Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government

Foreign Secretary William Hague answering questions on the situation in Libya and also on the Arab Spring on 9 June 2011 via Twitter

We’re not short of social media strategies in the government, neither are we short of social media guidelines for staff. But we are short of ICT access and on more than one occasion these social media projects have hit this same frustrating [fire]wall.

Organisations restrict access to social media for a number of reasons. The most common are concerns about creating security vulnerabilities, incurring spiralling technology costs, opening up reputational risks, losing sensitive data and suffering dips in staff performance (as they log on to watch the latest hilarious random video lulz).

It’s obvious that governments are particularly sensitive to these concerns and that this has caused them to be slower than other organisations to take advantage of social media. These days this lethargy is a problem for more than just digital teams; increasingly its policy and service delivery teams that are feeling frustrated by the blocks on their access.

Currently it is more common for access to be restricted than open. But there are a number of ways that the innovative people of the Civil Service have found ways to get the access they need –  be they in media, marketing, research, policy making, consultation, engagement, service delivery or even ministerial roles. These workarounds include:

  • Allowing staff to use their own devices – they would have it on them anyway but it does mean that they have to pay for it out their own pocket
  • Whitelisting domains – sometimes it is the stripped back mobile versions rather than the ‘full fat’ versions that get the OK
  • Permitting access through gateways, portals or virtualisation – it’s overcomplicating but it’s something
  • Monitoring and throttling usage – to encourage respectful use and keep costs down but breeds resentment
  • Requiring a business case – perhaps a bit over the top just to get real time information
  • Providing standalone machines – not terribly green or cost effective
  • Installing secondary browsers – to enable use of social web channels that couldn’t be accessed on the old browsers used as standard in depts

Continue reading “Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government”

After the watershed – five reasons why nothing can be the same since the launch of Gov.uk/government

GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd http://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/7649345008/in/pool-1873292@N24/
GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd

On February 28th the hangar door of Aviation House opened and gov.UK/government took it’s maiden flight. It might not be up there with what happened at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but this will go down as a decisive event in the way government publishes and engages – digitally or otherwise.

Inside government is the second part of the GovUK beta to go live and although in the history books it will all rightly be discussed as one and same, for me at this stage in the development /government is the most radical and exciting part.

Your best guide to the project and the site is Neil Williams, the gov.uk/government product manager. But before I lose you to him, you might spare me just a couple of minutes to share an unofficial insider’s view (someone who has worked with, for and now in digital teams in the government; a hard-boiled sceptic, now convinced through first-hand experience of the gov.UK project)

So here are five reasons why I think the release of the Inside government beta is a watershed moment:

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Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

Government’s use of digital media is undergoing radical change. As digital media use has become more mainstream  and critical – first to communications, then policy-making through engagement and more recently for transactions – so too has government steadily rationalised its digital operations. That trend is now coming to a head with the establishment of the Government Digital Service, which will provide centralised services, a single domain and web platform for all government departments and [most of] their agencies to use.

That each department and agency will no longer have its own, separate domain, CMS, hosting arrangement, support contract, analytics account and maybe central web team is genuinely radical. But could the delivery of government digital services be more radical still?

Frances Maude’s speech at Civil Service Live 2011 made me think so. In that speech he floated the idea of giving public sector staff the right to form new mutuals and bid to take over the services they deliver. Could government digital services be a candidate for mutualisation? In this post I suggest that it could.

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Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects

'Eden Project is 10' logo
'Eden Project is 10' logo

When you think of the Eden Project you think of plants. So the book about ‘Eden‘ by it’s founder, Tim Smit, is going to be about plants.

In fact, there are hardly any plants in ‘Eden’. There’s no room for them because on every page there are portraits and portrayals of the people who worked to bring us the Eden Project. There really are loads of them and their story is fascinating.

Harnessing people to a dream

We think of the Eden Project as being built of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene but it is in fact made from people. The people in ‘Eden’ swarm like a bivouac of worker ants, linking up to nurture and protect something truly unique and valuable, and at the centre of it all – holding the concept – is Tim Smit.

