The Social Organisation

It was just coincidence that I began reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody on the tube on the way to the recent FutureGov Consultancy/Huddle event on internal collaboration, but a fortunate and relevant coincidence nonetheless. Shirky argues that the web can enable people to self-organise, and in turn will transform our world. The event’s speakers argued that those same ideas of self-organisation and reduced costs can – and should – transform our bureaucracies.

In a small group everyone is able to speak to everyone else to organise their time and resources. Once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, management is needed. But managing resources itself takes resources, and these costs tend to grow faster than organisation size.

This makes organisations quite inefficient. Like all large organisations, councils use quite a lot of resources on managing and communicating internally.

Huddle’s Charlie Blake Thomas told an all-too-familiar story: Someone sends around a Powerpoint Presentation by email to ten people. People make their changes and send it round to the group again. Soon you have eight or nine different versions in circulation. Version control goes out of the window. Inboxes are clogged up with crap.

In the past this was neccessary, but these days there are better ways of collaborating. Huddle is one of them, but other collaborative software is also available.

However, technology is no panacea. Becoming more collaborative requires cultural change. Councils are rigidly heirarchical structures and quite set in their ways. We’re used to working in silos, and many prefer it that way.

But as Bob Dylan so famously sang, the times, they are a changin’. It’s clear the public sector as a whole has a few turbulent years ahead as a result of tight public finances and changing demands.

In addition, local authorities are increasingly delivering services in partnerships, thanks to initiatives like Total Place. All of this means becoming more collaborative is not a choice, it’s a neccessity.

Anne McCrossan argued that old boundaries – between and within organisations – are increasingly irrelevant. The emphasis shifts from org chart structures to informal communication networks and those individuals within organisations who act as gatekeepers, hubs and pulse-takers. Organisations need to take advantage of these tacit information-sharing relationships in order to build effective networks.

Moving away from rigid structure towards a more collaborative way of working brings big benefits for organisations. First, it fulfills those needs that sit at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy; social participation gives people the power to self-actualise. By sharing information more widely, we present opportunities to learn. A social organisation is, by definition, a learning organisation.

Most importantly, it makes us more efficient. By reducing the costs of communicating and managing, we free up resources for service delivery. Private sector organisations thrive when they bring down management and transaction costs. We need to learn from their best practice in order to make the most of our resources.

McCrossan’s presentation echoed in many ways the work of employee engagement guru John Smythe. Smythe argues for employee engagement programmes aimed at moving employees up the engagement ladder – that is away from old structures of command and control towards a culture of co-creation.

Like Smythe, McCrossan emphasises the role of leadership in bringing about change, with a focus on behaviours and relationships rather than command and control.

Affinity, she contends, is stronger than structure. Organisations work best when they share a common purpose, comunicate that purpose, and bring colleagues along towards the common goal.

This is something local authorities ought to be good at; those of us who work for one know that ultimately our job is to make life better for people in the borough. But all too often we’re guilty of focussing on our own work and not the bigger picture.

Becoming collaborative organisations gives councils an opportunity to redefine their purpose. By focussing on working together with residents and partners towards our common goals, we can become more efficient and effective, as well as becoming better places to work.

Over the coming months and years local government will be asked to redefine its own purpose in order to become leaner and more efficient. That means rediscovering those shared goals and giving people the tools to work more efficiently towards them. Structures are inefficient: harness common purpose, though, and organisations can achieve more efficient delivery.

Will Twitter’s new terms call time on council feeds?

Twitter’s new terms of service were launched last week, to general acclaim from users. The new terms aim to tackle the rising tide of spam that threatens to engulf Twitter, as well as prepare the ground for the arrival of advertising.

The refreshed Twitter Rules spell out a number of different reasons why you may find your Twitter account terminated. In calling time for inappropriate avatars,  squatting and multiple, near-identical accounts, the new rules turn into policy what was already established moderating practice.

The new terms emphasise the personal touch, stating that you’ll be in violation of the terms of service  “if your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates.”

Now this could cause a real headache for councils, the vast majority of whom use feeds to automatically tweet stories and releases. In banning all bots, the new terms would appear to call time  for many councils on Twitter.

Stuart Harrison suggests councils mitigate the risk by personalising their tweets, supplementing feed stories with replies and additional information.

Whilst I agree councils aren’t currently making the best use of Twitter – using it as a broadcast medium with which to distribute press releases – I’m not sure many councils will be able to do this.

I expect that over the coming months and years more councils will follow Brighton’s lead and recruit dedicated social media officers. But until that happens few have the resources to really put the social into social media.

Right now it’s not clear how – or indeed if – Twitter will police this. But if they do start banning all automated feeds, I’m not sure many councils will have the capacity  to change tack quickly and keep their feeds running.

