Category Archives: Government

Gov. 3.0 conference day 2

I missed the initial sessions this morning at the Gov. 3.0 conference but saw the rest of the days proceedings. Once again, rather than give a summary of the presentations, I want to feature a couple that particularly resonated with me. Not surprisingly, they were on the practical aspects of web 2.0.

The most interesting and relevant presentation for me today was from Amanda Eamich of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Amanda described some of the web 2.0 activities used by the USDA to convey particular messages and/or run engagement campaigns. These included such worthwhile initiatives as improving health and fighting obesity; linking chefs with a good food message to schools, and a food desert locator to show low access to healthy food. You can check out the following websites to see some of these initiatives in action:  Choose my Plate, Chefs move to schools and the Food Desert locator

Amanda emphasised the importance of defining the  mission when starting social media initiatives. This is akin to my mantra” what’s the purpose”? Amanda also recognises that it is important to properly resource initiatives (staff, etc.), have familiarity with the tools (i.e. don’t the tools be your master), have an awareness of your target audience, and have a commitment to the strategy to see it through over the long-term. This is good advice.

I really liked the Chefs move to schools program. The idea was promoted through social media in response to calls from schools for more information about healthy eating and by chefs wanting to deliver the healthy food message to students. The USDA acts as a matching service to link up chefs with a good food message to schools wanting to find out about healthy food and nutrition. It is akin to knowledge brokering which I blogged about recently.

Another top tip from Amanda was that despite the opportunities that arise through social media, “it is important to do things on the ground”. The matching service linking chefs to schools is a classic case of making things happen on the ground.

The USDA has a lot of data and this data can be brought alive through visualisation. Whilst the USDA (and similar government departments) may not have the technical in-house capability to do data visualisation; by making the data available publicly it allows those with such technical skills the opportunity to turn the data into really useful and engaging information. The food desert locator is a good example. Similarly, information of farmers markets used to be on the USDA website. It was later made available in MS Excel and this information was then used to create data visualisation of farmer markets across the USA by people taking the data to reformulate the information into a more appealing package.

I consider government data (as distinct from reports and publications) to represent the greatest value for the open government mission. By putting data that is publicly owned into the public domain, opportunities abound for the data to be used and mixed with a range of data sets to give really useful and engaging information in ways beyond the scope of government web teams.

Lastly, Amanda also championed the social and humanising nature of web 2.0. One example was the USDA blog featuring the people who worked at the USDA – personalising government “bureaucrats” and showing to outsiders a human dimension to the staff of the USDA. An added benefit was greater awareness of people and their interests among USDA staff throughout all the offices in the US.  One other anecdote was about a fun campaign on pumpkins. The USDA ran a campaign encouraging people to send in fun photos of carved pumpkins. Even the luxury car maker Audi got involved with a pumpkin shaped in the style of the logo – an unintended consequence that now reached a market (Audi customers) that might not otherwise have been touched by the USDA).

I intend to follow up with Amanda at a later stage some of these initiatives in more detail. Suffice to say, Amanda’s presentation was the highlight of today.

Even so, I also want to note the presentations from Robert Thomas at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research who is making great strides in making nanotechnology and biotechnology more accessible and relevant for public consumption through social media: see the Technyou website.

And I thought the presentation from former puppeteer Paul Storey (now at the Department of Health in Canberra) was a fascinating insight into how the semantic web may, in the future, help improve preventative health care through examining the relationships between disparate but relevant data sets to hone health and medical diagnosis. The international harmonisation of health terminology was the first start in this quest: see what SNOMED CT is all about. What was really interesting from this presentation was in looking at the prescription of pharmaceuticals in network terms. Pharmaceuticals taken in combination can have very dangerous effects (the Heath Ledger death almost four years ago was an example). Having the technical capacity to better understand the effects of pharmaceutical use in combinations from the available data would provide real human benefits.

It was clear to me that much of what I heard from the presentations had applicability in my professional field of knowledge management. As a network administrator now and in the past, networks are an important part of my knowledge management arsenal. And it is still clear to me that information and knowledge exchange is critical, assisted by social media, if we are to solve problems or seek solutions to problems that we may not have the answer to right now.  Whilst I do have concerns over the slow pace at which government is embracing social media in Australia, I am encouraged by some of the experiences shared at the conference.

