Delivering Digital Democracy ≠ delivering better democracy

On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.

Their final report  concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.

The five targets are:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.

Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.

It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.

It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.

Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.

Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.

For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.

It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.

It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.

But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.

The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.

Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.

Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.

Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

man scanning qr code

Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.

Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.

And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.

Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:

  • Put in pin code on phone
  • Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
  • Scan code, usually more than once
  • Redirected to browser
  • Browser takes me to page

Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.

QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.

An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.

Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)

The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.

Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.

I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:

qr bar graph

Number of times people have used a QR code in past month.

Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.

As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.

Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.

tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.

Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.

#ukvotecamp: an update

attendees at the first ukvotecamp meetup

My last post, on the idea for an unconference aimed at increasing voter turnout, generated a lot of attention and conversation. It feels like there’s a groundswell of interest in, and concern about the impact of low voter turnout.

Around 15 people turned up to our first brainstorming/planning session (picture above); a mixture of digital democracy old hands and new faces. I was particularly pleased to see there were some actual young people joining the conversation (although it later turned out they were there by mistake, having turned up for MySociety’s regular hack night).

The conversation covered a lot of ground. Everyone felt low youth turnout was problematic, but had widely varying opinions on what the reasons for this were, and what can be done about them.

One theme was a belief that one’s vote isn’t worth all that much. This is of course true, but as this clever app from the most recent parliament hack shows, collectively the votes of all the young people who don’t normally turn out could return a very different House of Commons. So there is a job to be done to convince the non-voting public of their collective theoretical power.

This is tempered by the voting system that we have – a vote in a swing seat is worth more than one in a marginal. But short of a revolution, to change the system you need first to engage with it, and that means voting – and then doing more than voting, but campaigning and helping to shape the policy agenda.

And that brings me neatly on to the next theme – that civic engagement is about more than turning up once every five years. The focus on elections alone is part of the problem, so efforts at voter engagement need to be sustainable, and aim to keep people informed and engaged about the ways they can participate in-between general elections.

The young people who attended talked about how they and their peers weren’t registered to vote – some because they weren’t sure how, and others because they believed registering would make them liable for council tax. With the introduction of individual voter registration from June this year, this could become even more confusing, so there’s work to be done to let people know why and how they should register. Because if you’re not registered, you can’t take part at all – it’s like a civic bouncer telling you “if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.

And there’s simply a lack of excitement. Voting isn’t sexy, and nor are most of the candidates on offer. Unlike the older generation, none of us have lived through a time when democracy was ever under threat, and perhaps we take it for granted. So we need to find ways to make democracy interesting again.

That, however, is a big ask. There’s a lot more we need to understand about what would make participation more appealing.

I’ve since spoken with a handful of organisations about how we can take this work forward, and we’re busy putting together a plan for first a research phase (exploring the reasons why engagement is low) and a means of getting people together to identify and develop some solutions.

The next step is to take this idea to a bigger group of people. James, Alex and I will be holding a session at UKGovCamp this Saturday, 24 25 January where we’ll aim to make this a more solid plan. Come along, join the debate via Twitter or the live blogs, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

Following the latest in a series of policy announcements which favour the old (who vote) over the young (who don’t), this morning I wondered: what we can do to engage non-voters? If the people who don’t currently vote turned out, how different would our policy choices be?

It’s clear many of us care about democracy and the need for mass participation, yet too many of us feel it’s just not delivering in its current form. Too many of us think it’s not worth us taking part, or aren’t sure what we can do to engage people with politics. So I asked:

The reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. It’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, so I briefly caught up with James Cattell and Alex Blandford after work, and together we came up with a vague plan for UK Vote Camp – an initiative aimed at increasing participation in the 2015 General Election.

The idea, in a nutshell: We believe that by bringing policymakers, geeks and citizens together, we can better understand why democratic participation is low, and find ways we can use technology, online engagement and other strategies to engage people with the democratic process.

We’re proposing a series of unconference-type sessions in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, with the end goal of increasing turnout amongst those groups who generally don’t normally come out and vote.

So how do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s kind of the point. I care so much about voting that I honestly skipped down to the polling station to vote for the first time in the European Elections 1999. Yeah, really. But I’ll concede I’m atypical, and I can totally understand the reasons why someone might not turn out. Some of them are structural; in a constituency based system someone might legitimately feel their vote doesn’t count. Short of reforming the voting system, there not much I can do about that. But there are plenty of people who simply feel the current system could somehow be better. Plenty of people who feel that if they had something to vote for, or better understood why their vote mattered, then maybe they would. That, I think, we can do something about.