That would be a real shame. As Liz Azyan found, more councils are using Twitter than any other social platform (30% at the last count). The relatively swift adoption of Twitter is a rare example of council officers embracing social media and, well, JFD-ing it.

If Twitter starts banning councils for automated feeds, it’s unlikely many will have the determination or resources to get their feeds running again. Councils are inherently risk-adverse, and if we get burned with this it could be a real setback for social media in local government.

The problem is, the new terms imply that all bots are bad. Yet plenty of users don’t think they are.

I think of Twitter as a one-stop information resource. The personal touch is part of what makes Twitter so useful (the ability to ask questions on seemingly any subject and get a string of useful answers in minutes is really invaluable). But announcements from companies and organisations are often genuinely useful too, and Twitter would be a poorer place without them.

Like bad pubs, bad feeds are easy to spot and easy to avoid.

Fortunately, it’s not just councils and PRs who might fall foul of the new rules; many news organisations, such as the Guardian and CNN, use RSS feeds to Twitter latest stories.

And this is where we’re likely to see some push-back. Many automated feeds are demonstrably popular, and Twitter is unlikely to want to get on the wrong side of the powerful media organisations currently using their service by banning their feeds.

That being the case, I suspect (and hope) Twitter will use their discretion and separate the good bots from the bad.

What do you think? Is Twitter right to ban bots?

What makes for a good council website?

I’ve decided to steer clear of blogging on the recent disastrous  Birmingham Council website launch.

While Paul Canning’s blog post sums up the catalogue of errors extremely well, it’s clear to anyone visiting the site that huge mistakes have been made. Bad government websites are launched all the time, but few have Birmingham’s £2.8m price tag.

The one good thing to come out of this debacle is a renewed focus on producing good, user-focused council websites.

Just what does make for a good council website? Whether we’re local gov webbies, communicators, or interested users, we all have ideas on what makes websites work for local authorities.

Dave Briggs has set up a page on IdeaScale where local gov webbies and interested amateurs can collaboratively produce a wishlist of what council websites really ought to have.

He hopes this will provide a resource full of good advice for councils looking  to improve their web presence.

Come and join the debate! You can submit your ideas or vote and comment on the ideas already suggested.

You can find it at:

Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

Portsmouth Council announced this week they’ve decided to ban access to Facebook from its computers after it was revealed staff spent an average of 400 hours a month on the site.

Council bans on Facebook are hardly new; many have restrictions on access thanks to the requirements of Government Connect. But this story focussed on “waste”, noting 400 hours a month equates to between five and six minutes per month spent on the site by each of the 4,500 PC-based staff.

Firstly, the statistic isn’t a sound one; Portsmouth Council admit they can’t differentiate between business and personal use, nor between dwelling and active browsing, which means they don’t know how much of that 400 hours is clocked up by windows left open while the user does something else.

Second, the headline doesn’t reflect the real issue behind this story. Organisations have had this debate many times already, over the potential for employees to waste time if given a telephone, email, or access to the internet. In all of these cases, it’s a manager’s job to tackle any perceived timewasting, and so too it should be for Facebook. But instead of looking at the quality of performance management, Portsmouth Council are trying to solve the problem from the centre.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are already talking about us on social networks. We can either choose to ignore those conversations, or we can listen to and learn from them.

As Carl Heggarty notes, would we consider a member of staff visiting a village hall and listening to community issues and communicating with them about councils services a waste of time, or would that be considered community engagement?

Employees listening out for the organisation on social networks gives us an extended network of “eyes and ears” able to highlight problems and bring them to our attention before they spiral out of control and become significant reputational risks.

By banning access, we prevent employees from listening on our behalf, identifying problems so they can be given attention by more conventional means. But heavy-handed bans also prevent employees from speaking for us. Employees can be powerful advocates for what we do, and are likely to speak highly of us in their social networks, both on and offline. By banning access we limit employees ability to advocate for us online.

By limiting the extent to which informed and engaged employees can advocate on its behalf, Portsmouth Council is failing to get the full value from its internal communications.

Finally, centrally-imposed bans on access could also be said to have a negative impact on employee engagement. Hertzberg argues that dissatisfaction with employment is primarily motivated by company policy, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and working conditions (what he termed ‘Hygiene Factors’). Portsmouth’s policy of blocking social networking sites could be seen to create dissatisfaction among employees, as it could be seen to be heavy-handed centralised supervision, and limits their ability to manage their work-life balance and build working relationships.

The Work Foundation found access to new technology affects how people view their organisational culture: “People who have access to newer technologies are more likely to characterise their organisation as one that is loyal with mutual trust, that is committed to innovation and development or is focussed on achievement and not rule bound”.

