Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Digital Engagement - Making it Work

Digital Engagement, Gov 2.0 whatever moniker you want to use is on the up and up now. President Obama’s successful use of social networking and other social media tools during the campaign followed by the and new sites has brought the issue front and centre for many governments. In Australia both the PM and the Opposition Leader are on twitter and the Opposition Leader recently launched a blog for conversing with Australians. The UK government is hiring a Director of Digital Engagement and has a various initiatives like the Number 10 e-petition system.

For all the enthusiasm, Andy Oram wrote a very good post yesterday about the questions about government participation. For Governments and citizens looking at digital engagement, these questions have to be answered. Without answering these questions, initiatives will fail.

Is digital engagement worth it? It is as implemented well it has the following benefits:

  • Reduction in cost of compliance for business which leads to lower prices reducing cost of living,
  • Supports the flourishing of new businesses,
  • Lower cost to running the government, and
  • Improve perception of the value of government services.
While these benefits may not seem like much they produce a positive feedback loop that increases the overall value to society.

So the question isn’t so much whether we should do it but rather how do we do use digital engagement tools effectively?

Just get out of my Way

Digital Engagement isn’t simply about holding a conversation. The context matters. For example, if I am looking for the address of a service centre I don’t want to enter into a conversation. However, if there is a new bill on the table in parliament then I will want to join the conversation.

The minute digital engagement gets in the users way or adds no value to what they are doing at the time is when you get push back.

The context is king for digital engagement.

Policy and bills before parliament are a perfect example of where digital engagement can work extremely well. In this case the bills would be available online. It is to borrow a phrase, a social object. To bring engagement to policy and bills would be in the form of comment system like Disqus or Intense Debate. In essence each policy or bill becomes its own blog post.

Build a little, test a little

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but often initiatives such as digital engagement try to build Rome in a day. Instead, digital engagement should use Werner Von Braun’s engineering approach: build a little, test a little. The idea here is to build prototypes that are quickly deployed, which are then iterated based on user feedback. Trying to build an all encompassing solution simply chews up time especially when the users will start using the system in ways no designer could have foreseen. The evolution of Twitter is a great case study for how users take a system and begin using it in ways the designers and builders never expected.

Winning the Sceptics

Winning over the sceptics is likely to be the hardest part of any digital engagement initiative. Sceptics will question the value of digital engagement. They will also worry about how it changes their workload and job. Even for some whether it will mean losing their job. Others will ask whether the government will keep the conversation two-way. Addressing these real and legitimate concerns has to be the primary responsibility for those in charge of any digital engagement initiative.

The build a little, test a little approach neatly provides a way of demonstrating the value of digital engagement without extensive investment in time and money. Perhaps more importantly, it provides those involved with concrete and tangible feel for how their work will change.

The on-going involvement from both sides of the conversation will be the hardest to tackle. The key here is to be realistic. Fred Wilson continually points out how the community around his blog is built from his active involvement. For digital engagement to work, the public service and Government will have to participate in providing answers to comments and questions. Will Ministers and senior public servants want to do this? Some will and some won’t. The answer is to have “Untouchables”, “Community Managers” or “Community Advocates” who can effectively engage in the conversation.

Work/Life Balance

Drawing a line between work conversation and personal conversation is fraught but important for any digital engagement to succeed. Some organisations take the ridiculous view of everything being professional. It doesn’t work that way and is an imposition on people because organisations don’t want to address the issue at stake but instead repress it.

Mistakes will be made, gaffes will happen and the “wrong” thing said. Creating a policy that doesn’t address that is madness and will drive people (particularly Government and public servents) away from participation. Instead the policy needs to recognise when someone is a representative of the public service and government and when they are private citizens.

Showcasing Engagement

Without showcasing the prototypes across the Government and Public service web presence, all of the above will be wasted. Case in point, the OPSI “Unlock Service (beta)” is buried in the jungle of government portal pages. I only found it by accident. Given the importance of open government and digital engagement, this service needs to be showcased on the portal at the very least. Without making the prototypes, tools and developments that come out from a digital engagement initiative its very likely they will fail. In this President Obama’s, and are good examples of surfacing the tools.

Digital Engagement initiatives will change Government. How much change and how effectively they realise the benefits of Digital Engagement, depends on execution.

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