Governments going social. Mind the gap.

“Why do you want to take up social media?” asked the wise man to the politician. “Because everyone’s doing it…” was the scathe reply. Politicians in government and those aspiring to be, worldwide, have jumped on the social media bandwagon. Those forcing their public service organisations to do likewise, without thinking, are in for a surprise. This is not about a facebook page with many followers and a moderation policy.

Governments have legacy and countries have a future; and the distinguishing feature we look out for in democracies is openness. It’s not the means but the end which matters. Social media is the demonstration of openness of this decade – it will be superseded by other more faithful representations sometime (soon).

So what’s at the root of a successful social media strategy if it is to be truly exemplary of a positive transformation? Of openness that lasts beyond the medium itself? Two key points:

1. Instilling a culture of collaborative interaction between public service and the customer (the citizen). The official will listen and act with service improvements and policy formation that is worthy of a rolling democratic process.

2. Bringing together true citizen activism. The age of representative democracies with ‘elders’ or politicians who decide everything for everyone is clearly over because it’s not allowed by the voter anymore. Voter turn-out is going down. The age of blind trust in the civil servant is also clearly not the case. People are informed and have become knowledgeable customers who demand explanations. But, do people care to make it better for everyone? Do they feel that they are empowered to do this? The answer on a general global landscape is “no”. And this can be reversed if and when public servants become demonstrably interested in the public’s point of view – and act on it. Then people will speak up, will become active in change, and will become more appreciative.

This is when we start harnessing social capital.

Everyone will agree that there is a great deal of ‘known’ that’s untapped. All of this ‘known’ is in the heads of our customers, prospective customers, employees and even in the heads of those who currently don’t care. Tapping it means involving people. That’s only possible when the institutions reformat to become collaborative from the top > down. That’s to say that change must first happen internally by opening up to the cross-section of the population that’s the employees.

Employees are the organisation’s main asset in the drawing and execution of a social media strategy. Those of them digital natives have the added benefit of having an affinity for the medium. All of them collectively have an understanding of the service offered and of the customer expectations which is unmatched by anyone else. Employees will understand that the organisation’s reputation can flourish through social media activity. When they are encouraged and trained to be active, online discourse can be distinctly of much much higher quality. Goes without saying, that this will attract other customers and will breed organic growth which is priceless.

We’d like to see employees, seasoned customers and others interact with little formal intervention, harnessing social capital, and thriving on a culture of ‘self-help’ within the community. Self-help is in fact what I figure can be the evolution of a truly transformed public service which tangibly draws on the strengths of openness. A collaborative workspace without citizen activism would otherwise become unmanageable. In contrast, with activism in place, front-offices can focus on handling the truly off-shoot or more sophisticated cases.

We may indeed mature to a point where self-help works so well that people are better educated (and have less issues) and where 99% of issues can be resolved voluntarily within the community. The closer we get to that point, the more governments can focus on governance rather than execution. Dream maybe, but certainly a goal if we need to truly do more with less!


Revisiting the Citizen Initiative

Back in November, I blogged about the Citizen Initiative — a concept entrenched in the Lisbon Treaty. I am interested in this because of its direct relevance to the world of open governance. Open governments are transparent, and invite collaboration and participation. I believe that the initiative is about making all of that possible in the EU — by creating a direct link between citizens and the institutions where it is so needed that 1 million such citizens demand it!

Beautiful.. but how will it work? And will it? Simon Busuttil, one of Malta’s MEPs wrote in The Times of Malta today and gave some insight to answer the first question. I still would like to see more people comment on how this initiaitive will exist in a world that always gives more space to the social media. Will the EU lag behind the US? Will we continue to ignore social media?

A review of the usability of some US eGovernment websites

A few days ago, I came across the website of  NIC Inc. They call themselves “the people behind eGovernment” and so I had a look at some of the websites in their portfolio. I actually only looked at those that NIC claim have won some awards. I assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the rest would not be as good.

Below, I am listing particular features which I liked in some of the sites and I am making some notes about why. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Common to all the ones I liked
    I like the fact that service clusters are listed at the top part of the screen, that they stay there all the time and that the layout changes little or not at all. I like the fact that as a basic accessibility feature they all have an option for font sizes. They also all have a prominent Search-box. Finally links to the social-media are always there and prominently displayed — Oklahoma went as far as producing widgets (see below).
  • Utah
    I particularly like the clean look, especially the stylish icons and how they spring up on-mouse-over (even if I am not sure about the scroll thing). Same applies to the effect that the top menu bar produces on-mouse-over, opening up myriad of links related to the particular option (e.g. business). I like the layout, the design and the way you get a complete look at all that Utah offers in the 2 min it takes you to scan the homepage. I also like the search box, and how in less than ten words under the control itself, it prompts the user about how to use search — making no assumptions about how versed with search s/he is. I don’t like the fact that they used graphics for the headings but I like the way the headings are well placed for catching attention during a quick scroll.
  • South Carolina
    I like the fact that the most important services are immediatley available. I like the fact that there is also a link called “All online services” which takes you to a long list.
  • Oklahoma
    I like the scrolling overview at the very top and the fact that the top part serves as both a one-word title for the “slide” as well as a clickable-menu. It could have been better aesthetically designed but the idea is very good for a quick tour and fills the space with more useful information than a plain photo of a smiling woman or the Statue of Liberty. I particularly like their widgets. Imagine if governments could make their data available in their open gov initiatives and, also give incentives to other (non-gov) data-owners to open up theirs. Then open APIs could be used to allow people to harness data, crunch it and splash it intelligently in a widget… look at the UK government’s Apps list.

