Monday, November 09, 2015

Guest Post: Three secrets to unlocking digital government. And you'll never guess what they are...

This is a guest post from Alun Probert, founder of GovComm and former Director of Communications at the NSW Government. It has been republished from LinkedIn with his permission:
Working in Government communications, it’s practically impossible nowadays to avoid discussions of all things “digital”. From the most extreme and simply distracting notion of “Disrupting Government” to the more sensible focus on the incremental improvement of all levels of service delivery, public sector teams worldwide are appropriately looking to the new world to streamline, improve and engage.
For organizations as vast as Government, the digital age brings potential enabling solutions in many disparate areas. Already locally, Service NSW has made an impact as it seeks to take transactions online in the same way that the banks did with the creation of online banking. Similarly, across Australia, government service delivery is being improved in a multitude of ways, from the provisions of free timetable apps to use of voice recognition software and other tools that reduce the complexity of simply making contact.

And in the Government marketing and communications field, outsiders may be surprised to hear that Government departments were early adopters of social media. The various police and emergency services may have been unexpected early users of tools like Facebook but nowadays they continue to evolve and improve approaches to content creation, accessibility and governance while others still debate “social media policy”. At least one head of a high profile department in the emergency services area has said that he couldn’t now imagine business without access to key social media tools. 

Meanwhile, and entirely unconnected in different departments, Governments were also early adopters of successfully using digital media channels to tightly target their broadcast messages, particularly to young people warning of the dangers of smoking and irresponsible driving. 

And all the way back in 2008, after years of booking multiple pages of newspaper jobs ads each week, I was involved in moving Government recruitment advertising online as the "new medium" was both more effective and a fraction of the  cost. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a more compelling or simple business case.

And coming bang up to date, one of the most extraordinary milestones of my time in Government was to see two “digital” campaigns, Pretty Shady and Get Your Hand Off It each achieve more than a million views on You Tube. From my time in the media, I knew that demonstrating actual results was the publisher's Holy Grail and here was a medium that showed us we had a million views. One million. It's probably more now. (I’m told the Victorian Government also launched a digital campaign called Dumb Ways to Die. Did quite well apparently*.) 

So in summary, we’ve got Governments across Australia looking variously at digital service delivery, increasing community engagement through social media enabled dialogue and departments everywhere launching apps and other digital tools to improve access to information. The “Open Government” movement is seeing increasing amounts of data released for public access and money is being saved across the board through the use of digital media for advertising. 

So I confess I’m getting a little frustrated by the amount of time and effort being spent talking about “Digital Government” as if it were some futuristic (and distant) ideal. It’s inevitable that notoriously risk averse organisations will want to take their time and work on the process, but clearly, the problem with applying old style market analysis in the digital age is that your findings might tell you to buy MySpace.

Taking into account the appropriately careful approach that public sector organizations must take, it seems to me that instead of further abstract discussions on digital government, instead there are three initiatives that would be useful areas of focus:

The first is that we all have to help make sure that everything that is happening in the next few months at the DTO is shared across Government departments. Everything. Methodologies used and not used, risk management strategies and performance reports. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that based on their current impressive record, the DTO team will make this happen. The rest of us though need to help spread the word far and wide. Not everyone is currently listening.  

Secondly, we must find ways of sharing all the proven "home grown" solutions with other organizations in the public sector, ideally worldwide. It’s undeniably true that there are differences between states and indeed countries, but the single biggest learning of my time in Government was that the similarities are often more important than the differences. (eg Most nations have an issue with obesity. All those that have cars and mobile phones have a problem with people texting while driving. It’s plain daft to look at these problems as local issues. Even if we can just get into the habit of sharinginsights, we will always be better off than starting with a blank sheet of paper.)

Thirdly, and possibly the hardest thing to achieve is we must find ways of giving people in public sector organisations permission to fail in the pursuit of better. As long as lessons are learned, failures can always be learning experiences and it’s the role of new public service leaders to create environments that allow this to happen. 

If we can make these three areas our focus, we can reduce the amount of time pontificating abstractly about “Digital Government” and instead put our wholehearted support behind the people who are best placed to make it happen. 

The people currently working in the public service. 
It’s probably not a great idea for another money spinning conference, but it is a cause we can all get behind. 

About the Author.
Alun Probert is a communications and marketing veteran and having worked on comms with five different Premiers in a decade in Government is now Head of GovCom, independent specialists in public sector communications and engagement.  

Get in touch at
*Astonishingly, Dumb Ways to Die has been seen by over 100 Million people.

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