Has Gov 2.0 in Australia gotten too boring too fast?

Clay Shirky once said, about social media, that “These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Over the past year I’ve seen extremely encouraging signs across government in Australia that the use of social media has reached this point, become boring, as it has been normalised into agency operations.

Most federal and state government agencies now have multiple active social media accounts (with councils lagging a little behind), the majority of government communications campaigns involve social media – often in a central way.

Formal and informal support for social media use by government is now widespread. For example the Victorian Government has appointed a senior person in Premier and Cabinet to lead the education of the public sector in using social media. The Australian government’s Secretary’s Board has also recommended that agencies make greater use of social media channels in their operations and public engagement. The APS Cross Agency Social Media (CASM) group in Canberra is flourishing, as is the Emergency Management Social Media group in Victoria and other states have well-attended groups meeting semi-regularly – from #SocAdl in South Australia to NSW’s IPAA Social Media Special Interest Group.

In fact any state and federal agencies who aren’t engaging via social channels are now tail-enders – you know who you are.

Agencies have also made firm, if cautious, steps into crowdsourcing, sponsoring independent events like GovHack and, in some cases, running their own crowdsourcing campaigns, like Victoria’s Seed Challenge, the ACT’s Digital Canberra Challenge and NSW’s AppsForNSW.

Governments across Australia are now actively considering mobile, both when designing websites and for specialist apps, with a long list of federal agency apps at Australia.gov.au. Victoria has a similar list, as do various agencies in other states, such as WA Health and QLD’s Department of Education, Training and Employment.

Open data is on a slower path, but has momentum. Most states and territories (excluding Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) have open data catalogues, with varying degrees of sophistication. The federal data.gov.au site has taken major steps forward recently, reorganising its approach and starting to release more data. I still feel there’s a patchwork approach to open data, with explicit mandates similar to US and UK examples rare and many agencies conspicuously absent from these catalogues, but progress is being made.

With all of this going on, we are stepping into a situation where the use of Gov 2.0 techniques, at least in pockets across government, is becoming business as usual – everyday, boring, humdrum.

Potentially as a result we’ve seen a reduction in the level of conversation on Twitter via #gov2au, with the volume of tweets well down on previous years. Social media and Gov 2.0 conferences for government are also finding it harder to attract attendees using the same formulas as in past years – with people seeking more sophisticated and specific information.

We’ve seen attendance at free Gov 2.0 events (such as the ones I run for several years in Canberra), fluctuate more widely – with less of a core base and more ‘one-timers’ coming to sessions that specifically interest them.

There’s been no increase in the number of public servants blogging about the topics. Frankly I see more fear of speaking out on social media across the public service today then existed four years ago when the Gov 2.0 Taskforce’s lead-by-example approach was still influencing public servants to actively discuss their successes and professional challenges online.

So has Gov 2.0 become boring too fast in Australia?

Harkening back to Shirky’s statement from the start of my post, with Gov 2.0 now less concerned with the technology and more with engagement and behaviours, shouldn’t we see more conversation, innovation and experimentation online by governments now that the basics of Gov 2.0 are largely accepted?

Shouldn’t we see more conversation, more voices, more blogs, more tweets, more people packing out events seeking the latest information in what is one of the most rapidly changing environments in history – the internet?

I can see this happening in the UK, US and across Europe and South America, where public servants are increasingly excited about the potential for Gov 2.0 approaches to save money, engage citizens and improve outcomes. The first wave of enthusiasts is still involved as thought leaders and in more senior roles, which successive waves of public servants have kept agencies driving forward to improve and extend their social media capabilities.

In Australia, however, the voices appear to be falling mute. The first generation of Gov 2.0 enthusiasts (including myself) have either moved out of government to other things, have taken on broader duties or are burnt out and disillusioned (the fate of many first wave enthusiasts across many areas).

The second wave, who have been left to implement the ‘standard’ social media channels now accepted and widespread in government, are busy with the machinery of running day-to-day channels – content, tone and crisis management. They often have less time to look at new developments or the bigger picture, or less interest in stepping up after seeing the first wave move on.

And the third wave – who bring a renewed sense of wonder and passion to the area, who stimulate the next set of leaps forward – don’t appear to have emerged to any great extent. I hope they are simply waiting in junior roles for the opportunity to step up and reshape the public sector in new ways.

Technology is advancing faster than ever, new options and challenges for governments are appearing every day – how do we foster the continued enthusiasm necessary for agencies to continue to evolve their approaches and tools to generate better outcomes for old issues and to meet the challenges that emerge?

How do we cultivate the spark of Gov 2.0 in Australia, so that it doesn’t get ‘boring’, frozen in place and time?

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