John Sheridan has been an active senior public sector advocate for the use of digital technologies in government for some years now.
He’s stepped this up a notch with his recent appointment as Australian Government’s Chief Technology Officer and I thought it was valuable to share one of his most recent presentations on social media, as published in the Australian Government Information Management Office’s blog, to demonstrate and share how the Australian Public Service’s thinking in this area has matured.
John touches on a number of the themes I often touch on in this blog – the benefits of social media use outweigh the costs, social media is manageable and gives agencies more scope to influence discussion and media coverage, good use of digital channels provides service efficiencies and convenience, and there’s no time like the present to start (stop prevaricating).
So, reproduced under their CC BY copyright license, here is John’s presentation, attributed to the AGIMO Website – http://agimo.gov.au:
SOCIAL(MEDIA)ISM at the International Public Sector Convention
13 March 2013
This is a presentation I made at CPA Australia’s International Public Sector Convention
on 22 February 2013. My message was that the time is right for Australian Government agencies to utilise social media and other online tools to bolster and expand their communication strategies. The costs of doing so in a targeted manner are not that high, especially when compared to those of the opportunities that not doing so could forego. You can see a shorter summary of the presentation here
Photo by Ze.Valdi used under Creative Commons
When you’re preparing for these sorts of talks it’s interesting to think about your audience and what it is that you’re going to say. And when I was first invited to do this some time ago, I had thought initially that this was my chance to get back for accrual accounting. But I sort of softened a bit on that and thought well, no, maybe I shouldn’t pick on the audience like that.
Perhaps they want some innovation? And then I thought what’s innovation, in the terms of accounting, and a Tony Soprano notion came to mind, rather than anything else. So I decided that instead I’d settle on starting with some facts, showing you what I think the sort of web and social media and mobile activities are, and then talking about what I think Public Servants should be doing about it.
Fifty-two percent of Australians are on Facebook. Now that doesn’t sound like all that many when you start, but then you think the ABS tells us that 19% of Australians are younger than 15, so 14 or younger. Now I think we can assume that many of them, if they are on Facebook, are probably supervised by their parents, so we can probably add that to the 52. I also know that there are some 4% of Australians who are 80 or over. Now some of them are indeed on Facebook and using social media, but I think again generally as a rule we can probably say maybe they’re not.
So what does that tell us? If you add 52 and 19 and four, you get 75 I think, or close enough for Government work, and that what that tells you is there’s only 25% who aren’t covered by that number. In other words, the people who are using Facebook in Australia outnumber the people who aren’t using Facebook by two to one. Right? There’s an enormous change in what we’re doing in social media, what we’re doing online, and the imperative to do something about that in Government is obviously, I think, very important.
Now we know that everybody does use digital tools for a range of things. We’ve been running a survey for six iterations about the use of digital technologies in eGovernment, and what we discovered – this slide shows the last three iterations, 2008, 2009, and 2011 – and 2011 was the last year we ran the survey, and the reason we had to stop is the questions had stopped being relevant. We could still collect the information, but it was no longer useful in terms of how the world had changed. And in the last year you can see that 84% of the some 3,000 people that were surveyed (indicating to presentation slide) – and this was, you know, like a responsible survey, not one done using Survey Monkey one afternoon – what it does is test the fact that many Australians were indeed using digital technologies, eGovernment, to contact and get services.
We saw that when asked about how they last contacted Government over, over six iterations of the survey here (indicating to presentation slide), 1/3 consistently said at the Federal Government level, the State and Territory Government level, and at the Local Government level, that they were using technology, online internet technology, for their last transaction with Government.
Now it isn’t everybody, and there are of course things that occur. We see for example when we examine some of these statistics further that people would sometimes do a lot of work on the internet and then ring up armed with the facts. It’s the sort of scenario I think that Doctors face all the time when people come in and tell them what diseases they’ve got because they’ve been looking them up on the internet. It’s slightly better in getting Government services, but we do know that there are a lot of people using those tools to find out what’s going on, to get the information they need.