The panel discussion concludes the day and a very informative Gov. 3.0 conference is over for this year.

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Gov 3.0 Conference 2011

Tomorrow (Thursday 24th November) I will be attending the Gov 3.0 conference in Canberra. The tagline for the conference is “the future of social media and public sector communication”.

I am looking forward to what the speakers have to say, albeit I remain to be convinced that governments in Australia are serious about openness, citizen dialogue, and the full use of social media both inside and outside of Departments.

With respect to openness, the observable evidence in Australia and the United Kingdom seems to suggest that uploading millions of documents onto government websites is the solution. In many cases, there is little (if any) contextualised meaning applied to these documents. Documents written for specific purposes are placed into the public domain without that context being explained. There is still the issue over timeliness and relevance.  And the internal approval mechanisms to authorise (and disallow) the publication of certain government documents on the web can be trying. But really, is the average Joe Citizen in the mood to spend oodles of time scouring government websites to read through public-service-speak documents when all they really want to do is ask a knowledgeable person for an answer? Of course, not. There is therefore a need to consider the real needs of the citizenry beyond the selective publication of government documents on the web by government departments. After all, if publishing government documents is what open government is about, then we may as well ask Julian Assange to project manage the whole government openness agenda.

That is not to say that government documents on the web don’t have a place in providing information to the world. However, selective document availability is not the answer to openness without at least providing the necessary assistance and feedback mechanism for real citizen engagement. If I can download a government report but cannot discuss the meaning of the report with anyone inside government (i.e. the public service), then openness and dialogue are rather hamstrung.

When it comes to dialogue with citizens, the general polity likes to think that spewing forth tweets and answering constituent emails is enough. But the reality is that there is not much conversation and two-way dialogue in these type of exchanges. I remember Neil Postman saying in “Amusing ourselves to Death” that in the US in days of Lincoln and co., political dialogue was much more personal and immediate through public gatherings and political campaigning than what it has become now. Sure, I appreciate the issues of scale and technology, but citizen dialogue remains something that the political machine (and the administrative servants in the Public and Civil Service) are yet to achieve.

Social media is also important. There are plenty of politicians using social media – US President Obama and a number of Australian politicians are good examples. But there remains a certain disquiet about social media in the hallowed halls of the Public Service. The main concern is around risk (although there is also a good deal of ignorance about communication in general, let alone via web 2.0 technologies within a Department or with an external audience). The argument goes that social media represents a loss of control, is subject to unknown responses in the public domain, and acts as a diversion to the real work at hand. I’d like to have some sympathy for these concerns because I see some intelligent people using these arguments to say “No” for even the slightest of reasons.

However, there are many risks that can be mitigated against through proper procedures, through establishing organisational trust, and in the recognition that the benefits outweigh the risks. There also needs to be a recognition that organisations need to adapt to a changing world; where stakeholders have different needs and aspirations, than in previous times.

In the corporate world there are also communication risks associated with social media but, for the most part, the corporate world is more willing than the public sector to use social media in positive and interesting ways.

It is therefore of immense interest to me to hear tomorrow and on Friday what the speakers have to say about open government and connectedness; about particpatory discussion and citizen dialogue; about the transformative effects of social media; and about how information, knowledge and learning can flow more effectively in the digital economy than ever before.

In particular, I am keen to hear the experiences from the US about the use of social media and web 3.0 (?) communication channels to distribute information and enhance public engagement with stakeholders. I will also be interested to hear how social media fosters improved communication and participation from both citizens and within the public sector. There is much to learn – I hope that the conference provides those thinking and learning opportunities.

The web 3.0 conference 3-4 June 2010

I will be attending the conference in Sydney, Web 3.0 & the future of social media, being held at the Sheraton-on-the-Park Hotel in Elizabeth Street.

I will be interested in hearing a realistic assessment of the future of social media. I will be especially interested in the social media crusaders and what they have to say about business embracing web 2.0 tools and thinking.

