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”

What did you do during the Flu, daddy?

The ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic is far from the threat it was. We must remember it as a genuine threat – 14,711 died worldwide, with 390 of those in the UK – but now the government response is being scaled back.

COI was proud to play its part in spearheading efforts to educate the public about the pandemic and keep the information flowing as the situation unfolded. The virus was unpredictable and as this was the first pandemic of the digital age there was limited scope for communications planning and our efforts had to be flexible and fleet of foot.

From April 2009, I led a small COI Interactive team tasked with coordinating the ‘owned’ and earned’ digital media response; but with the general scaling back, I have now been ‘stood down’ and assigned to other campaigns and projects.

There will be formal evaluation efforts to properly assess the contribution made by government communications in limiting the impact of the virus. The aim will be to capture lessons learned. From my vantage, the integrated communications worked well – alongside a healthy dose of responsible coverage by the media – and those contributing to the digital efforts should be pleased with the results.

Still, having had opportunity to reflect, I’d recommend 10 additions to our response:

  1. Place at least as much importance on mobile and web as any other media
  2. Create one UK site for the public to access official information, advice, services and updates
  3. Establish a centralised and automated repository to gather stats from all relevant public sector websites, and make these available as ‘raw’ reports and dashboards
  4. Intervene in the social web to correct misformation, answer questions and build up engagement with the general public through regular webchats and podcasts
  5. Provide ‘toolkits’ of content and apps for bloggers and community site managers, including – for example – symptom checkers
  6. Use mobile to distribute updates and access codes to key at-risk groups
  7. Encourage peer-to-peer exchange of official information and messaging through social network apps – for example ‘I’ve taken the following measures, so should you’
  8. Release as many raw data sets and visualisations as possible to demonstrate spread and status
  9. Collate local situation updates and make available through a centralised application
  10. Use social media monitoring to optimise editorial content and tactical paid-for-search activity

In summary, future pandemic communications ought to benefit from a single destination site for all citizens, use of the social web and mobile to encourage engagement with official sources, more automated collection and sharing of data, and a greater frequency of content updates using all available rich media.

Surfing Spots… all-in-one-page debate, pupil voices and ROI

Do people still talk about surfing the web? Well, anyway…

While surfing around recently, I spotted the following:

1. BBC’s experimental online debates


This online discussion format is a departure from the normal message boards and comments used by the BBC. I liked the way they had incorporated the issue, the two sides (using rich media), an indication of sentiment, example comments, and the ability to add your own all on one page. The look of the UI is a little bit dated , but hey-ho.

I haven’t been able to find out who’s been behind them or what’s going to happen next. Any leads appreciated.

2. Involver


A former colleague, Greg Sanderson, emailed me a link to the website of Involver, the social enterprise he is working for, which promotes smarter school councils.

I hold this up as an impressive example of what agile small organisations like Involver can do with WordPress and a few well chosen social web accounts to communicate, consult and encourage communities of practice online.



SWIX is a company that ‘helps companies measure the ROI of their social media marketing campaigns’. I signed up to test their SWIX app, which is in beta. I’ve done a lot of reviews of these sorts of tools and even in beta this is impressive.

You create a dashboard capturing activity across your corporate/personal/campaign presences online, SWIX tallies them all up and calculates an ROI for each. It even gives you the choice of sharing this information in an automated report, a webpage or not at all. Would like to see a tie in with some more embedded market players, such as Netvibes.

The SWIX blog is at http://blog.swixhq.com.

Sustainable Surfing – 5 sites to tap into the COP15 feeling

With COP15 very much in the frame, I thought I’d share 5 useful web resources (linked to the environment and living green) that make smart uses of the web:

WalkIt.com– Walking in and around town is the smart choice – no timetables, no delays, no jams, healthy, green, free, with easy access to services en route. WalkIt provides a route map between any two points, including your journey time, calorie burn, step count and carbon saving. WalkIt covers over 20 cities; I’ve used it in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London and it is brilliant. Good blog too.

MunroMagic.com – If you want to experience the scale and power of the environment, then take a train to Scotland and go climb a Munro, Corbett or Graham. All 283 Munros, 221 Corbetts and 224 Grahams are covered in detail including descriptions, pictures, location maps, walking routes, weather reports. Much of which is generated by the people who do the climbing.


