fingers crossed, time and opportunity will decrease the need for multiple levels of sign-off prior to social media posts.

  5. Martin Stewart-WeeksMarch 8, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    I understand the frustration, but it is a question of time. There will be a point soon when it becomes clear that it is not possible to be a good, ethical and professional public servant WITHOUT access to and sensible, mature familiarity with these social networking tools and how to use them in the work context.

    The experience of the Queensland Police Service in the floods is key...suddenly, people who couldn't see the work relevance not only saw it, but benefited personally from it AND were roundly applauded as a result.

    So history and necessity will do their usual job in ushering in an innovation which will remain, for a while, patchy and lumpy. But the overall direction is both unstoppable and overwhelmingly beneficial.

    Great post, as usual, from someone whose leadership in this space is all about mixing pragmatic practice with firm, practical conviction.

  6. Martin,

    And throwing in a little pot stirring - just so the top and bottom cook evenly :)

  7. I can think of at least one problem...

    The culture of the public service is built around integrity, secrecy and hierarchy. Most public servants have everything to lose and little to gain.

  8. * Lack of awareness and experience also presents a greater risk that staff may inadvertently create a challenging situation when they use social media in a personal or professional context

    Thumbs up - definitely greatest risk. Like handing a loaded gun to a child.


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