Tag Archives: social media

How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small, the City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelop on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but them meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80% of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20% (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbours, allies or colleagues via twitter, facebook, delicious or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: can my city afford such a wizbang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has 78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member, it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2000 and it took 2 week to code up.

2 weeks?

No million dollar contract? No 8 month timeline? No expensive new software?

No. Instead, if you’re smart, you might find a couple of local creative citizen-hackers to put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more, because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2000 lying around to change that?

Millennium Scholarship Foundation: A Case Study in Sustaining a Network

For those who haven’t heard, one of the worst decisions of the current government has been to not renew the Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

The foundation, created by Chretien in 2000 had a 10 years of funding to pursue three goals: 1) improve access to post-secondary education, particularly for students facing economic or social barriers; 2) encourage a high level of student achievement and engagement in Canadian society; and 3) to build a national alliance of organizations and individuals around a shared post-secondary agenda.

After 10 years of dispensing scholarships and bursaries there is now a large alumni group of Millennium scholars, many of whom have met one another as a result of an annual conference the foundation which brought scholars from across the country together to learn from external speakers and one another. In short, the Millennium alumni network is a relatively vibrant community composed of some very compelling people.

But now the organization that created that community is ending. So one question the foundation has been asking itself is: how does the community continue to have impact once both its funding has stopped and the alumni network ceases to grow? This is a challenge common to many groups. For example, I’ve frequently heard conference organizers ask how can the participants can continue to grow and learn from one another once the conference ends. In theory, new social networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook should make this easier. In practise, it is not always the case.

As I look at Millennium and reflect on its strengths, its community and the tools it has available, a couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, neither overestimate nor underestimate the power of one’s brand.

Firstly, in relation to not underestimating the power of brands, try to think about what it is that your brand has enabled, and why people might be grateful or interested in it. In the case of Millennium, it has helped make a post-secondary education possible for thousands of people. But it did more than that, it found people who were creative, smart, interesting and passionate about life and their communities. It also brought them together to meet and engage one another. If its alumni network did nothing more than serve as brand that allowed people to connect to on another over the next 40 years that would be in of itself a powerful outcome. It may sound trite but in my own life I’m always willing to meet with someone who participated in either Action Canada or Canada25 (two other discontinued program with a fixed alumni group). Both those groups consisted of people who I know want to make the world a better place, and if I can help them, I’ll try. Same with the Sauve Scholars. The fact that I can call on people in these networks and ask for their help, thoughts or advice is one of the most important legacies of these projects.

On the overestimate side, people should recognize that just because it is easy for people to connect, doesn’t mean that they will. Getting a broad network of people to sustain action on a given subject matter (especially if that subject matter didn’t bring them together in the first place) is very, very, difficult. In the case of the Millennium Foundation, it could encourage its network of alumni to tackle global poverty. This is a laudable goal, but it is not the issue that initially brought the group together so attachment to this issue is likely to be highly varied. This is a group with diverse interests. Some may want to focus on technology start-up, others on the environment, others on surviving grad-school. Trying to shoehorn a large group into a single goal is hard, especially if the group make up is now fixed and can no longer grow/evolve to focus on it. A powerful and/or well regarded brand does not mean you can do anything.

My hope is that the alumni are trying to figure out what it is that they, as a  group, do have in common. In the case of Millennium, my sense is that one thing everybody in the network can agree on is that education is important. The very fact that they are Millennium Alumni means they have benefited from access to high quality education. So if the network was, from time to time, going to focus its energy, something related to this issue area might have the greatest resonance. Activities, actions or an annual event that attempted to do something simple around promoting education might be a good place to start. This could sustain the network’s relevance in the lives of its alumni as well as maintain connectivity among a certain percentage of its members. I’d also argue that the country could stand to have a 5000+ army of smart, engaged, interesting and increasingly powerful people who continuously champion the importance of education.

Articles I'm digesting 24/7/2009

Been a while since I’ve done one of these and I’ve got a lot of great pieces I’ve been reading. So let’s get to it.

