Minister wants more social media

Tom Watson publishes (what looks like) a speech announcing the formation of a Power Of Information Taskforce, to be chaired by former LibDem MP Richard Allan (now senior manager of UK&I government affairs at Cisco), taking forward the Power Of Information report by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg.
An interim Progress Report on Power was published yesterday… but frankly, there’s nothing especially substantial to report. Plenty of talk about pilots and guidelines, though. I’m keen to see what Jeremy Gould makes of the report’s claim that ‘the government supported a Barcamp initiated by the Ministry of Justice.’ And I’m not sure I’d get too excited about an OPSI discussion forum with ‘over 70 messages’ in it.
This contrasts so sharply with the moves made by Downing Street last week, throwing themselves at the mercy of the Twitterverse – and winning quite a few friends by doing so. No need for lengthy stakeholder consultation, or strategy papers. It was clearly a good idea; so they just did it. (And believe me, No10 aren’t finished yet, not by a long shot. More on that later this week.)
The two most interesting lines in Tom’s speech are, I’d say, the ‘draft guidance on how public servants can use social media’ being put to the Taskforce ‘later this week’ (confirming a rumour I’d heard from elsewhere); and his call for:

more use of techniques commonplace now in the wider world, internal blogs, wikis, discussion forums, shared workspaces, all still quite rare within the machine.

Yes folks, the Minister actively wants you to use blogs and wikis. Your business case just wrote itself.

Civil service blogging guidelines

I guess you might see it as kneejerk; I prefer to see it as responsive. The Civil Serf affair has brought the matter of civil servants blogging to a head, and now is absolutely the right time to work out the ground rules.
At lunchtime, Tom Watson publishes a ‘for starters’ list of bullet points on his personal blog. By 6pm, he’s had responses back from all the usual suspects, and a few others. And you can see things taking shape. A case study in itself.
Point number one has to be the observance of the Civil Service Code. I don’t see anything in it which shouldn’t apply in the online world as in the offline. And if there are anomalies, the Civil Service Code needs to be reconsidered.
As for specific rules on (personal) blogging, It’s hard to argue with Tom Loosemore‘s suggestion that we adopt the BBC’s policy as a starting point. It’s well worded; it’s been collaboratively developed by people who actually do it; it’s been through several iterations, with a new release out today in fact; communication is their natural territory; and they’ve been dealing it as an issue for longer than most. Besides, ‘it’s what the BBC does’ usually wins any argument in this business.
But it’s official blogging which interests me most: use of the tools to engage your stakeholder audience in a rolling dialogue. Too often initiatives disappear the day after their announcement, sometimes never to be spoken of again. The job needs to be done, I’d argue; and blogs are the best tool for doing so. I’d like any official guidelines to actively encourage them, especially on long-running, sensitive and high-visibility projects. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking ID cards, Census, major public service reform.
Do they need separate guidelines? Initially I thought so; now I’m not so sure. The BBC guidelines basically say if you use your BBC identity, you must do so responsibly. Official blogging is the very same scenario, turned up a notch. But we’ve got plenty of experience in doing blogs like these – FCO, Our NHS, the various Hansard Society pilots. It should be fairly easy to test any guidance against prior experience.
My only thought is that any guidance will inevitably call for distance between personal capacity and professional capacity, opinion and fact. Where does that leave a Minister, who splits his posts between the Ministerial portfolio and the party-political? Tom?

Minister's 'regret' at Civil Serf affair

Full credit to Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson for his extremely measured and well-balanced take on the Civil Serf story. Tom was speaking at Tower 08, a major CO-hosted conference on Transformational Government – and has posted his speech on his long-established (and often highly party-political) blog. For the record, the speech isn’t yet showing on the Cabinet Office site… which probably says something in itself.
4pm update: in fairness to the Cabinet Office, it’s up there now. Kinda.
Cabinet Office grab
(Following evening update: they still haven’t fixed it. But anyway – back to our previously published story…)
Tom said of Civil Serf:

Yesterday I read with regret the story of an anonymous civil servant blogger by the name of Civil Serf. Her bluntly written blog about life in Whitehall was taken down, after it came to the attention of the national press. Now, I’m not going to say that we should tear up the civil service code it’s very important that civil servants play by the rules, nor do I agree with everything she says, but surely a truly transformed government would be one in which speaking engagingly about life our public services would be far from newsworthy, and far from career wrecking.

Hear hear. But that’s not the end of it. Tom goes on to list a number of things happening ‘over the next few months’, some of which I’m getting unreasonably excited about.

I see my job as helping you to accelerate the pace of change. Over the next few months, we will be

  • pushing through the closure of our hundreds of unnecessary websites.
  • improving our online content, including minimum standards for the content of remaining websites.
  • Ensuring that all content held on government web sites is fully accessible to the major search engines.
  • Embedding data mash-up into thinking across all of government not just the early adopters within departments.
  • Driving through the cultural change in all our communications that sees the internet, mobile and other new media as the norm
  • ensuring better innovation and much faster implementation. Build stuff small, test it out then iterate, iterate, iterate.
  • capturing the skills, talent and energy we need for change – from within the public service and from outside. Over the next few weeks I hope to say more on this.
  • using new media to engage more directly and more effectively with individuals and communities.

And the most frequent question my civil servants will hear from me is, ‘Why not’?