The Eden Project is about plants but the reason is people. It was launched to be an educational and social enterprise that would demand public attention on a superb scale. But such ambition does not deliver itself easily. ‘Eden’ captures and emphasises the depth of enterprise, teamwork and leadership that went into the realisation of an attraction that over 10 million people have travelled to experience, and which to all intents and purposes had its genesis in a Cornish pub.

Tim Smit uses the opportunity of ‘Eden’ to reel off his thanks to as many of the characters as he can who mucked in along the way. He gives each the stage and tells us about what they did, how they did it in their own unique way and how none of the Eden Project would have been possible without them. But the book is not just an extended acknowledgements page; it is a great story with as many vivid twists and turns and suspenses and feel-good endings as any classic of fiction.

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Crossover appeal… why we need to link GDS, GCC and ICT

'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett
'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett

March 2011 saw a bonanza for those of us with an interest in government information and communication technology marked as it was by the unveiling of the Government Digital Service, the publication of the ‘Review of COI and Government Communications‘ and the release of the new Government ICT strategy.

First came the Government Digital Service (GDS) which gave ‘Codename Martha‘ formal status, an official title, a boss, a timeline, and put money where before there were only words. Government will have its single domain and from this point onwards will be looking to deliver of all its services and communications through a digital lens. To prove as much, a crack (or SWAT for MLF Review afficiandos) team was introduced headed up by Tom Loosemore and a man close to my appraisal, Jimmy Leach, who are soon to unveil a proof-of-concept for the single domain, going by the nom de guerre, AlphaGov.

Next up was the ‘Review of Government Direct Communication and COI‘. This set of recommendations, pulled together in which the Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary Government Communication, called for the exiting of the COI and the creation of the Government Communication Centre (GCC) in its place. The GCC’s task will be to spend significantly less people and money delivering fewer but better marketing communications by amplifying cross-government themes over departmental campaigns. Propositions are to be sharper, ROI will be taken much more seriously and digital will underpin it all.

And last but not least we got sight of the Government ICT Strategy. And a very enlightened and on-trend ICT strategy it is too. In it are contained committments to open source, interoperability, green credentials, cloud, web, use of Agile and even democratic power shift (which is a boon for the likes of an old worthy like me). Another departure from the norm is that this document is mercifully brief, very clear on the actions required and very exact on when they should be done by.

Each release demanded attention in its own right. But the commonalities also ring out.

  • Money… set against the backdrop of the deficit, each sets out to save billions of pounds. £1.3 billion for GDS. £54 million for GCC. And an unspecified figure for Government ICT but a stated ‘presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than £100 million‘.
  • People… There will be fewer people and the staff remaining will work to new skill sets and efficiency and effectiveness goals.
  • Digital… is an standout common theme but not one that is inevitable. Yes, you would expect the GDS to have lots of digital, but for the future of government marketing communications to be so acutely spearheaded by digital and then for the ICT strategy to talk in such ‘webby’ terms is a real watershed.
  • Centralisation… At a time when even the US Military is restructuring itself as a network, each of these HMG developments seek to put more strategic and delivery capacity in the centre. That’s intriguing, and like the point on digital above, is a real step-change.

Each release appeared independently and has been picked up by different practitioner communities. Colleagues in digital may have read one release and not the others, and the same goes for communications and IT colleagues. But they must be conversant in all three.

The trick is to understand them not as three separate entities but as a trinity. None can achieve its ambitions in isolation of others.

Regardless of the new budgets, new team sizes or new technology, it is this blurring of lines between three previously separate disciplines that is the point and the most exciting challenge of the next 4 – 5 years.

#ukgc11 – My Unconference Log

'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph
'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph

Back in the day I used to attend and speak at a lot of conferences. I was even instrumental in organising the UK’s first eDemocracy conference.

But since starting at the FCO I’ve had my head down. I don’t get out on work time as much as I used to; these days I rely far more on the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up on what’s what and who’s who. It works, but I miss the face-time with smart, creative people who are as passionate about digital as I am (my wonderful FCO colleagues excepted).