Can we help people understand the power of their own vote? Can we improve democracy? I reckon we can.

polling station sign

So let’s talk

First, we need to understand what it is that makes people think it’s not worth turning out. Some issues are to do with our voting system. Others are to do with improving understanding of what we vote for, when  and why. Data could help; insight into voter turnout could help people see the potential impact that those who previously didn’t vote could potentially have. Voter engagement matters, too. There’s plenty we can learn from successful peer engagement campaigns like Obama’s.

I’m proposing we kick off with a day to discuss why participation is low, and what we can do about it.

Then let’s make some stuff

Once we know why people don’t vote, let’s use our collective talents to try and bridge some of those gaps so voting becomes a more worthwhile proposition for more people. Not with a lets-bring-the-tech-we-already-built-to-show-it-off hack day, but by defining some requirements and working together to make one or more things – apps, sites, engagement programmes, whatever – that help people to understand why voting matters.

Once we’ve made stuff, let’s iterate it. Let’s use what we know, and what we hear from others, to make democracy better, meeting every few months to improve what we’ve done. We have over a year until the general election – that’s enough time to make a real difference.

No, I don’t think it’s the answer to all the reasons why voter turnout is low, but we have to start somewhere. And if that somewhere is bringing together clever people who give a shit to come up with some decent ideas that we can iterate from, then imho that’s an excellent place to start.

Interested? Good. Come to the MySociety open hack this Wednesday, 8 January, at MOZldn at 5.30pm and let’s talk ideas. If you can’t come then, give me a shout – you can find me all over the internets.

Photo credit: secretlondon123

Gearing up for GovCamp

There’s less than 24 hours to go until UK GovCamp 2011 and I’m super-excited.

A year’s a long time, isn’t it? This time last year, I was just a couple of weeks into my new job at Parliament and a newbie on the central government geek scene. The sessions I attended at UKGC 2010, on socialising internal comms and the future of journalism, really reflected the work I was doing in my previous job rather than what I do now (while the session on Google Wave seems like another era altogether).

My first year in the job’s been a steep learning curve, and increasingly I find my work focussing less on communications – on the creation and distribution of communication messaging – and more on developing platforms, which enable people to find, share and do things.

So this year I’m likely to be attending sessions that focus more on technologies and methods. I’m a recent convert to Agile and really looking forward to the two planned sessions on it – one looking at its application as a software development methodology, and another on how we can apply Agile methods to policy formation.

As ever, though, my focus is internal, on making organisations work and communicate internally so they can better serve our real customers – the public.

And I do like a challenge, so I’ve agreed to liveblog the opening session so those who can’t make it can get a feel for what’s going on. I’ve never live blogged before, but I do live tweet from events a lot and am relishing the idea of doing so without the 140-character restriction. My live blog stream will be found on the UK Gov Buzz aggregation page which the lovely Steph has set up.

Thereafter, though, I’m aiming to tweet a bit less than I usually do from these things. Partly because not everyone who follows me wants to read 200 tweets on what a bunch of government technology nerds are doing on a Saturday, but also because I want to focus on participating rather than recording.

The Guardian’s Meg Pickard has blogged about the pros and cons of the (un)conference Twitter backchannel, arguing that “inserting a pause in usual social reporting activities/obligations provided time and mental space to listen to, reflect on and add to what was being said”.

And that’s what I’m aiming to achieve this time around. I’m not saying I won’t tweet at all (let’s be honest, that’s unlikely), but I’m going to stay ‘in the room’, making notes and blogging afterwards, after I’ve had time to think on it.

Plenty of blog posts to come after the event though, so watch this space.

A stimulating start to CityCamp London

I spent the weekend at CityCamp London, a three day unconference aimed at making London a better place. Brilliantly organised by Futuregov, this was the latest in the worldwide series of City Camps since the movement was started by Kevin Curry earlier this year.

The first day was billed as “Stimulate”, and the speakers certainly met that brief. Leo Boland, Chief Executive of the GLA, began by exploring the concept of ‘the good city’, drawing on the work of geographer Ash Amin. Amin describes the city as a machine, and technology as the life support system of the city. It changes how we look at the city. It helps inform our ideas of past and present, and changes how we appear in the world.