We built, starting a couple of years ago, a My Account function in australia.gov.au. Now the big blue bar in the middle just rules out my secret name (indicating to presentation slide), so that you can’t use it and find out all about me. Some 1.9 million Australians have accounts on australia.gov.au, 1.3 million of them are linked to various services – Centrelink services, Medicare services, the personally controlled electronic health record, Veterans’ services, and some child support services. Using this account facility you can login and you can find the arrangements that you have, and explore what they are.
You’re going to see much more detail if someone’s using all of those services. Capturing mine doesn’t give you very much information, and I didn’t really want to bore you with my visits to the Doctor, so you could see the facilities that are here. But it is a very important tool. Indeed so important that what we are currently doing is moving from the My Account function to a new My Gov function run by the Department of Human Services, because it’s been seen that our organisation, having got this stood up, established the worth of it, and being able to support it at the numbers we started with, is no longer going to be able to support what is likely to be tens of millions of Australians using these services, because we know that people want services they can get easily and quickly – they don’t want to be waiting, they don’t want to be in queues, and they want their information quickly when they can get it.
Interestingly they don’t just want it sitting at a desk in their study or at some kiosk in the library or something like that, they want these services in their pockets, they want to be able to get them wherever they are, and all sorts of services that Government provides. The Department of Human Services has been doing a lot of really exciting work, developing mobile applications that their customers can use to get information about their entitlements.
It’s a really interesting change, because I think even those of us really interested in it, probably didn’t think that this was going to be such a significant change over time. You think that, historically, people sit down when they’ve put the kids to bed and check their finances, or do their sums, or things like that, but instead what we’re seeing is that they’re taking the opportunity to do this at other times during the day, so there’s a pressure on us to develop mobile friendly sites for Government, things that provide not just applications, but also the basic work that we have.
This is a screenshot of the mobile version of the Government online directory (indicating to presentation slide), and if you follow it through what you can find is a whole range of useful information about the Commonwealth Parliament, about the Courts, about the Governor General, and about the 19 odd Government portfolios. Indeed if you were to go to this site and search for Sheridan, you would find me and my role. And, because of the use of mobile technology, you could click on that and email me, or ring me – or at least ring my office – ring me and connect straight away.
We’re actually finding that this is an advantage not just for citizens, not just for our customers, but even for Public Servants themselves. I use this application on my iPhone now all the time. Now there’s another interesting thing that I’ll just touch on while we’re on this. You heard me say my iPhone, and this is another trend that we see, people are providing, Public Servants are providing their own devices, they want to use those to get the sort of services that they need as well. Indeed one of the challenges that we addressed at some considerable length in our work on the Government 2.0 taskforce was how we would allow people to use social media at work on their Government computers, and this occupied us for some considerable time, it was one of the recommendations that the report made and was addressed by Government at the time.
What’s interesting is that since then the world has moved on. Anyone who wants to access social media and internet and the web does so from a device in their pocket most of the time. They’re not interested in using their work systems. And what we’ve seen is that this has become so mainstream that it isn’t about IT control, but rather about personnel management control, making sure that Supervisors understand what it is that their staff are doing, and are making sure that they’re making reasonable use of the resources that they have, but are also getting on with the rest of their work. It’s that change from the technology frontend to the management middle that I think indicates how mainstream these technologies have become.
Photo by Peregrino Will Reign used under Creative Commons
Now we also provide a platform for agencies to create blogs, other forms of communication with their customers. Govspace.gov.au, which you can search for very easily, contains some 53 sites already, with another 40 odd queued up, that are in development for agencies to use. We charge $4,500 a year for the basic site on data, on govspace.gov.au. You’re probably thinking, “Well why are they bothering to charge that?” Well of course I think we all know that free goods aren’t valued particularly highly, and by having a nominal charge, indeed less than you can pay on your Government credit card, what we ensure is that people who start a site and find that it doesn’t work for them, or aren’t using it, or it finishes their purpose, it can be closed down or archived, retained for the record, but it isn’t an ongoing management burden for us.
And I think this also gives you a feel for the ease and the speed at which the uptake of mobile and web technologies in this Web 2.0 world is occurring – it’s a significant change in what we do. We’re seeing now, through the use of Cloud computing, that agencies who want a new site, want a new application, can literally have it turned on in days, where previously it might have been months at least before even some of the simpler applications could get turned on. This paradigm has moved so that these things are no longer restricted to IT, and one of the messages that you take away from this is this notion of making best use of the web and online technologies is not about IT, it’s about business doing things, and working out what they can do to change how they are doing their business.
