Developer & trainer, Helpful Technology
Time to try something new
This is an edited version of a post that appeared earlier this week at helpfultechnology.com
Things will be tight in the public sector – and local government especially – in 2013. So far, so Mystic Meg.
I don’t underestimate the effort required by the brave souls who, unlike me, are still in public service, just to keep the lights on this year. But it’s not a question of martyrdom: surprisingly – at least to me – a lot of folk I meet are rather enjoying the challenge and the opportunity that some of that disruption has created. From a policymaker’s perspective, digital tools for engagement have matured to an extent now that the question isn’t whether they’re suitable but more about learning from good examples of how they’ve been used, and finding a suitable project to apply them on.
So here’s a suggestion from me for 2013: try and branch out a bit in 2013 and try something new online. Don’t just stick to some of the more well-worn digital channels – Facebook pages, a SurveyMonkey consultation form, or that carefully-chosen Twitter hashtag. I’m not suggesting you play with supposedly cutting-edge tools for their own sake, but rather that you work back from where your stakeholders are, the pressures they face and the kind of feedback you’re looking to hear, and think laterally about how to talk to them about policy issues. Take a calculated risk on something that sounds a bit odd, see what happens, and share what you find - like the guys at BIS did with their Instagram Your Policy idea (whose time will come, I say).
And perhaps throw in one or two of the ideas below, designed to make the stereotypical pinstriped mandarin spill his sherry:
- Schedule a massively multiplayer teleconference: the Autumn Statement saw an interesting pilot by Politicshome to arrange and run a large-scale teleconference with an interested audience - similar to the earnings calls CEOs and CFOs have with analysts. Keeping it punchy, human, authentic – that’s what phone calls can do well. No hashtags need be involved.
- Write an FAQ live with your stakeholders: try out a tool like HackPad or Google Docs to open up a document not just for comment, but for actual collaborative writing – ‘track changes’ style – over a few days. Answer the questions people really raise, or throw things out for your stakeholders to fill in the blanks. Obviously, it won’t be the official line, but it might demonstrate to stakeholders some of the competing pressures and agendas you have to deal with, and involve them in the process of assimilating them.
- Open mic a social media channel: ‘a new Swede every week’ promises @sweden, which has attracted its fair share of controversy, opening up a well-followed social media account to all and sundry. In a more restrained way, the Civil Service FastStream recruitment campaign has been doing something similar on its Facebook page – telling a variety of personal stories, which always beat the official line for credibility and interest. With the right caveats, could @InsidePolicyTeamX, with a guest tweeter each week, get some internal buzz going and start a few interested colleagues on their own social media journeys?
- Publish your next big document as an eBook: Web pages are still usually a poor way to read the long documents that policy will inevitably come in, but we can do better than PDFs printed out to be scribbled over on the train. The Medical Research Council recently managed to get their annual report published in a couple of mainstream e-reader formats, as has the Scottish Government – tailoring policy documents to the reality of Kindle-toting stakeholders and citizens and hopefully removing a barrier to access (and saving a few trees).
- Don’t ask for structured responses to your next consultation: or at least, don’t insist that responses come through a conventional, structured online questionnaire. Lots of people care about issues, but can’t or won’t give you answers to questions about policy without being co-ordinated by lobby groups – so ask them for the stories and examples they can more easily give you instead, as context for your analysis. The kind of richness that focus groups used to provide, and politicians encounter in their surgeries each week, but which the civil service of 2013 can’t easily source. So if you’re working on alcohol reform, set up a virtual ‘message in bottle’ for people to send you a three line story of how alcohol affects their family or community. If you’re working on localism, ask people to share a pen portrait of the most influential person in their neighbourhood and why. If you’re looking to stimulate small business growth, ask for a suggestion by text message of one thing that would help a proprietor (and if they’ll send you a photo of themselves at work, promise you’ll peg them up outside the minister’s office… a sort of policy bunting).
Some of these might take more nerve than others, for sure, but they’re not intended purely to provoke. In fact, here’s a sanity check to apply to any proposal before you make the leap:
- Does it help someone understand this issue better, and take the next step more easily?
- Does it make any feedback we’ll receive more useful, and manageable?
- Does it strengthen, rather than weaken, the trust in the relationship between our organisation and its audience?
Be confident saying ‘yes’ to all three before jumping. And have an adventurous 2013.
Photo credit: Thinkpublic