He was followed up by John Tolva’s mind-bendingly brilliant talk on Unmaking Urban Mistakes, looking at system design and the networked city. You can (and, in my view, should) read the whole talk here.  I took away a lot of lessons from this session, particularly on unintended consequences of systems and how we can learn from system failure.

Central to Tolva’s thesis is the role of data. An involved community equipped with data is better able to ask the hard questions. To my mind this applies to any community – whether in a city, an organisation, or a geographically dispersed interest group. Data-centred consultation allows people to interact and debate around a common set of facts.

Next up, Matt Jones from Berg on ‘Vertigo: standing on top of the 21st century in one of the world’s biggest cities’. Vertigo, in this context, is not fear of heights but fear of scale; the sheer scale of the city and the complexity of its systems frightens us. He proposed the concept of a ‘macroscope’, something which will allow us to see the aggregated whole as well as the detail. Technology allows us to see the detail as well as the whole system; he gave the example of Here and There, a horizonless map which shows the whole plan but where the perspective changes as you approach.

What Jones is advocating here is pragmatism.  So for instance he talked about Clay Shirky’s essay on situated software, which suggests we make software good enough for its own context if you want to make it happen. Make software for *your* street, not *the* street, and it stands half a chance of getting off the ground.

We also need to solve vertigo problem if we want to engage people with the issues. Here Jones borrowed the concept of synecdoche from the world of literature.  Synecdoche means making the part represent the whole; we need to make big, terrifying data digestible by real people if we want them to engage with it. By making it human scale, we take away the vertigo that disengages.

Later we moved on to an interview-type session with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor talking to Cllr Steve Reed from Lambeth Council, Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly and an opposition councillor from Harrow Council. This was probably the low point of the day, and not just because of the parallel debate about Twitterfall which was taking place on the twitter back channel at the same time.

The conversation seemed to get stuck on the idea that councillors have so many more ways to get in touch with people than they used to – e.g. email, text, Twitter, Facebook. That’s true, but what they were really saying is that there are so many more ways for councillors to talk TO people. At one point we were even on the topic of why email is better than letters – which, given it was a room full of 200 geeks few of whom have sent a letter in the last decade, was simply bizarre. The panel admitted politicians are now putting up barriers to deal with the deluge of communication. To my mind this is a move in exactly the wrong direction; what we need is to move to open platforms and actually have two-way conversations.

Consultation surveys and email do not equal web 2.0, however much councillors like to think it does. In the Q&A following I asked what we can do to improve the understanding of IT amongst those leading local authorities – both elected representatives and leading officers. Bad websites cost councils in the UK £11m per month in abandoned transactions and unnecessary phone/in person-contact. In my experience one of the main reasons council websites are bad is that those procuring them don’t understand online and don’t know what they need to do to make web work. It was disappointing that the panel didn’t really answer the question.

To close up we had three lightning-fast talks from Anne McCrossan, Nesta’s Philip Colligan then Nathalie McDermott, who I could listen to all day. These events can often end in navel-gazing as we lazily assume others think and do things just like us. Talking about her work with disengaged groups, such as men in prison and the gypsy traveller community, was an essential reminder that for many groups there are significant barriers to adoption, access and engagement which have to be overcome.

Sydney’s CivicTec gave us an international perspective on using technology to meet social need. This highlighted some cracking projects, such as a project to connect refugees across borders.

Finally, we heard from Lambeth’s Youth Mayor and the borough’s Member of the UK Youth Parliament. Taking a campaigns-based approach and setting aside a budget, this is a refreshing example of proper youth consultation rather than the box-ticking exercises so many local authorities are guilty of. Other councils take note.

All in all, a highly stimulating afternoon, and an excellent point to kick off the collaborative discussions the following day. If I were to sum up what I learned, it’s probably that literacy plus agency equals active, engaged communities. The role of technologists and communicators is to make this simple – to identify needs, to consult with communities and users and develop solutions to social problems that are tailored to their contexts.

I’m aiming for two more blog posts in the next couple of days, one on the “Collaborate” day (specifically, the sessions I went to), and another with my thoughts on the event as a whole and some esoteric stuff on our relationship with place which I’ve been thinking about since. But I figure if I don’t publish this first post now I never will. So here it is.