Designs on Policy by Allison Arieff (via David B.) and TED Talk: Are we in Control of our own Decisions? by Dan Ariely

I keep hearing about the interaction between policy and design (most flatteringly an architecture professor said I had a designer’s mind” the other day) and so over the past few years I try (with some success) to read as much as I can about design. David B sent me the Arieff piece which, of course, weds my passion for public policy with design. One thing I like is the way the piece doesn’t try to boil the ocean – it doesn’t claim (like in other places) that good design will solve every problem – just that it will help mitigate against it. Most intriguing for me is this line:

“It feels weird to have to defend design’s importance, yet also completely necessary. The United Kingdom has had a policy in place since 1949; Japan since 1956. In countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands, design is a no-brainer, reflected by the impeccable elegance, usability and readability of everything in those countries from currency to airport signage.”

A design policy? How civilized. That’s something I could get behind – especially after listening to Dan Ariely’s TED talk which is downright frightening at moments given how susceptible our decisions are (and most disconcerting the decisions of our doctors, dates and who knows whose) to the layout/perception of the choice.

Lost in the Cloud by John Zittrain

A few months ago I was in Ottawa and – surprisingly and unplanned – ended up at a pub with Richard Stallman. I asked him what he thought of Cloud Computing (a term he believes is too vague to be helpful) but was nonetheless viscerally opposed to it. Many of the reasons he cites are covered by Zittrain in this thoughtful piece. The fact is, Cloud Computing (or whatever term you may wish to use) is very convenient and it carries with it huge privacy, security and access challenges. This is potentially the next big challenge for those of us who support and Open Internet – the possibility of the internet being segmented into a series of walled gardens controlled by those who run the cloud servers is real and must be thought through. If you care about public policy and/or are a geek, read this.

Is it Time to Get Rid of the Foreign Service Designation?

Am I reading my own articles? No. I am, however, absorbed by the fascinating and constructive conversation taking place – mostly involving public servants – in the comments section underneath. Here are just some snippets:

  • “For 8 years I worked at DFAIT, observing and participating in the culture within the walls of a building named after a diplomat that Wikipedia states “is generally considered among the most influential Canadians of the 20th century.” Sadly, the elitism (whether earned or not) is only the cause of a bigger problem; lack of desire to collaborate, and almost no desire to change in an era where the only constant is change.”
  • “…as I left the issue of the FS classification was quietly but passionately part of the watercooler discussion. From my perspective, in spite of a nasty AG report on the dismal state of affairs of HR at DFAIT, the department has more pressing problems, such as credibility with central agencies, a coherent sense of mission and talent attraction and retention.”
  • “I am also a bit puzzled by people who saw your piece as an attack on DFAIT – you’re advocating for human resource reform to improve the department, after all. I’m still not sure why you think DFAIT is required though, or why Canadian foreign policy suffers when departments forumulate it without involving DFAIT.”
  • “It’s good to see that even Craig Weichel, President of PAFSO, is open to your suggestion that it might be good to have more foreign service officers circulate through other government departments…”

Putting the Cart Before the Horse by Peter Cowan

A great blog post about the lessons from implementing social media in a government agency. Peter Cowan – an Open Everything alum – is part of the team at Natural Resources Canada team that has been doing amazing work (NRCan is one of the most forward looking ministries in the world in this regard). Peter’s piece focuses on misunderstanding the “business case” for social media and how it often trips up large government bureaucracies. This abbreviated but extended quote on why traditional IT business cases don’t work or aren’t necessary is filled with great thoughts and comments:

“They (Social Media tools) are simple and viral and they cost very little to implement so the traditional requirements for upfront business needs definition to control risk and guide investment are not as important. In fact it would take more time to write a proposal and business case than to just put something out there and see what happens.

More importantly though social media are fundamentally new technologies and the best way to understand their business value is to get them into the hands of the users and have them tell you. To a large degree this is what has happened with the NRCan Wiki. Most of the innovative uses of the wiki came from the employees experimenting. They have not come from a clearly articulated business needs analysis or business case done in advance.

In fact, determining business needs in advance of having a tool in hand may actually lead to status quo approaches and tools. There is the famous Henry Ford… quote goes something like “if I had asked people what they wanted in a car they would have said faster horses”. We social media folks usually deploy this quote to highlight the weakness of focusing too much on responding to people’s perceptions of their existing business needs as a determinant of technology solution since people invariably define their needs in terms of improving the way they are already doing things, not how things could be done in a fundamentally new way.