Now one of the very strong use cases for social media is in the emergency management field. We saw, and those of you who are actually from Queensland will probably know, at the time of the floods and cyclones a couple of years ago the Queensland Police Service media unit drove a considerable change in the way they were providing advice to citizens through a range of online channels. And this, I think, is an example that’s been picked up by a range of other organisations. This is a shot from the A.C.T. Emergency Services Agency’s webpage (indicating to presentation slide), and what they are finding is that by using a combination of Twitter, and Facebook, and this webpage, they’re addressing the concerns of citizens really quickly. So a citizen can see some smoke, look at the website, and discover that there’s burning off going on.
Now, remembering of course that, if you weren’t sure, the ACT is marginally smaller than Brisbane, so that we’re probably a slightly tighter knit community, but you can actually see what’s going on all the time, and this new level of awareness is obviously, I think, what people are seeking.
Now there are some, again, interesting challenges in this level of awareness. Social media does allow people to use platforms that essentially are free or very cheap, so if you think of the QPS’s Facebook page, you don’t pay Facebook, as I’m sure many of you know, because two out of three of you are already using it, but you don’t pay Facebook to set up the page, and you don’t necessarily control all the things that are occurring on it, so there are some challenges that grow in the way that people respond. You can see in the left hand, bottom left hand corner there (indicating to presentation slide), the caution not to use this page to report a crime.
Now the fact that QPS had to put that there indicates a range of things. Firstly, this new channel open to people was very interesting and useful for them, and they thought they could do that. But also they discovered that people were unaware of the traps of doing so. For example, if you use your Facebook account to say, “I was just here and I saw this crime occurring,” that maybe the criminal’s seeing that too, and knows what your name is, or knows how to find you as a consequence. There are also obvious concerns about some of the tragedies that the Police Service generally deals with, and seeing some of them played out in social media on the Police’s Facebook page would cause some concerns.
So when you’re setting up something like this, you also need to do the sort of risk management that you expect across really any Government activity. I’ve been having a discussion in the last couple of hours on Twitter as a consequence of a meeting I had with some senior, I guess mainly Communications Executives in Government yesterday in Canberra, and we were talking about the steps that you need to take in social media, and we all agreed that many agencies now, if not the majority of agencies, like many large organisations now, are monitoring Twitter, are monitoring Facebook, are monitoring other social media, to see what people are saying about them. And we all agreed that that was a pretty basic first step that people should do.
But I actually think there’s another step – and this was the focus of the discussion – there’s another step that people have to take immediately. Many of you will know that the speed at which a train smash unfolds on social media is about a thousand times the speed that some disaster unfolds in other forms of media, and as a consequence I put to them that I think what we have to do in Government now is not just monitor things, but have some form of disaster recovery plan in place that says, “If I see a disaster on social media, this is what I do about it.” If I see some discussion of my department that isn’t going well, that isn’t factual, and is damaging our reputation, it’s not enough to sit back and say, “Ooh, I didn’t think that was going to happen,” and before you know it not only is it over, but there’s not much you can do about it.
You’ve got to be, I think, in front of the game, and I’m quite sure that one of the things agencies have to do now is not only monitor social media, but be prepared to react to social media. They might not be on it all the time, but they need to be able to do something about it. It isn’t something that you can leave to the CIO or the IT team to tell you about it. Your communications people have to be in there, knowing what’s going on, and ready to react if something doesn’t work.
This is a shot of my Twitter page (indicating to presentation slide). It’s interesting because some people think, you know, you’ve got 1,500 followers, is that very exciting? Well, yes and no. I think it puts me in the top 150 non-communications, or non-arts people with followers in Australia, but you should understand completely, since I’m sure many of you never heard of me before today, that doesn’t really reflect the reality of the situation, rather it reflects that there are not all that many people who’ve got well developed profiles in this area, particularly in the mainstream of the APS.