I use this site all the time because, let’s face it, people still need to print on occasion. PrintFriendly makes printing from the web better. Their algorithm removes ads, navigation, and all the junk you don’t want to print. They use ‘best practices’ in print typography to format your document for great readability. You can also use to create PDF docs.


I’m not a member of this hive of climate change activists but I’ve been watching this community for a couple of years and have been impressed by the scale and frequency of activity. There’s lots to like about this issue-based network – from the Rails platform to the goals-based interaction between members.


The whole story of the Eden Project – then and now – is inspiring. I think every area in the UK should have an Eden Project but until that happens the website is the best [but one] place to be part of it. It’s a great point to start on a journey of greater appreciation for the environment and the way humans can live sustainably. Start with the site, radiate out to the YouTube channel and then who knows where.

Much Use Tools… Screengrab, Screenr and dotSUB

Spanners by Ross Ferguson
'Spanners' by Ross Ferguson

Recommendations for some highly-rated free tools I have been coming in handy at work recently:


No Photoshop to edit a ‘Print Screen’ capture? Screengrab is a Firefox add-on that captures what you can see in the bowser, either the entire page, just a selection, or a particular frame. It saves the capture as a decent sized JPG that can then be dropped in a doc to go up to the boss or over to the client.


Got wind of this on Mashable the other day. I’ve used a number of screen-recording tools before, but Screenr is really slick and the files are a decent size. Perfect for recording an instructional video to walk a colleague or client through an unfamiliar set-up.


Need to add subtitles to a video? With nothing to buy or download, dotSUB is a browser-based tool enabling subtitling of videos on the web into and from any language. Highly recommended for an all-too-familiar tricky requirement. They even have ‘Scots’ language on there, though nothing has been uploaded yet. Race you!

Stuff what I has been reading… 27/07 – 02/08

Push too hard for revenue in the short term, they might drive away users, undermining a network. Leave it too late to monetise and the business could collapse.

Social media – is it about money or people?

[From The Economist]

There are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building.

Rory Stewart knows Afghanistan, and this essay is a expert analysis of the problems with the Afghan ‘mission’; it is a pity that his solution to the problem is not as clear as his diagnosis of the problem.

[From the London Review of Books]

Of all the economic bubbles that have been pricked, few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself.

A spirited but balanced defence of the dismal science.

[From The Economist]

Evaluation of ‘Improving Government Online’ Review

COI ran a consultative review of guidance on measuring website costs, quality and usage. The Review started on 27 March 2009 and ran for a period of three weeks under the banner of ‘Improving Government Online’.

Due to the fact that the proposed end-users of the guidance were already well-disposed to the use of collaborative editing tools online and because of the successes of other ‘early adopterdepartments, the Digital Policy Review team was persuaded of the value in trying a new approach to reviewing that used a range of ‘social media’ applications to place the draft documents in the public domain for open review and comment.

I advised on the applications to use and their set up (reporting the process in an earlier post). I also a carried out an evaluation independently of the Review team, so as to capture not only their own specific experience but to also to encourage wider evaluation and critique of the use of ‘commentable’ or ‘interactive’ documents was by government reviews and consultations.


  1. The format of the Review attracted participation by a small, knowledgeable group of end-users;
  2. The new Review format generated a greater number of comments that provided a more precise set of amendments for the Review team to consider;
  3. The Review team was unfamiliar with the format but quickly found their rhythm and became more confident;
  4. The Review team will use the format for future reviews because it strengthened the quality of the guidance and made the process easier despite generating greater traffic than usual;
  5. Future use of this review format would be welcomed by participants and spectators who interacted with this exercise.
  6. The format allowed the Review team to indicate where they made specific amendments to the guidance as a result of reviewer input.

Continue reading “Evaluation of ‘Improving Government Online’ Review”

Tweet As Tools

Here are some Twitter publishing and tracking tools that I’ve been using a lot recently…

TweetDeck – installs on your desktop and is a useful program from publishing and monitoring Twitter activity – www.tweetdeck.com

TweetStats – provides statistics about your Twitter activity, and if you put others’ names in you can get data about their activity – www.tweetstats.com

TwitGraph – more or less the same as above, not as nice an interface but you can save the graphs as JPGs to drop into reports – www.twitgraph.com

TwitterFall – initially quite confusing, this is useful for tracking activity on Twitter – www.twitterfall.com

TweetBurner – shortens and allows you to track use of your URLs – www.tweetburner.com

Trendrr – compare Twitter trend activity – www.trendrr.com

What are you using?