Genius.

Google’s Microsoft Moment by Anil Dash

A fantastic piece about how Google’s self-perception is causing it to make strategically unsound choices at the same time as its public perception may be radically shifting (from cute fuzzy Gizmo in to mean nasty Stripe). A thoughtful critique and a great read on how the growth and maturation of a company’s culture needs to match its economic growth. I’ve added Anil Dash to by must read blogs – he’s got lots of great content.

The Rat Pack of Public Service Sector Renewal

As many of you know I spend a lot of time thinking about public service sector renewal – that’s a wonkish term for renewing the public service. I do it because I think the public service is one of the most important institutions in the country since it affects everything we do, pretty much every day.

Over the past few years I’ve met more and more people who are equally passionate about this issue. Some I’ve met in person, others I’ve just chatted with by email. But, over the last 4 years I’ve watched a small group of bloggers – a rat pack of public service sector renewal – emerge. We’re scattered across the country and have come to from different angles but we all care about how our government is, how it should be, and how we can get to from the first place to the latter.

This is no easy task. I’m outside of government so it’s easier for me to speak truth to power. That’s why I’m so impressed with the other rat packers, in pursuit of making government better some have put their jobs on the line from time to time. I’d encourage you to go check our their blogs and give them a read.

The CPSR rat pack:

Me: as my readers know, my own thinking on public service sector renewal tends to focus on public policy development, and how it is going to be impacted by demographic change, technology, social media, networks and emergent systems.

Nick Charney’s blog CPSRenewal is one of the best blogs on public service sector renewal out there. Nick often does a weekly roundup of CPSR articles and blog posts, interviews with public servants and generally shares his thoughts.

Etienne Laliberte is one of the bravest public servants I know. A couple of years ago he wrote “An Inconvenient Renewal” in which shared his thoughts on renewal. Most important, his is probably the only document I’ve seen that treats renewal as a management problem, not a policy problem (something I’ve discussed in the past and intend to talk about again shortly). You can catch him at his blog as well.

A couple of other people I think of as being part of the Rat Pack include Peter Cowan – an OpenEverything alumnus – whose part of a team doing very interesting work with social media tools at Natural Resources Canada.

Thomas Kearney, who doesn’t blog, but is amazing nonetheless, has been a big part of the work behind GCPEDIA.

There’s Laura Wesley’s who’s got a great blog over at Results for Canadians: Measuring Success in Government. Nice to have someone concerned with how we measure success!

And finally there is the outspoken Douglas Bastien at Government of Canada 2.0, ready to tell it as it is and take no prisoners.

I know there are more people than just those I’ve mentioned, but these are the group I know and who’ve always been kind about letting an semi-outsider like me in. If you care about Canadian public service sector renewal (twitter hashtag #cpsr) then I hop you’ll add their RSS feeds to your reader.

Bureaucracies and New Media: How the Airforce deals with blogs

A friend forwarded me this interesting diagram that is allegedly used by the United States Air Force public affairs agency to assess how and if to respond to external blogs and comments that appear upon them.

Airforce Blog Reaction

It’s a fascinating document on many levels – mostly I find it interesting to watch how a command and control driven bureaucracy deals with a networked type environment like the blogosphere.

In the good old days you could funnel all your communications through the public affairs department – mostly because there were so few channels to manage – TV, radio and print media – and really not that many relevant actors in each one. The challenge with new media is that there are both so many new channels emerging (YouTube, twitter, blogs, etc…) that public affairs departments can’t keep up. More importantly, they can’t react in a timely fashion because they often don’t have the relevant knowledge or expertise.

Increasingly, everyone in your organization is going to have to be a public affairs person. Close off your organizations from the world, and you risk becoming irrelevant. Perhaps not a huge problem for the Air Force, but a giant problem for other government ministries (not to mention companies, or the news media – notice how journalists rarely ever respond to comments on their articles…?).

This effort by a bureaucracy to develop a methodology for responding to this new and diverse media environment is an interesting starting point. The effort to separate out legitimate complaints from trolls is probably wise – especially given the sensitive nature of many discussions the Air Force could get drawn into. Of course, it also insulates them from people who are voicing legitimate concerns but will simply be labeled as “a troll.”

