I spent last week on a review panel looking at the performance of a New Zealand university’s web team. It was an illuminating experience – and a very positive one – but it got me to thinking about the how to operate within a changing digital environment. That’s pretty vague so let me explain a bit more.
If you work in an agile project management structure, then you’re used to working iteratively to build a product in increments. This makes sense because it saves money, time and angst not only for the team but especially for customers.
In government, shouldn’t we also consider what we do and how we do it to be iterative as well? Sometimes there’s a catalyst to changing how we work – think about the impact of a high-profile project or a new senior manager – but usually we’re just too busy to spend any time figuring out better ways to work.
But the world has changed. Take citizen engagement for example: this used to mean you occasionally sent a survey to your constituents via email or volunteers going door-to-door armed with a clipboard. This activity increased exponentially the closer you got to an election.
Fast forward to now and the expectations have shifted drastically: people want to know program details, progress on issues, positions on key topics, whether a pothole has been fixed, and the list goes on. Plus, now people expect government to listen to their opinions, find out their positions on key topics, ask what those topics are and co-create possible solutions. Engagement is now a 2-way, non-stop fire hose of information sharing between people and government. Imagine how different this is: engagement has evolved from token efforts at best to fully-considered, continuously-evolving interactions with people to improve government.
During this review, I was reminded of the movie Chicken Run, where the hero says “Flying takes 3 things: hard work, perseverance and…hard work.” [Yes, I know: I can always find a movie to reference.] And if you replace ‘flying’ with ‘web services’, you’ll get a sense of how well this university team is doing. But even within a high-performing team, there’s room for improvement.
For example, ideally we’ll all keep up with trends like:
- writing communications plans that include social media as part of business-as-usual not as an afterthought (see New Zealand’s government social media guidance on our Web Toolkit)
- using web analytics to make decisions about how well websites are performing for customers (we publish analytics for our flagship Govt.nz)
- integrating marketing campaigns across all channels (see my previous blog post on Marketing Government or Government Marketing?)
- building responsive websites that adjust to any device instead of a stripped-down ‘mobile’ version (see the blog posts on responsive design on our Web Toolkit)
- starting with Web Standards for accessibility and usability as a basic assumption not a nice-to-have (New Zealand’s Web Standards were revised in 2013)
- making all government-owned data open and available unless there’s a sensible reason not to (the New Zealand government is encouraging agencies to publish datasets in a online catalogue)
- putting the customer – user, citizen, client, recipient, voter, resident – at the center of what we’re delivering (see the blog posts on user centered focus on our Web Toolkit)
- writing content in plain English (see our blog posts on user centered focus on our Web Toolkit)
- explaining the whole user journey, not just your agency’s piece of the process (see our blog posts on user journeys on our Web Toolkit)
- understanding the social media space, creating an agreed policy on how to use it and managing it sensibly without artificial constraints (see the UK’s excellent Social Media Playbook)
- acting as a joined-up government system; our research shows people don’t care what agency delivers what service, they see us all as ‘government’ (see New Zealand’s government strategy for joined-up ICT)
- sharing sense of purpose within a team or organization.
But really, who has time to keep up across a really complicated landscape? So probably the biggest trend to embrace is sharing what you know so that others can stand on your shoulders. And standing on others’ to do the same.
Which takes me back to my original idea about re-thinking how we work in this online space: unless you make a point of taking a regular, objective look at how you approach delivering services and information online, you won’t pick up on these or other trends. Frankly, with too much to do and not enough time or people to get everything done across the public sector – in almost any country, this isn’t just a New Zealand issue – we really need to make an effort to iterate and improve the way we work.
So while it’s fresh in my mind, let me get you started with a few ideas on the strengths of the review panel that I was on:
- get an outside view: other insiders may be working from the same assumptions so it would be really easy to miss issues or new ideas; maybe there won’t be any surprises but better to ask
- ask a critic: not someone hostile, but someone who can give you ideas about why they had a less than stellar experience and how to change that
- be open minded: don’t pre-judge ideas or assume what people will tell you, and don’t write off suggestions
- don’t focus only on the negative: you want to know what works well too so you don’t lose the positives
- talk to people: you could ask for written submissions but you could also invite people in for a talk; informal conversations add a lot of depth and detail to what people write
- ponder everything: fight the need for instant answers because every bit of info will add to your understanding of what’s broken, what’s amazing and what you could change
- look underneath the problems: find out why something isn’t working, not just what’s wrong
- say nice things: I think most people go into public service because they want to make things better, so recognize good work when you see it.
This review panel was a formal process but within my team at the Department of Internal Affairs, we’re also spending some time working through what we do and how to add even more value to the all-of-government online work. No reason why others couldn’t do the same.
Susan Carchedi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.