Yes yes yes yes yes. In all seriousness, I can’t imagine it getting much better than that. A rallying call, and a list of tangible actions from an e-government minister who knows first-hand what he’s talking about.
Er… except for one thing. I say the Tower 08 conference was backed by the Cabinet Office. You might be interested to discover that the two-day event at the Tower Guoman hotel (formerly the Tower Thistle) was actually ‘hosted by the Cabinet Office in conjunction with Intellect, the trade association for the UK technology industry and is being supported by our sponsors Fujitsu Services, Oracle and Lockheed Martin.’ And it cost £995 ex VAT per head per day.
I’m sorry, but there is something inherently wrong with ‘a range of public sector officials from chief executives and senior managers to customer facing staff’ paying that sort of money to hear their own bosses and colleagues talk.
I’m informed that the conference was actually free for civil servants – although since the web page has now been updated to the past tense, the cost details have been wiped. Still a lot of money for a conference, though.

Tom Watson's 'mashed up' speech

OK, I’m an idiot. The lengthy and fair-minded piece I wrote this morning about a speech by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne at the RSA was a year late.
Osborne made some interesting points about the need ‘to recast the political settlement for the digital age.’ And now today, there’s an email doing the rounds (see Nick Booth’s piece) pointing out similarities between this 2007 speech and the one made by Tom Watson on Monday. Amusingly, it condemns the Watson speech as a ‘mashup’. But hold on. Surely it’s entirely in keeping with the whole ethos of open source, to take good ideas and build on them? Didn’t you say mass collaboration was a good thing? 🙂
OK, I’m being churlish. But this points to the biggest single hurdle in ‘politics 2.0’, or whatever we’re calling it. Inevitably, roughly once every four years, every politician’s worst instincts will come out as they fight for power or survival. You can’t blame them. That’s the adversarial, winner-takes-all political system we’re currently stuck with.
And that’s ironically why we need the apolitical Civil Service to take a lead on use of these collaborative technologies.

Where's our Directgov blog?

When the Guardian’s Michael Cross interviewed Directgov chief executive Jayne Nickalls in August last year, he wrote:

In its response to the Power of Information report, the Cabinet Office proposes that Directgov embraces Web 2.0 technology by incorporating a blog in which users exchange their experiences.

Now if it’s really in the official Cabinet Office document, ‘The Government’s Response to The Power of Information‘ (PDF), I’m damned if I can find it. But that’s not the point. We were promised a two-way communication channel with Directgov… and nigh-on six months later, it’s still not here.
Tom Watson’s ‘minister for e-government’ role still hasn’t been explicitly confirmed, as far as I’m aware. But if he’s looking for ideas, there’s one for a start. I hear the Directgov people are waiting to be given official guidance. But now we’ve got a blog-literate minister in charge, it’s as simple as three little words – Yes We Can – and a quick trip over to We could do it tomorrow. What do you say, Tom? Jayne? Anyone?

E-gov minister not hanging around

Just to note that e-gov minister (?) Tom Watson, responding to comments on his ‘tell me what to do’ blog post, says he has ‘already got moving on the single spot for consultations’. It’s a start, but it’s far from the solution. Indeed, not so long ago, we did have a single (Cabinet Office?) website listing all open consultation exercises. It disappeared. The address now redirects to a page at BERR.
The more important aspect to Sheila Thomson’s proposal was the ugly techie bit. Her four-stage plan started with a single list, moved to a single notification channel, then to a standard layout, then to a standard XML schema. The first two are dead easy, we could do it in WordPress in minutes; the second two are much, much more difficult – if not impossible. People get very precious about their writing.
Of all the issues in government web activity, consultation is the one I’m most concerned about. It’s taking us a helluva long time to find an acceptable means of consulting, online or offline; and frankly, I’m not sure there’s an appetite for it among the general population. Various people are trying various things at the moment; but until those deliver (or not), we need to concentrate on re-engaging the population, and making them actually care enough to get involved.

Leading blogger is new e-gov Minister

I haven’t yet seen official confirmation, but I’m reliably informed that Tom Watson is the new minister for e-government, post-reshuffle. The Cabinet Office website only says that: ‘Following on from Gillian Merron’s departure to the Department for International Development, Tom Watson MP has been appointed as new Parliamentary Secretary.’ And since she was responsible, it seems a safe bet that he is now. Watson, writing on his own blog, has only said that he has ‘some responsibility for technology projects’.
Tom Watson was famously the first MP to start a blog, back in 2003; he won recognition from the New Statesman’s new media awards in 2004. And already he’s putting it to good use, to try and engage with people like us:

If I was (smarter at all this stuff), I’d design a one page “Tell Tom” site where you could describe the project you think the clever people at the Ministry should be working on. A sort of “Fix my Street” for government web sites. All ideas welcome and who knows, you might actually make a difference.
(Tip for Tom: you’re using WordPress. Just create a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’, and be sure to tick the ‘Allow Comments’ box – if, that is, your web designer has allowed for comments in the ‘page’ template, which he/she may not have done.)

This, of course, raises an interesting dilemma. Watson’s blog has always been unashamedly pro-Labour, anti-Tory: even in the last handful of posts, he’s been having digs at Iain Dale and David Cameron (reminding me of his apparent involvement in 2006’s notorious Sion Simon video). It’s generally good-natured, but it’s certainly party-political. So is it appropriate for him to conduct Ministerial business on the same blog?
I’m not trying to make a point by asking this question: just pointing out that Ministers face the same quandry as the civil servants. Tom clearly understands the territory, and it’s actually a great appointment from that perspective. But I’m more than curious to see how ministerial responsibility for government web activity will affect his long-running personal web activity.