It will be interesting to hear how far business has come in accepting social media as a legitimate form of communication and business sttrategy because I am not sure how much the government sector really wants to engage in this space. Naturally, I understand the reluctance for government to fully implement web 2.0 (not sure we’re ready for anything further than that!), but I am still watching to see how Gov 2.0 really translates into practice.

My fear is that Gov 2.0 is more about dumping content onto websites than really engaging in the conversation with the citizenry. I hear Senator Kate Lundy is a real advocate for Gov 2.0 but with such an adversarial political system, I can’t see too much leeway being given for governments to really become transparent and open to detailed scrutiny.

We already have seen the media dump on the government over the funding of a home insulation scheme – a scheme let down by the insulation industry and greedy quick-make-me-rich merchants exploiting a good idea. It must be difficult for even the Gov 2.0 advocates to encourage more openness in government, especially when other members of the government want to censor the internet and treat the technology with such suspicion.

So, I will see what I can discover about the  leading edge private businesses who see the benefits of web 2.0.  I’ll report back after the conference with my notes and responses.

On open government

This evening I discovered the text of a speech by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown on working smarter in government (i.e. the civil service).  Now working smarter, and leveraging what organisation’s already do more effectively,  are at the heart of good knowledge management.  The speech is much broader than simply having the civil service become more efficient – Brown outlines a vision for open government and engagement with the citizenry.  Interestingly, what Brown says about government and public engagement sounds very similar to the sentiments expressed in the Engage Report that I blogged about in my previous blog post.

In particular, Brown says: “We will ensure that people can get access to the information they need to engage in dialogue with public service professionals; and in doing so reduce bureaucratic burdens. This will drive improvements in public services, making them more personal and cost-effective, whilst at the same time strengthening democratic deliberation and giving frontline workers and voluntary organisations the freedom to innovate and respond to new demands in new ways. We are determined to be among the first governments in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public … In this way people will no longer be passive recipients of services but, through dialogue and engagement, active participants – shaping, controlling and determining what is best for them.”

I applaud the sentiments expressed in this speech by Gordon Brown.  Similarly, the Engage Report in Australia says: “Engagement is the central theme of this report. It deals with the connection of people to information so that knowledge assets can be re-used to create new and often unexpected value. It deals as well with the growing opportunities for more effective collaboration with citizens in different dimensions of government – policy development, regulatory reform, program and service design”.

Yet I still have that nagging concern that public-government engagement is not what it appears.  Sure, I understand the desire to publish government content (in greater volume no doubt, but hopefully in a form that is of most value to the public).  I applaud the use of web 2.0 tools to facilitate some form of public feedback or dialogue.  I certainly understand the view that the public has a right to be informed and that government needs to become more accountable.  These are all good things and are very big steps for government to be actively pursuing.  Yet, how much of all of this is just an enormous content dump, and how much of it will be real engagement – engagement where citizens actively become involved with the workings and decsions of government departments and agencies?

Web 2.0 requires a different way of thinking.  There is more emphasis on distributed intelligence and networks rather than centralised control systems and fixed hierarchies.  Web 2.0 is not about control, but more interested in the dialogue and “the conversation”. Web 2.0 tools and applications are interactive and immediate.  And most importantly, web 2.0 thinking is the thinking of the new world environment of the 21st century so there is no excuse not to partake of the best that web 2.0 can offer.  It’s simply evolutionary organisational dynamics.

Brown in his speech goes on to say: “But if the purpose of our reforms is not only to be more efficient, but to meet future challenges and re-engineer our public services from good to great, Whitehall has to let go – and empower staff and the public to shape provision in meeting local needs and priorities” (my bold and italics).  This cultural change will not be easy.  The same issue was identified in Australia in the Engage Report – that there is a strong cultural and operational tendency within government to withhold information.  There are many reasons, some of which are spurious and others that have some legitimacy. Traditional control-based organisations in government will need to change if open government is to become a reality. But there are realistic concerns around privacy, political risk, and copyright – challenges all of which can be overcome I must say.