Ultimately however, no amount of methodology is going to save an organization from its own people if the underlying values of the organization are problematic. Does your organization encourage people to treat one another with respect, does it empower its employees, does it value and even encourage the raising of differing perspectives, is it at all introspective? Social media is going to expose organizations underlying values to the public, the good, the bad and the ugly. In many instances the picture will not be pretty. Indeed, social media is exposing all of us – as individuals – and revealing just exactly how tolerant and engaging we each are individually. With TV a good methodology could cover that up – with social media, it is less clear that it can. This is one reason why I believe the soft skills are mediation, negotiation and conflict management are so important, and why I feel so lucky to be in that field. Its relevance and important is only just ascending.

Methodologies like that shown above represent interesting first starts. I encourage governments to take a look at it because it is at least saying: pay attention to this stuff, it matters! But figuring out how to engage with the world, and with people, is going to take more than just a decision tree. We are all about to see one another for what we really are – a little introspection, and value check, might be in order…

Blogging: Dealing with difficult comments

Embedded below is an abridged version (10 minutes!) of my 2009 Northern Voice presentation on managing and engaging the community the develops around one’s blog. Specifically, one goals of this presentation was to pull in some of the thinking from the negotiation and conflict management space and see how it might apply to dealing with people who comment on your blog. Hopefully, people will find it interesting.

Finally, a key lesson that came to me while developing the presentation is that most blogs, social media projects, and online projects in general, really need a social contract – or as Skirky describes it, a bargain – that the organizer and the community agree to. Often such contracts (or bargains) are strongly implied, but I believe it is occasionally helpful to make them explicit – particularly on blogs or projects that deal with contentious (politics) or complicated (many open source projects) issues.

At 8:43 in the presentation I talk about what I believe is the implicit bargain on my site. I think about codifying it, especially as a I get more and more commentors. That said, the community that has developed around this blog – mostly of people I’ve never met –  is fantastic, so there hasn’t been an overwhelming need.

Finally thank you to Bruce Sharpe for posting a video of the presentation.

So, I hope this brief presentation is helpful to some of you.

(Notice how many people are coughing! You can tell it was winter time!)

Twittering to help the homeless – and why it is bad!

Here is a great story out of Vancouver of a group of strangers using twitter to come together and help the homeless.

Another example of how social media can build new friends and community and help make the world a better place – sadly we all know it won’t have any impact of the powerful narrative of youth as uncaring, self-centred narcsistic and apathetic.

And then there are those who think these tools are really just the hands of the devil. I didn’t know anyone still read Andrew Keen but the other day a reader pointed to his (1000th) column on how the internet will end society as we know it. Check out this excerpt:

The 1930s fascists were expert at using all the most technologically sophisticated communications technologies—the cinema, radio, newspapers, advertising—to spew their destructive, hate-filled message. What they excelled at was removing the the traditional middlemen like religion, media, and politics, and using these modern technologies of mass communications to speak with reassuring familiarity to the disorientated masses.

Imagine if today’s radically unregulated Internet, with its absence of fact checkers and editorial gatekeepers, had existed back then. Imagine that universal broadband had been available to enable the unemployed to read the latest conspiracy theories about the Great Crash on the blogosphere. Imagine the FDR-baiting, Hitler-loving Father Charles Coughlin, equipped with his “personalized” YouTube channel, able, at a click of a button, to distribute his racist message to the suffering masses. Or imagine a marketing genius like the Nazi chief propagandist Josef Goebbels managing a viral social network of anti-Semites which could coordinate local meet-ups to assault Jews and Communists.

You can almost feel the anger and rage ooze off the screen – try reading the whole thing. I can see why Keen is scared – he probably has visions of people like him running around the internet. That said, he’s ultimately right on one level, anyone can use these tools. But the solution is what? To ban them all? Regulate them into ineffectiveness? Ultimately you can’t have the opportunity of self-organizing enlightenment without the possibility of self-organizing hatred. But maybe then, we don’t want kids wandering making friends and helping homeless people. Yes, now that I reflect on it, being a passive hollywood and park avenue fed consumer was always so much better for society, democracy and freedom. Thank you for saving me from myself Andrew Keen!