The holy grail of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Engage your staff and they repay you by investing more time and effort into their work; fail to engage – or actively disengage – and employees are not motivated to contribute more than the bare minimum.

A more nuanced look at Portsmouth’s Facebook ban might reveal it has a negative impact both on employee engagement and on community engagement, resulting in far more “waste” than the five to six minutes a month currently spent on Facebook.

How can we use web 2.0 to safeguard children?

FutureGov‘s Dominic Campbell asks how we can use the social web to improve the way children’s services connect and collaborate, and so become more effective in safeguarding children.

Here’s an extract from his FutureGov blog post:

“Sat watching the case of Baby Peter unfold on the television last year, as with the vast majority of you I’m sure, I was left feeling hugely saddened, frustrated and powerless to help prevent such events from ever happening again. I am not a social worker nor do I work for any one of the numerous agencies involved in the extremely complex and challenging world of child protection. However, it did get me thinking about where I might be able to provide some support, specifically around how we might be able to draw on social technologies to contribute to safeguarding children…

“…To start off with, we are looking to bring together multi-disciplinary group of senior managers and practitioners from childrens social services, teachers, police and health workers with social web technologist, public service designer, funders – or even just people who have a personal passion for this area – to help us design and run a small Safeguarding 2.0 pilot. Nothing big in the first instance, more a proof of concept if you like, but with the potential to transform the way in which professionals and non-professionals alike might better share information and form the kinds of relationships that might prevent future tragedies.”

It’s an ambitious but incredibly worthwhile idea, I’m sure you’ll agree. If you’d like to know more, or to share your ideas, go along to the workshop.

More details about the project and the workshop are in the briefing paper here:


On Friday some of Britain’s geekiest local government comms, web and tech people gathered at Google’s offices in Victoria to find out how we can work together.

The offices are pretty much how I expected – bright and clean, creative yet corporate. This is how offices should look.

We arrived expecting a sales pitch, and that we certainly got. Google opened by telling us that they want to help the UK public sector deliver better digital content, better value for money, and maybe some profit for Google along the way. I’ll just cover the main points of interest for me here, but if you’re interested in hearing more, Sarah Lay and Carrie Bishop have both written detailed (and therefore lengthy) blog posts which cover all the topics.

We began where everyone begins with Google – search. Google’s organic search is driven by an algorithm which is as secret as Colonel Sanders’ blend of 11 herbs and spices. The exact nature of Google’s search might be an enigma, but it’s no secret that the best way to ensure your results are relevant and so feature high up in searches is to have good content on good pages.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that comes naturally to the public sector. So that’s where paid-for advertising comes in. This works by scoring ads by relevance (based on content) vs how much you’ll pay. The ads scoring highest are furthest up the page; you can increase your score without paying more by making your content relevant. This Paid Ads 101 rap on YouTube tells you all you need to know, fo’ sho’. But are paid for ads suitable for local authorities? Perhaps, in some contexts. Google have given us £300 of AdWords credit so we can try this out.

Google told us they can determine a user’s location from their IP address with 80 per cent accuracy, which means we can use geolocation ads to target advertising to our own residents. But this doesn’t ring true for me; I asked if they could clarify how that would work in London, for instance, where boroughs are geographically small and contiguous.

Nonetheless, by making our content relevant, we can score more highly in organic search. Usefully, Google have a clutch of tools to help us make our websites better. Website Optimiser, their website testing and optimisation tool, allows you to test and optimise site content and design in order to increase revenue and ROI. At a first glance this looked damned good and I will certainly take a closer look.

Google Analytics is a powerful tool not just for measurement, but also to help us improve our sites. By looking more closely at user journey and usability of our sites we can learn where they need to improve. But to do this we need more and better training, and the resource to do it. All too often web teams are tasked with creating more and more content without looking at what we’ve already got and how it can be improved. The speaker, Paul, has posted his presentation and you can read more on his blog.

AdSense is a means by which councils can make money out of Google, by hosting ads on our own sites. Dominic Miller talked us through how this has worked in Nottingham – netting them £15k in the first year, with apparently only a handful of complaints and very little work on their part.

In local gov we’re going to be asked to do more with less over the coming years, so the idea that our sites could generate income is an attractive one. But nonetheless I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, in part because it seems like unnecessary commercialisation of civic life, but also because there’s potential for reputational damage there. Some councils are going to be keener or this than others; we’ll need to debate this one within our own organisations.

Next up was Google’s apps suite. The demo showed how we can work collaboratively using real-time document editing, communicating by instant messenger and video chat. Here they were preaching to the converted. Battling daily with a 50MB (yes, really) mailbox limit that needs clearing at least twice a day, 250GB of storage space that can be accessed from anywhere sounds like heaven.