CityCamp all over the internets:

UKGC10 session four: The future of journalism

Eve Shuttleworth proposed this session in response to a question that arose earlier in the day: Where is journalism heading, and how do press offices need to change in response?

The web professionals session I went to earlier touched on the same issue – how do we develop the skills we need within our web and communications teams to respond to changing media demands?

Journalism has changed enormously over the past decade or so. News organisations large and small have woken up to the web, and are developing a wider range of rich media content. Local papers as well as national ones are using audio, video and interactive graphics to enhance their stories.

This has led to a huge cultural shift in news, with print and web journalists being located together and badged as content producers. The overwhelming feeling in this session was that communicators need to adapt in a similar way.

Press officers can’t focus solely on writing and selling-in written press releases; we need to take a broader approach to content, producing material for the corporate website as well as complete asset packages for the media to use.

Several of the group gave examples of journalists accepting their video content, although there’s a clear divide between the specialist and local press and the big boys on the nationals.

Major national news organisations are reluctant to take video material from the government (and rightly so in my view). But local and regional press are poorly resourced and more inclined to accept PR material.

Someone asked: the budget-slashing job cuts and subsequent culture of ‘churnalism’ that one sees in much of the regional press is beginning to creep into the national press too, in response to the poor advertising market and declining sales. Does that mean even major news organisations will start accepting complete packages from us too?

There was deep unease about this from much of the group; while an under-resourced press makes PRs life easier, it’s not exactly indicative of a free press performing its fourth estate function of holding government to account.

Many of us said we’re troubled by the lack of critical analysis press releases get. All too often, journalists will take a press release, find any contrary opinion, and present this as reasoned analysis. This over-simplification of debate does neither communciator nor journalist credit; it’s rare that there are two sides to every story. Usually there are at least three or four, and sometimes there really is just one.

This isn’t the fault of journalists, but of proprietors who have cut editorial teams, merged titles and slashed budgets so there simply isn’t enough journalistic resources to get out and report the news. One press officer said “make life easier for journalists and they’ll bite your hand off”.

Sarah Lay gave a great example of how they did this during the local elections in Derbyshire. Making a wide range of material available to journalists online meant that they recieved more coverage than they’d normally expect, yet had to take fewer calls from journalists. That’s a win-win for everyone (especially Sarah and her team, who took home a PR Pride award for this).

89% of journalists are using blogs and social media to research their stories, and it follows that the public sector need to engage with these too. Communciations teams need to keep an eye on blogs, Facebook, etc so problems can be identified and dealt with early before they become more reputationally damaging.

Alastair Smith explainined how Newcastle City Council managed a story which sprung up on Facebook. By responding to the group and offering to meet and talk about their concerns, they managed to turn what was a negative story into a positive one that helped the campaign group get what they wanted.

Communications teams just aren’t set up to respond to social media. Reporting lines for press releases usually require signoff from senior staff and politicans, a process which can take days – a timescale incompatable with the demands of social media.

Neil Franklin told us how he used to manage the Twitter feed at Downing Street, arguing that communicators need to be realistic about responding in a timely manner.

I suggested we borrow the concept of ‘presumed competence’ used by the Foreign Office. Back when an ambassador was sent to Ouagadougou and not heard from for months at a time, their masters back home had to assume they were capable of getting on with it. Social media has the same disconnect between local demands and ability to get sign-off from the centre. We may find it easier to respond to social media if we have a set of agreed ‘lines to take’ that we trust our teams to deliver, and refer upwards only by exception.

Whatever you chosen approach, organisations need to develop a policy for dealing with social media comment. Michael Grimes adapted the well-known US army model into this very useful process model for dealing with social media comment.

Others said it was difficult and unhelpful to have two different approaches to responding: It’s just media, and media is social. We need to have a vision for content generally, and plan our resources accordingly.

Someone added that we need to think about tone, and “don’t treat citizens as journalists”. While it’s true we speak differently to journalists as customers, the rise of the citizen journalist – and initiatives like Talk About Local – mean the distinction between the two is blurring.

Someone talked about this Clay Shirky article, which argues “we will always need journalism, but we won’t have journalists”. The fourth estate is vital in a democratic system, so if we’re seeing less meaningful analysis of our work by the traditional media, then we should welcome it from non-traditional sources.

Online journalists, of the traditional as well as citizen variety, are becoming as much curators of content as creators, aggregating content from the wider web and bringing it to the attention of their networks. Communications teams should try and emulate this in what they produce, for instance by linking to related articles or useful background information.