So it was I was really excited to attend UK GovCamp 2011. This was my first time along and tickets were hard to come by, so I thought to record my experiences and observations here to add to the other great commentary from the day and latterly.

Attendees

It won’t be any surprise that it was a total geek-fest, but it was the number and range of geeks that was impressive.

There were about 200 people there, which I understand was the biggest UK GovCamp to date. Amongst the 200 were local government people, central government people, commercial sector types as well as a few academics and journos. There were developers, policy officials, site managers, CIOs and IT representatives. It was this mixing of the discipline pools that was one of the most interesting aspects of the day.

Format & Venue

I’ve been to one or two unconferences and to be honest attendees sometimes struggle with the participant-led facilitation. But the Barcamp approach was perfect for the attendees and there was no shortage of people stepping up with good ideas for sessions when the grid was opened up. From there it was relaxed and playful but always focussed and meaty.

Microsoft were the hosts, putting us up in their swank Victoria offices. What a place! Loads of room, airy, good meeting rooms and quality breakout areas. Plus a Kinect set up, although I didn’t get time to play.

Sessions

What a choice! You could go to sessions on AGILE, open data, hyperlocality and an introduction to the new HMG CEO of Digital. Unkindly there were a lot of clashes, but such is the way with unconferences.

I made it to three…

Continue reading “#ukgc11 – My Unconference Log”

Evolution is alright by me – it’s what got us here

It’s not just in North Africa that there’s talk of revolution. I understand that over the next three months we should begin to see the Martha Lane Fox review of government digital move from the PDF to the browser.

The review proposed its recommendations were ‘revolution not evolution‘. But in practice expect the proposals to be much more of a progression than a drastic, fundamental restart. That is not to try to kill the buzz; the proposals are exciting, their acceptance at the highest levels is inspiring and there are very smart people running the development. Instead it is to argue that this development has a long lineage.

To demonstrate what I mean let’s compare the recommendations with one contemporary government site – a site I know well – www.fco.gov.uk.

[I paraphrase…]

1. Establish one standardised front-end… in 2008 the FCO launched the current fco.gov.uk, which brought 250+ sites and public services on to one platform and one domain. A central team (based in London and 4 regional hubs) was mandated to set standards and manage their development.

2. Become a wholesaler as well as a retailer… although it didn’t launch this way, nowadays the FCO makes its travel advice, news, speeches and other forms of content available as feeds and promotes their reuse.

3. Devolve editorial… FCO directorates and teams who had their sites rationalised still produce and upload content directly as and when they wish.  Around 400 staff have the ability to work the CMS while following centrally set objectives, policies and editorial plans.

4. Appoint a CEO for digital… FCO’s digital leadership comes from its Head of Digital, who has responsibility for editorial, engagement and technical aspects.

None of this to say that the FCO site gets it all right; the FCO has a long history of admitting its digital weaknesses and of making concerted efforts to address them, improving or rather adapting steadily to the ever changing environment. As have other departmental and public sector sites.

The intention here is to show the new ‘supersite’ (or, probably more accurately, the new digital service) will inherit features from current sites and services, and in this sense, the products set forth by the review will be ‘evolution not revolution’.

While it will resemble previous generations of government digital undoubtedly it will do the good things even better as a result of its heritage.

Where I hope (and hear) the revolution is more likely will be in the building of the thing.

Expect Agile rather than PRINCE2. More iterations rather than finished products. Prototypes and proofs of concept. User-centred principles and creative over corporate design. A preference for open source and extensibility. Decent, longterm investment.

It can’t be done any other way. Otherwise, today’s revolution will end up being tomorrow’s ancien regime.

[Yet more] Praise for Digital @ BIS

BIS Digital website screengrab

In the spirit of openness and transparency, there is a section of some government websites that deserves more of the searchlight. It’s the digital team pages, and one in particular has come under my scrutiny lately – Digital @ BIS.

bis.gov.uk/bisdigital has just recently launched. It’s primarily for webbies in the department and in its agencies, but it also serves to inform the wider public about what BIS does digitally should that public be minded to know more.

Not many departments have such sites even though more or less all have digital teams. Those that do are practicing what they preach.