Unfortunately, it’s likely to remain a dream for the time being at least thanks to concerns over data security, and in particular the hoops IT departments have to jump through for Government Connect. Enterprise doesn’t even work very well on IE6, and most of us are stuck with this eight-year-old browser. Google are confident they can answer concerns, and given they have rolled Enterprise out in some major corporations I’m sure they can. Google assured us there are no Data Protection Act issues as all the data stays within the EU, which is one hurdle overcome at least.

Ultimately the decision to move to cloud computing will be an economic one. At £33 per user per year their offering is good value, but the associated costs of migrating to cloud computing are enormous. The Digital Britain report outlines government plans to move to cloud computing, but as ever I suspect local government will be slower to move.

Michele Ide-Smith argues that the move will be driven by societal expectations; we’ll be less willing to put up with outdated technology the further it diverges from out computing experiences at home.

Add to this moves towards greater flexible and home working, and increased pressure to work in partnership, and cloud computing starts to make an awful lot of sense for us in local government.

Next up was the fabulously-named Chewy, who talked us through some of the cool stuff you can do with YouTube. The video site is now the internet’s second most popular search engine, which shows people are actively searching for multimedia content.

Local authorities are increasingly making use of YouTube videos (Westminster, for one), but as with everything on the web, content is king. People don’t expect overproduced , corporate video, as our expectations have changed thanks to the proliferation of mobile phone video cameras – and the existence of YouTube. The most popular videos on council sites are ‘fun’ ones, like this video of Street Dance in Uxbridge, from Hillingdon Council.

Advice from Google is that you need to promote your videos and make them easy to find. Simply embedding them on your home page isn’t enough – take them to where people are, and you can link back to our site from there.

This YouTube walk-through got me thinking about resourcing. I’m not sure many local authorities have people skilled and experienced in making and editing video (as well as other media-rich content).

Newspaper publishers are moving away from a model where journalists simply write. Major newspaper groups are re-focussing their journalistic teams as ‘content producers’, responsible for creating photos, videos and audio files as well as text stories, and they’ll increasingly expect the same kind of media-rich content from us. At the same time, the growth of hyperlocal media, highlighted in the recent Digital Britain report, will place changing demands on council PROs.

I strongly suspect that in future press officers will spend less time ‘selling in’ stories to local media outlets, and more creating a wider range of content – which means we need to start developing the skills to do this.

Finally we moved on to Google Maps. By this point in the day we were all getting a little tetchy and tired of being sold at, and this is where dissatisfaction on the Twitter steam started to bubble over. Perhaps they were unlucky to have scheduled this last, but it was also very unfortunate that they’d made little effort to re-focus their business presentation to the audience to address the problems with local government have in adopting Google Maps.

They told us Google Maps is the most popular mapping site on the interwebs, and 150,000 developers are using the Google Maps API to create their own maps. We’ve all played with Street View to look up our childhood haunts, and few of us would struggle to make the mental leap to using it on council websites.

But we can’t use it, because of The Big Ordinance Survey Issue. I won’t pretend to know the details, but effectively most of local government is banned from using Google Maps at the moment because of a disagreement between Google and Ordinance Survey over their terms and conditions (read all about it here, if you’re really interested). This is a sizable stumbling block for us; that they seemed baffled when someone raised the question highlighted a remarkable lack of research into the local government market.

Although Google looked a little taken aback at the sudden outburst of negativity, to their credit they immediately offered to set up an ongoing dialogue between us where we can talk through some of these issues. I think this could be really productive for both sides.

Overall, I was a little disappointed that the day wasn’t more of a constructive, two-way session, but nonetheless it was a useful overview of their products. The key is in what happens next. I love Google, and I’m sure there’s potential for them to help us achieve our aims of communicating better with residents while bringing down costs. But this was only a first date; we’ve got a lot of flirting to go before local government will even consider going to bed with Google. Local Government just isn’t that kind of girl, you see.

For those who are interested, Google have made a sector-specific website for local government with summaries of content from the session. There was also plenty of talk on the #googlelocalgov Twitter hashtag.

More (and, frankly, better) blogs from the day:

Ingrid Koehler

Carrie Bishop

Michele Ide-Smith

Sarah Lay

Al Smith

(EDIT: Jon Cross from Google has responded to my complaint that GeoLocation doesn’t really work: “Just been reading your blog post and I have to say there seems to be a slight misunderstanding on geo targeting, and where you’ve said our geo-targeting doesn’t work you are actually referring to natural search results, not paid ads which is what I was talking about in my session. Geo targeting on paid links *does* work. We do not geo target in our natural search listings, and we never claimed to”. So there you go, although TBH I’m still struggling to see how they can find you from your IP address when boroughs in London are often only a mile or two wide, so I’d really want some further assurance that this actually does work).