If you look at the people who are using Twitter as part of their work, as I do at the moment, you will see that they’re largely restricted to the people who are already the spokesmen for their agencies – so some of you, if you followed the Department of Human Services, may have heard of Hank Jongen, who’s their spokesman; if you follow some of the discussion of migration policy, boats and things like that, you might have seen Sandi Logan, the media spokesman for Immigration. These people use social media things a lot, but as to other people using them, the Chief of the Defence Force uses Twitter, and indeed Facebook as well to get a message across, I think not just to sort of stakeholders generally, but also to the military people in his organisation. It gives them an opportunity I think to personalise the organisation.
This is one of the changes that social media, but the new online presence is also driving – people have become identifiable, public servants are seen as having personalities, are seen as being connected to the real world in a way that hasn’t occurred previously. Now whether one likes it or not – and make no mistake, I think there are a lot of people who would prefer that that wasn’t the case – whether one likes it or not, it’s changing the way that we do our work.
Let me give you an example. My bio slide you saw at the outset said I’m the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer, and indeed I am, and have been since the 4th of February, that’s as a result of a change in our department. Previously I was one of the two division heads in the Australian Government Information Management Office. Three or four years ago we were involved in the Gershon review of ICT. Now those of you who’ve got an interest in Government IT will actually have only heard about one of the recommendations that Sir Peter made in his review, that was around reducing budgets, business as usual budgets of IT departments, by a billion dollars over four years, which we did successfully.
At the outset of that period when we saw press coverage about AGIMO and about our work, it was almost universally negative. Now I think you need to understand that the amount of Government IT Press there is, is relatively limited, indeed there are probably less Journalists working in Government IT than there are people in the room now. But nevertheless I would wake up on Tuesday mornings, because that’s the computer day inThe Australian and in the Financial Review, and dread turning the page to discover what had been said about our results in budget savings , etc.
Just after that the taskforce started, we established our own blog and we started to publish on the blog, and all of a sudden – well not all of a sudden, over a period of time we saw a change. Because we were now releasing stories IT Journalists didn’t have to make them up, and because we were releasing facts and details, and were pointing to them in Twitter or on social media, they could write about things that actually had some basis in fact. And what we saw over that, we’ve seen over that three year period is actually a change in the sentiment around how our work was being reported, from what I would have described as universally negative, to universally neutral, with the occasional good thing.
Now I’ve got to tell you that in Government, if you can get that sort of response you’re doing really well. And all that’s changed is that we’ve been putting information out, we have been telling them, we have been making the stories, and this is a really interesting example of what a good internet presence can do for an agency. What it can do is, like the reforms of business took out middle management in the ’80s, the reforms, changes in the internet, the changes in Gov 2.0 are taking out the middleman, the Journalist that interferes with your message.
Previously, the Minister or somebody put out a Press Release, it just went to the Journalists, they decided what to do with it, they decided how to interpret it, they reported it in the papers, and you had to live with the effects. Now that’s changed, and we can make our own stories directly with what it is that we’re doing, and I think this is a really interesting improvement.
Now one of the things that you need if you’re going to do this is some guidance for Government. We have a web guide that you can find very easily if you just type into a search engine of your choice “AGIMO web guide”, you’ll be able to find our online web guide very easily. It’s got some mandatory requirements for the Australian Government, but it’s also got some really good advice. You can tab through there, near that page (indicating to presentation slide), to our guidance about social media,Social Media 101, but there’s a wealth of information around about what you can in order to improve an agency’s online presence, both in social media and in the more traditional Web 1.0 way.
If you’re using Twitter, you can follow the hashtag gov2au – that Twitter feed will involve you in the discussion that goes on about what can be done better in this Web 2.0 social media related world.
Photo by Andre Hofmeister used under Creative Commons
Now I’m going to talk a little about the way that you might approach things in deciding to say, “Well I’ve got an message, and I want to do something about it.” First of all don’t get tied up in the notion of the tools. One of the things that I really hate to see is someone telling me that they’ve been developing a social media strategy, and just as the slide says here (indicating to presentation slide), carpenters don’t have hammer strategies, carpenters want to build things, they want to build houses, they don’t have strategies, they have ideas about what tools are good for something, they generally, well not always, don’t hit screws with a hammer, but they understand that there are tools for particular choices. And this is, I think, a really important message – don’t get stuck in the tools – remember that what you’re setting out to do is set up a communications strategy.