I look forward to your comments!

About facebook and open government

When back in November, I blogged about the Lisbon Treaty possibly instigating a paradigm shift in public consultation, I was wondering if the European Commission would ever be forced (as in: would not have any other option!) to consider Facebook. I could see how difficult it would be if there was no means of authenticating Facebook users as being EU citizens, or if one could not prevent one citizen creating a hundred profiles!

Nothing has changed to bring a Facebook-login closer to personal authentication. But, just days ago Facebook and AOL agreed that Facebook  users could now chat with their friends right through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). This is an achievement from Facebook’s perspective under many counts. Not least, is the one that was pointed out by Mike Melanson in his post on ReadWriteWeb:

   “The partnership reinforces the idea that our Facebook profile is at the center of our online existence. Whether or not someone is signed into AOL is no longer what’s at stake here, it’s whether or not the user is logged into Facebook.”

In January, Mike had revealed how statistics released by widget-maker Gigya showed that 65% of its traffic came from Facebook.

A look at data published by Experian shows that, for the week ending 20th February,  6.98% of visits were to Google and that this was followed closely by 6.77% of visits going to Facebook. This of course excludes the number of people that have Google as their homepage and the ones that go to Google to type “facebook” and click on the first link! The Experian data dashboard also shows that over 49% of social network hits were to Facebook. Google must have been aware of this when, on the same day as the Facebook/AOL deal they launched Buzz. I remain unimpressed by this last addition to Google’s portfolio and so I am not going to waste your time by linking to it. :)

   Fact 1:  Facebook Connect is free and easy to implement, allows any website to link to 350 million facebookers and is steadily being implemented by all those who would like to stay alive.
   Fact 2: Facebook Connect is part of the Open ID project. Simply put, OpenID allows you to use an existing login account from any participating partner to sign in to multiple websites [read more]

If Facebook Connect is becoming so important, when will it go the next level and start offering to authenticate the identity of its users? How would this affect open government initiatives?

Following the launch of the OpenGov initiative in the US, ten industry leaders (including Google) had come forward to take part in a pilot that would allow the American public to participate in Government through Web 2.0. Why is Facebook not one of them?

Open Government… open innovation?

Andrea DiMaio’s latest blogpost is critical about how much the various federal agencies in the US are being succesful in adopting the spirit of the Open Government Directive.  Different authors have given different interpretations to the motivations behind “openness” in governance, but the US directive captures it all and builds upon the three fundamental pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration.

The application of the concept of open innovation is to be applauded. Companies like Google do not only create products for use on the Web, but also live by the Enterprise 2.0 culture. Google Labs showcases a part of the company’s research portfolio while it is still at prototype stage. The company uses this method to attract feedback that would help improve the product’s usability. The open approach has also been taken by the European Commission in its Living Labs project. The idea behind the labs network is to develop a ‘beta-culture’ which engages users’ creativity through their participation in the R&D and Innovation life-cycle. The concept of open innovation offers benefits to all actors in the system, allowing users to feel empowered to influence product development and companies/institutions a larger and live test-base for validating and integrating innovation.

Back to Washington’s Open Government Directive…

Each federal agency had until the 6th February to implement an online Open Government page and many have done so using a free public dialog tool developed by the GSA. The tool allows users to submit ideas and others to deliberate on whether or not they agree — thus raising the “popularity”  of the submission. OpenGov Tracker was launched just a few weeks ago. It allows the public to be informed from one dashboard about the interest being generated in the Open Government concept.

Veteran Affairs and NASA rank at the top by attracting 124 and 121 ideas, from 79 and 71 authors, respectively. They are followed closely by EPA which clocked 96 ideas from 76 authors. My first observation is the relatively low takeup of this system (compare with Facebook).

Andrea DiMaio made another interesting observation: a particular user has submitted the same idea of webcasting all meetings to a large number of federal agencies’ ideas collection system. This same idea ranked as the most popular idea in 20 of the 21 IdeaScales that DiMaio surveyed. The data collection using GSA’s IdeaScales is based on the usage of this electronic tool which, as already highlighted above, is far from representative of the population of the United States. But bearing this constraint in mind, DiMaio’s observations remain very valid and as he rightly points out:

   “open government enthusiasts will learn from this first experience and realize that they need a tighter connection between the idea collection process and the nature and mission of individual agencies”

While Governments are relatively late-comers into the arena of open innovation, it is encouraging to note how its adoption is felt to be directly associated with the process of democratisation.