The challenge for open government and increasing citizen engagement with government is not the web 2.0 tools which are readily available.  The challenge is how to foster a culture of openness and collaboration in government agencies.  In addition, there may be significant resource issues around content management and web sites, records management systems, information management, and knowledge management.  The classic organisational problem, “we don’t know what we don’t know”, is no longer now just a knowledge management problem; it’s now a government-wide problem that must be overcome before open government can be effective.  However, the fundamental success factor for open government will be people-based – trust and organisational culture being pivotal.

The vision for open government espoused by UK PM Gordon Brown and in the Engage Report for Australia are commendable.  They are optimistic and challenging.  But they also offer opportunities for knowledge management to become a significant and active stakeholder in the way in which open government might unfold.  I certainly hope so.

On engaging government with web 2.0

The draft report Engage: getting on with government 2.0 has just been released.  The report is 159 pages long so it’s a fairly hefty piece of work looking at how government can better engage with the Australian public.

The sentiments within the report are good.  Open government is a nice idea but it remains to be seen whether open means “just ajar” or whether the door is really left open.  I am still to see how open government works within a political system that is essentially both protective of information and adversarial politically.  Perhaps there are some lessons from the UK government experience.  From what I hear, open government over there has caused a massive tsunami of useless information being made available at considerable expense.

Engagement is a nice idea too.  Government needs to better hear from, and collaborate with, the public.  There needs to be improved transparency and a more informed conversation between the public and government.  Online engagement will certainly be assisted if Australia ever manages to get a decent and affordable  telecommunications system.  The great Australian broadband initiative is still to come online.

One key message is for better engagement between the public and public servants. However, I sense from the report that what this engagement really means is that government departments increase information on websites to gargantuan proportions and, somehow, this plethora of “government information” is actually what people want.  Using my content management experience, I can tell you that what people use the internet for is to complete a particular task, or find out some information to complete a task, not just a casual trawl through government documents for the fun of it!

The report does talk about the web 2.0 tools and suggests that they can be used to facilitate greater engagement and interaction between the public and government.  The trouble is, for these tools to be effective they have to be placed within an information architecture and organisational culture that is not currently the norm, and in some cases completely opposed to openness and innovation.  Such conservative long-held public service cultural norms will not easily be dismantled and this will certainly limit the effectiveness of web 2.0 tools.  The tools won’t be the problem, but the operational architecture and hierarchical workforce structure of government will be inhibitors.

The online engagement strategy using public servants is also interesting.  I think this aspect will involve some major organisational cultural shifts, especially at senior levels of the public service.  Engaging online with public servants  has some pretty important ramifications. 

To start with, public servants work for the Minister first and the workplace culture is still one of protectiveness rather than openness. I’d love to see a truly open and innovative public service but I am not confident that one will emerge quickly enough to really make true public engagement count.  The notion of a public service that offers fearless and frank advice, let alone responds that way to the public, remains elusive in the current Australian political domain.

Furthermore,  there needs to be better funding of public servant agencies to allow people to allocate time to engage and respond to the public.  It’s all very well to say that government information is a public resource, but it’s people in the public service who have to find the time to provide appropriate information, and actually find and deliver the necessary information.  One only has to experience the intricacies of obtaining assistance through Centrelink, Veterans Affairs, and Health to know how difficult and time-consuming obtaining the right information can be.

There is likely to be a significant resource issue here since the technology alone will not be sufficient to really provide true levels of public-government engagement.  Perhaps the web 2.0 technologies, and some traditional web 1.0 technologies, will help governments provide a platform for engagement.  But these are only platforms.  This is why I fear that government websites will become massive dumping grounds for information rather than true portals of public-government engagement.  Plonk a trillion words and documents on a website and bingo – engagement!  It really doesn’t sound like a pathway for successful engagement to me.

There is also the issue about understanding what is required and who has the ability and capacity to find it.  As any librarian knows, the “reference interview” is sometimes difficult in any one-to-one encounter, let alone online.  In many public service agencies, these type of informal information requests come to a “library” or some “library-like function” because libraries are traditionally staffed by people whose experience is understanding the reference question and finding the resources best suited in answering the question.  Unfortunately, there is a perception in some quarters that libraries are not needed, or are not key players, within government departments.  Oddly, there are no additional resources elsewhere in government departments to undertake this kind of work, let alone by people skilled in finding, reviewing, and making quality judgements on.  Once again, I fear engagement only goes as far as a website crammed to the gunwales with information….and then sinking slowly under the weight.  Still, there might be opportunities for content managers and librarians in this area of government engagement.