And secondly, because of these tools, you’re not just broadcasting what goes on, you actually need to be prepared for collaboration, or for two-way communication, for discussion with your audience, you need to be prepared for people to comment on what it is that you’re doing, and take you up on points, and ask you questions, and your strategy’s got to be around how do I deal with these new mechanisms in communications, not how do I use Twitter, or how do I use Facebook?
Photo by Kevin Dooley used under Creative Commons
Establishing where your audience is, and who they are, is also very important. One of the more ironic things I often see is an agency decides they’ll set up a Twitter account, but they’ve decided that it’s important not to follow anybody because that would risk sort of some sort of bias – would they follow this person or not that person; is that a problem for their agency; what message does that send – so you see an agency that’s got sort of 20 followers of their own, but they don’t follow anybody.
Now using Twitter as a mechanism for getting a message out like that is not as effective as standing at the bus stop and yelling out, because you’ll actually get more people if you do that. The challenge is to understand that there are new things involved. What you’ve got to do – and a lot of these discussions will be occurring without you now, so if you just set up a webpage and say, “Well I’m going to have my webpage here, and this is where people are going to come to talk about the things that I’m interested in, or I want to drive the conversation about,” you actually find that that isn’t the case because they’re already having those conversations in other places, and what you’ve got to do is find where those other places are and I would say subtly get yourself into the conversation so that you can correct things.
Again, Human Services has done some very good work on busting myths about inoculations and other related matters – by going to air some of those discussions have occurred – and inserting facts into the argument. Again, if you’re using Twitter you’ve got to put a hashtag on it, or use the hashtag that’s there so that people who aren’t following you have a chance of seeing what the message is. You can’t just sit there and hope that they’ll come and see what you’re doing, because generally speaking they won’t.
Now another thing, I meant to mention before, I will just touch on tools carefully. Once upon a time all the tools that we used for things in Government, all the IT tools, were big and expensive, and it meant that you had to have a lot of investment and training. I’m sure that all of you are well versed in the functions of Excel, and in fact can create pivot tables and do all sorts of data sorting and stuff like that very easily, but most people use much less of the facility of those things. They still cost a lot. People think… I think that some of the tools you need now for social media or communications might also cost a lot, but they don’t. I use this slide App regularly now, it cost me about $2 on my iPad, and I spent another $10 on buying some nicer fonts, I produce those slides, and the appearance of it on PowerPoint now is because I emailed it to the Conference team – I didn’t need to use it on PowerPoint myself, I could do it very cheaply, and the sort of tools that you see in being used for social media are similarly not expensive, and you don’t necessarily need an enormous lot of resources for them.
Photo by Sergiu Bacioiu used under Creative Commons
What you do have to choose is what channels you’re going to get your message across. Now first of all let’s be quite clear, there is still a digital divide. Although it might be glib for me to talk about users of Facebook outnumbering non-users by two to one, the challenge is still that many of the people to whom we need to provide Government services don’t have access to these tools. Now what a good choice of channel strategies can do here is ensure that actually what we do is balance the resources that we spend on people who do have access to these tools, because generally these things are cheaper than our historical methods of doing them, and move those resources to communicate with the people who can’t necessarily make use of these more online channels. But it’s very unlikely that what you’ll be able to do is restrict yourself to only one channel. But just as we’ve seen Government advertising, move from being in newspapers to being online, I do think we’ll continue to see a change and a growing importance of the channels that use online communications.
The next thing is to make sure that you have clarity about your message. Now that can be taken a number of ways. The first one is you’ve got to plan what it is that you’re doing about this. If your plan is to establish a social media presence, and that’s where it stops, it’s like having a plan to go for a drive in the car, rather than having any destination in mind. What you need to do is say, “Why am I using these communications? What is it that I want to get across to people, and how will I get my message out?” Whether it’s a message about the availability of services, the problem with some disaster, a change in policy, you need to understand what the message is and then make sure you use those channels to get the message across.