Open theatre

The curtain goes down to never, never come back up. The stage, the whole theatre, the square in front of the theatre and the streets leading to the houses with the flickering white lights coming from TV and computer screens spilling outside onto the dark alleys — all has become one. The roles have been reversed and the king is on stage singing to an audience that can’t be bothered to listen and be moved.

Spun into one big act, where there is a place for everybody, this is the setting which allowed the world to welcome social networking. A social leap, rather than a technological leap as it is frequently perceived. There is only place for those who understand this reality and will play this game.

“Open” is in because “open” is everywhere and synonymous with that theatre that has dropped its boundaries. It is one big act and if you are not playing or singing, you are dancing to a beat which you can make your own.

Public Consultation on the European Citizens’ Initiative

The Lisbon Treaty’s coming into force on 1st December will establish a clear democratic right for European citizens to put forward policy proposals to the European Commission. The principle has been termed the Citizen Initiative and is as yet only broadly defined in the treaty.

The procedures and conditions required for the receipt of citizen initiatives will be determined by a Regulation to be adopted by both Parliament and Council upon a proposal of the Commission. To this end, the European Commission has launched a public consultation to help define what it calls the “practical details” of how a million citizens hailing from a representative number of EU countries could come forth with such initiatives.  The consultation is supported by a Green Paper (published on the 11 November) which promises to identify practical questions. Input is welcome until the end of January 2010.

Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Inter-institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, stressed that “the participation of the citizens in decision-making is indispensable for democracy”.

eParticipation (and the role of the social media in this) is surely a practical concern not to be underestimated! Will an initiative put forward by a million Facebook members from a “significant number of member states” be considered? How will the Commission know that they effectively are individual nationals of the Member States (eAuthentication)? Will their having logged into Facebook and joined the “Cause” constitute an electronic signature to the petition for the initiative (eSignatures)? Will a million active Facebookers be able to determine the agenda of what the Commission proposes? Or will we forget all about the “e” and succumb to ole pen ‘n paper?

Twitter accounts for UK Government departments

I have just come across a document titled “Template Twitter strategy for Government Departments“. The document is prepared by Neil Williams — Head of corporate digital channels at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (@neillyneil). There is also a blog about its release which makes an interesting read for those who would like to follow the thinking behind the publication of this document.

Promising Practices in Online Engagement

Over the last couple of years online engagement has matured from initial experiments to a broad range of proven methods. While the technologies and practices still have to prove whether they can handle the scale of engagement on a national level, online engagement has now become mainstream in government, business and non-profit work.
Rather than replacing traditional face-to-face approaches to civic engagement, the Web has added new tools to the toolkit, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
[excerpt from Promising Practices in Online Engagement. download PDF]

Press release v.s the online media

Ragan Communications and Pollstream conducted a study and recently published a report about the importance of press releases. Ragan quote Vanessa Horwell, chief visibility officer for ThinkInk saying that between 55 percent to 97 percent of press releases sent to media outlets are never acted upon. Horwell observes that “we need to create interest first, but people keep pushing out press releases because companies think that the more they’re sending out, something’s going to stick”. The observation about creating interest is what is truly interesting in the context of the hype around social networking.

The press is undoubtedly a very important player in the formation of public opinion about anything! But, can it be argued that the demand for a particular news is now also affected by what bloggers and Facebookers are pushing? A Consumer Intelligence report published by market research organisation MRI shows that 16.1% of those aged 25-34 have visited a blog in the last 30 days. This is a very relevant portion, considering that 74.1% of the U.S. population uses the Internet. But blogs and social media generally also have a captive audience with a steady decrease in activity amongst higher age groups. Does the press pay attention to what’s going on in the online channels before deciding what goes to print? Should communications offices be more intelligent in combining press releases with research of what’s being said online and through active blogging?

And a word about how this fits in Gov 2.0!

Governments worldwide are blamed for not interacting enough – communication is seen to be one way (as with a press release!). The European Commission’s webpage about the eParticipation Information Day which took place in July hints that “perhaps voters feel … that their concerns and opinions are not being listened to or acted upon.” In a society where Governments are striving to give voters the right degree of involvement in the policy-shaping process, how should Governments use the press in best combination with the online social media? There is never one magic formula. But what makes a news item interesting is definitely that it is credible, well targeted and articulated in a way that makes its content valuable to its recipient.

The abovementioned Ragan report states that the study also shows that 45 percent of respondents believe that press releases are losing relevance because of the growth of social media. Furthermore, 23 percent blamed the decline on the demand for a more trustworthy and/or engaging information source. Does that mean that if Government communications offices used the social media better, they would recapture a sizeable portion of those who are hooked to newer media? Is social media more engaging? Does its open, interactive nature make it more trustworthy?

The press release is not dead and it won’t die but communication certainly needs to change!