The BIS example should be considered ‘best of breed’. It knows exactly who its audiences are and in what order. It’s design balances form and function. And it provides the passing novice or the hardcore practitionner with a wealth of content that taken as a taster or as a full course represents a hearty insight into a core function within a key government department.

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Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations

When I describe David Kilcullen to people I describe him as a ‘mash up’. In his look, Kilcullen is a cross between Steve Irwin and an American Football coach on R&R, replete with blazer and chinos. He’s an academic but he also spent 21 years in the army. He’s Australian but he worked for the American military.

He’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but in the States he’s revered as one of the architects of ‘The Surge in Iraq. His area of expertise, as an scholar and a soldier, is counter-insurgency. He’s a very good speaker and a talented writer, receiving plaudits from citizens and military-types alike for his 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Guerilla’, which packs essential reading on CT theory alongside explosive first-hand accounts of a hugely complex and dangerous area of warfare that most of us will thankfully only gawp at.

Having read ‘Accidental Guerilla’, I turned with interest to an earlier 2007 paper, ‘Twenty-Eight articles’ a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. One sentence early on stayed with me: ‘what does all the theory mean, at the company level?’ This tickled an idea in my head.

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written in the 6th century BC, has been applied ad nauseam to the business world. Maybe in Kilcullen we’ve got a latter day strategist who’s lessons from modern wars can better guide us in the current day. What if we swap out the army’s ‘company’ for civvy-street’s ‘organisation’? And consider ‘out-moded ways of thinking’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ our ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgent’?

As I reread ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ through this lens, I started to think ‘yes, there is something to this’; especially for managers in my trade. Public sector managers are finding themselves working in alien conditions. There are new ambitious bosses demanding more results with less resources. Money is one thing, but staff numbers have taken a hammering, and managers are finding their feet in new teams and often with new management structures on top. That’s not a complaint, it is a fact of [working] life. At the same time as doing ‘more for less’, many of these managers are trying to embed new ways of working amongst their staff and, crucially, their colleagues working around them.

It’s essentially a bit of fun and it’s comparison I make advisedly but I do believe that there are attitudes, principles and even practical lessons to be gleaned from Kilcullen’s counter-insurgency teachings for those trying to manage and deliver in tough times while also trying to bring about change.

You’ll have to read ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ to make an informed judgement for yourself. You’ll see the limits (no.19 is a prime example) but I’ve picked out some quotes to give a sense of what I’m leaning at and will leave you to make the translations. As Kilcullen says himself in sign-off:

Like any folklore it needs interpretation, and contains seemingly contradictory advice. Over time, as you apply unremitting intellectual effort to study your sector, you will learn to apply these ideas in your own way, and will add to this store of wisdom from your own observations and experience.

1. Know your turf

‘Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance… Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.’

2. Diagnose the problem
‘…in theater, situations will arise too quickly for orders, or even commander’s intent. Corporals and privates will have to make snap judgments with strategic impact. The only way to help them is to give them a shared understanding, then trust them to think for themselves on the day.’

3. Organize for intelligence
‘Your operations will be intelligence driven, but intelligence will come mostly from your own operations, not as a ‘product’ prepared and served up by higher headquarters… put the smartest soldiers [on intelligence duty]… you will have one less rifle squad: but the intelligence section will pay for itself in lives and effort saved.’

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Lessons for behaviour change communications in the age of austerity

'to the rescue' by fergaloid

Last week was One World Media Week, a week-long programme of events around the One World Media Awards.

I made it along to two of the fringe events organised by the Institute of Development Studies at the Royal Society, ‘Media as a Tool for Development’ and ‘White Man to the Rescue? International Development in the Media’. Discussions at both meetings ranged across international development issues, but it was behaviour change campaigns proved a consistent theme.

The delegates were mainly from academia, NGOs and broadcast and press media. Yet behaviour change communications is also a major theme for government. Having worked in both sectors, it struck me over the course that in this so-called age of austerity that there were many lessons government can learn from the way NGOs conduct their campaigns. That said, on reflection, there are lessons that civil society can learn from government.

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