Photo by Stefan used under Creative Commons
It’s going to mean that sometimes you have to look at who it is, who’s providing the message for your organisation, just as we’ve done historically with other communication strategies. There are people who speak officially for our organisation, and people who don’t. It doesn’t mean that you can ignore the ones who don’t speak officially because you want to make sure that they’re not doing something that’s negative, you want to make that if asked they can say, “Well actually I do know about this,” or “This is the person you should ask.” But you need to get that message clarity.
I don’t know if many of you watched Media Watch on Monday night, but I was fascinated to see the ABC social media policy being discussed, and the notion that for ABC employees, their personal use of Twitter and social media is actually more constrained than that of the official accounts of ABC shows and programs, and things like that. Now I’m not actually advocating that at all, but I think it shows that they are interested in getting message clarity where it’s important.
Photo by Marcus Hansson used under Creative Commons
I think the other thing that people sometimes forget is that content is what brings people back to your site. They might come the first time because it’s shiny and new, or it has good widgets or something like that, but if you don’t provide good content, people won’t come back to it, and your message will be lost over time. You need to ensure that if you set up a webpage that it’s just not static content, that it’s regularly updated. I’m sure that many of you have seen Government webpages that look like they haven’t changed since the last time the Government did. If this happens, people will just forget what they’re doing. Make sure that you’ve got a plan to provide content. If you embark on a communication strategy that involves blogs, and Twitter, and things like that, have a plan about what it is you’re going to tell people, prepare more than one post ahead, because I think we all know that in Government sometimes the urgent outweighs the important, and all of a sudden you don’t have time to put that post together if you haven’t thought about it earlier. If you want people to come back you’ve got to provide content.
Like anything else in Government work, if you don’t measure it you won’t be able to manage it. Now there are some useful ways to measure online content, and some ways that aren’t particularly useful. There’s a tool that’s supposed to measure credibility in social media, and I saw my score on that the other day and I was pretty pleased, because it said that I was in the sort of top 5% or something like that in the world. That sounded very impressive, until you worked out exactly how many people were using these things in the world, and that was sort of it made me one in 200 million or something like that. It’s like remembering that in China if you’re one in a million there are 2,000 people just like you.
Photo by dawnhops used under Creative Commons
Those tools aren’t particularly useful. And indeed one of the things that I saw was that I was actually being very highly regarded for my skills in sailing. Now you guys don’t know me, or most of you don’t, I think I’ve been sailing once in my entire life, but exploring this I saw that there was some search situation that happened to link mentions of people with my surname at least on a site that had some details about sailing. What it showed is that in expert analysis of the results, is it going to provide you with useful information about how you’re performing?
If you go back to the beginning of my presentation where I showed you those social media statistics, they’ve actually been done very carefully by those organisations, to make sure they pick up unique visitors visiting more than once, and sort those things out. You need that level of measurement and that level of sophistication if you are indeed going to make useful work in this area.
Photo by wayneandwax used under Creative Commons
Now to some extent what I’m saying to you is that this is a call to action. There isn’t necessarily for many organisations a burning platform that says they must go better online, they must do more in social media, although I think it does exist for a range or organisations, but instead what I’m saying is there are things that you can do relatively simply now that can prepare your organisation for, if you decide that your communication strategy warrants it, taking a bigger role in online activity.
As I’ve described, the tools to do so aren’t very expensive. It’s not that resource intensive, particularly at the lower levels. You can use a lot of information that’s around now, and advices provided to help with organisations like that. Indeed if you work for the Federal Government you can email me about it at[email protected]
and I’ll help provide some information about it. But I do think that what we need to do is prepare for what’s going on. It isn’t enough anymore to sit back and say, “This digital revolution will wash over just like other revolutions have.” I don’t think it will. I think when people want information now, in their pockets, at the bus stop, when they’re moving along, if they want to provide feedback to Government quickly and on the spot, whether it’s about potholes to Local Government, the closures of offices to State and Territory Governments, or actual frontline services at the Federal level, they’re not going to take the excuses that, “Well we were just sitting back to see how it’d go.” I think it’s too late for that. It’s time to get started on this now.
Thanks very much for your attention.