The draft report also makes recommendations about privacy, security, and the “Commonwealth Record”.  Well folks, I gotta say, that many government agencies don’t have a complete understanding or proper record of the historical and current information within its own walls.  Unless there is significant investment in electronic document and records management, there can be no guarantee that government  information will be input onto a database within the organisation, let alone found and made available at the appropriate level of security and with accurate version control.  Records management and knowledge management need far greater attention in government than is currently the case.

I truly hope that the Australian government is open to many of the recommendations in the report, especially the important issues of openness and citizen engagement.  The job won’t be easy but I can say with confidence that there are plenty of information professionals – librarians, content managers, information architects, knowledge managers, records managers, information specialists, and web editors – that are keen to make the report’s message a reality if only government would give them the responsibility, the authority and resources to make it actually happen.

On taking an interest

I was reading this short blog post by Ton Zijlstra on open government from the Reboot conference. Nothing too radical in asking for a more open and transparant system of government with better access to information. I had also been reading an article on democracy and markets by economics columnist, Ross Gittins, of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Gittins article lamented the fact that having good democracy and having good economic markets relied on having an interested citizenry, yet paying attention to these political and economic issues was lacking.

Having an interested citizenry is difficult “because we take so little interest in the details of problems and their solutions, because we rarely follow up yesterday’s concerns, because our emotions are so easily swayed by vested interests or the media, the pollies (and economists) learnt a long time ago that appearances matter more to voters than the reality of the situation”. One only has to look at economic and currency forecasters to realise that!

And this led me to think about how important it is to take an interest in what is happening in one’s own workplace, even if it does not appear to be of immediate or direct importance. So why is it then that many organisations compartmentalise their workforce so much that to take any meaningful organisational interest is almost impossible, let alone actively encouraged?

On the power of telling a story

It is impossible, in this historic time, not to comment on the US Presidential election. In particular, the significance and style of President-elect Barack Obama’s “Change has come to America” speech in Chicago, Illinois. The full text of the speech is available here. Mark the date in your diary – an historic day – the 4th November 2008 (US time).

It wasn’t the normal political speech, although no doubt constructed with the same careful consideration. Obama’s speech was personal – it reached into the personal experiences of all who were listening but also connected us to the future – the future of our kids.

The obvious story in the speech concerned the theme of change and hope personified in the life of a 106 year old woman from Georgia (USA) – Ann Nixon Cooper. Obama could have gone through a series of historical events over the past one hundred years, as if reading from a history catalogue. The Nixon Cooper story personalised a number of significant historical events that led to change. History and hope were embodied in a real person, something each of us could imagine more personally than any history lesson. Just think that this one person had lived through so many historical milestones and so many changes; and now, another historical milestone with the election of an Afro-American President of the USA.

The Nixon Cooper story also connected the theme of change from the past to the potential for positive change in the future. The Nixon Cooper story gave an historical context for Obama’s call for change, his confidence in change, and his hope that the rest of America could feel and want that change. After all, hadn’t Ann Nixon Cooper already seen tremendous change in one lifetime and seen change for the better? And if our children are still alive at the turn of the next century, Obama asks, what changes will they have seen in a hundred years in a lifetime just like that of Ann Nixon Cooper? Obama wants to initiate change and wants people to feel part of that change, participate in it, and not be afraid.

Leadership is about sharing a common purpose and direction with your people. Leadership is not just managing, as anyone who has tried to initiate change will know. We might not have the oratory skills or personality of Barack Obama in our desire to change and lead in our working lives, but the power of narrative and anecdotes to connect with people are no less important.

The speech from Barack Obama was a wonderful demonstration of the power of words and the power of storytelling to convey a powerful and meaningful message. The speech defines the leader, but the leader will still need to deliver. Obama has started his leadership journey saying all the right words.