Eve Shuttleworth said the Ministry of Justice is starting to monitor blogs and social media to get a feel for what the issues are, but has not yet made the decision to respond. One of the issues they’re grappling with is whether press officers should respond as the organisation, or as themselves.

Identifying individuals could have security implications, especially where issues are controversial.

All of this points to an urgent need to reassess the service we provide. We need to develop a vision for how we provide content, and ensure we can resource this in a way that meets the media’s diverse and changing needs, the needs of the audience and those of the organisation.

UKGC10 Session two: Socialising Internal Communications

The second session of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most, having discussed it ahead of the event with Kim Willis and Mark Watson.

Kim took the lead on facilitating, but as it turns out the discussion managed to veer though the full swathe of internal comms issues without the need for much facilitating at all. It seemed like we covered an awful lot in under an hour, and could have talked for at least another hour.

Almost everyone agreed  social media could play a much bigger role in internal communications, but within the public sector at least there hasn’t been widespread adoption yet.

Someone described social networking as “what intranets are supposed to be” – enabling you to connect and collaborate with colleagues, share information and improve communication.

A social intranet enables the recording and sharing of organisational knowledge. But while knowledge management looks at how we manage our intellectual capital, we need also to look at how we record, share and pass on social capital too – that is, sharing that knowledge of people and processes that we all build up over time.

Shane Dillion said we rely too much on traditional, top-down methods of communication that no longer suit the way we work. To become more effective, everything we learn outside the organisation should be bought back in and shared.

By enabling colleagues to connect with one another, and by making working lives a little bit easier, good social intranets have a positive impact on employee engagement too.

Many cited middle management as a barrier to adoption of social media. In some ways this is understandable, as social internal comms reduces the middle managers role as a gatekeeper of information.

Our current organisational structures are built for command and control, not collaboration. So the success of internal social media  depends on moving management towards a culture of co-creation.

The question of culture is a very important one. Technology cannot itself create a collaborative culture; if people aren’t talking to each other already, introducing social tools isn’t going to make them.

Other common barriers include silo culture and concerns around security, particularly in relation to things like Government Connect. Platforms like Yammer are incredibly simple to use, and have some great functionality, but sitting outside the firewall are considered too risky by many.

(As an aside, while I like Yammer, I find its default email setting – which emails for every notification – begins to grate remarkably quickly and is itself a barrier to adoption).

But as I blogged about recently, the business case for internal social media is strong and growing. Carl Haggerty gave an update on the Devon County Council social networking pilot he talked about at LocalGovCamp. They branded this ‘business networking’ to counter accusations of frivolity and timewasting. This succeeded in winning hearts and minds, and in evaluation recently he found it produced considerable (but non-cashable) savings.

So what do we do to hasten the adoption of social media inside the firewall?

  • JFDI. The old adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission is true to some extent, but it isn’t that simple when it’s your job on the line. But start with a small, agile pilot that can be scaled up if successful. If it works, the organisation will buy into it. If it doesn’t, you won’t have lost much.
  • If you want to promote new ways of working, switch the old ones off. Carl Haggerty said his team made a commitment to use their Business Networking tool for discussion rather than sending group emails. People like their tried and tested methods, so you need to provide incentives to change.
  • Dave Briggs said change needs to be dramatic to work – new tools have to do the same thing at least nine times better to win people over.
  • Get buy in from leadership, and encourage them to use social media internally to communicate, listen and lead.
  • Don’t focus on the negatives. Yes, some people will misuse social tools, but most will not. Posts have real names on, so are self-policed.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Adapt your code of context to say how it applies in an online context rather than write a new code from scratch – that way you avoid protracted negotiations.
  • Hug your CIO. Work with ICT to reach solutions to problems like security rather than focus on barriers.
  • Demonstrate value. Budgets will be tight for many years to come, so we need to set out the business case for social tools, though improving flexibility, sharing knowledge, and improving productivity.

Internal social media sits at the intersection of culture change, innovation and knowledge management. It has the potential to deliver innovation and collaboration, but to do that we need to adapt to the cultural and technological barriers in our own organisations.

This was a vibrant and varied discussion, and we could all have talked for ages. Phil McAllister suggested an internal comms barcamp, which a few of us have begun to discuss in more detail. Watch this space.