Conference call

I was at the Public Sector Online 2008 conference yesterday, which was talking about the future for public sector websites, moving services and information online, how to integrate social media into the mix, how to achieve efficiency services in a time when government will be increasingly strapped for cash, and how to “reduce avoidable contact”.

That last bit still makes me think of someone being really, really anti-social and crossing the road in order to avoid having to greet his or her neighbours. What it actually is, of course, is the push to ensure that you only every have to deal with one government point of contact to carry out a particular service and not the classic farce of having to deal with 20 different parts of the government machine.

There’s a very good blog report by Carl Haggerty – Web Innovations, New Media and Portal Manager for Devon County Council and one of the speakers during the day – that gives a good, detailed guide of the day, so I won’t repeat any of that here.

Instead, some of my highlights:

  • First, Carl’s own hour-long breakout session. He’s a very good speaker partly because he knows his stuff, but mostly because he’s really enthusiastic and passionate about what he does. In this case it was a study of how Facebook, Bebo and other social networking sites (SNS) can be used by the public sector to engage with the youth audience. The study found that the audience wouldn’t object to councils reaching out through SNS provided it was done right – which meant profiles with logos, accurately identifying the council and offering proof that it really was an official presence, for example.
  • Carl also spoke about how Devon County Council was on the verge of banning Facebook because of a few members of staff overusing it. As Carl pointed out, the best way of tackling this is through effective personal management – and not through throwing an IT ban at it. Many government departments automatically ban social networking sites, YouTube, instant messaging and discussion forums because “staff are meant to be working, not chatting to people”. It’s a ridiculously out of date reaction – typically old school government, really – that needs to be looked at with more nuance, especially in relation to teams that are supposed to be taking care of organisation communications and web channels. For example, my own company-issued Blackberry allowed me to send Twitter updates during the day – but is locked out from accessing internet sites or installing apps like TwitterBerry, so I was ‘deaf’ to all responses. A rather accurate symbol of the broadcasting/not listening government cliché really, but not limited to the public sector – by coincidence, a Demos report released yesterday was urging bosses to embrace Facebook and not lock it out.
  • Directgov’s Proposition Strategy and Product Design Director Sharon Cooper gave the keynote speech talking about the difficulties facing Directgov trying to absorb so much of the public facing government information out there, and how alternative channels such as branded ‘widgets’ to deploy onto third party sites may be the way to go to stop Directgov itself being overloaded and becoming a mess. I also strongly agreed with her when she talked about the need for government to get real about the language it employs in customer communications: there’s no point having articles about “traffic calming measures” and wondering why people looking for information on “speed cameras” can’t find it.
  • It was good to meet Steve Dale, who I have followed on Twitter almost from the time I first signed up to the service. He was talking about the IDeA Communities of Practice that he consulted on – one of which is COI’s own Digital People group. I liked his use of the Stone Soup fable to illustrate what group facilitation can all be about. The only picture I had a chance to take all day was of Steve setting up for his breakout session – you can see him on the left, wearing his ‘Madonna’-style headset – apparently the session was being recorded for posterity:
Steve Dale prepares for the breakout session on Communities of Practice

Steve Dale prepares for the breakout session on Communities of Practice

  • Robin Christopherson (Head of Accessibility Services at AbilityNet) made his presentation using the latest JAWS screen reader, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a whole different world where you really begin to appreciate how little touches such as not having links that just say “click here” can hugely improve the user experience. It makes all those years of banging on about accessibility compliance really worthwhile to see someone like Robin explain the world as he experiences it. Perhaps the best thing to take away from a session of accessibility is the lesson that you’re not just doing this for the small proportion of users with an impairment: making a site with good accessibility – and therefore good usability, web standards compliance and good design – will also improve the experience for everyone. It’ll even help your search engine rankings.
  • Stephen Dodson, National Director of DC10Plus who picked up on a lot of the themes of the “Understanding Digital Exclusion – Research Report” published at the end of last week, and which everyone should be looking through: it’s rather startling to those of us who take online services so much for granted that 24% of adults in the UK have never used the Internet in their lives. I also had a nice chat with Stephen as we were leaving at the end of the day, lamenting how the UK is so resistent to being joined up” that despite billions of pounds spent on improving sewer and power lines up and down streets, no one has thought to use the opportunity to lay fibre optic cables – the natural successor to broadband – while the streets are dug up. As a result, fibre optic technology will cost billions to implement and no one’s willing to pay the bill. Way to go on that one.
  • Jeremy Gould – Head of Internet Communication at Ministry of Justice and blogger at Whitehall Webby) – made a wonderful observation that the old axiom of “content is king” is now dead and buried, and Web 2.0 is all about conversation is king – content is just something to talk about. Although the old fashioned curmudgeon in me still says that without content we would have nothing to talk about, and therefore content still rules even in Web 2.0!
  • Henry Scowcroft (Health and Science Web Manager, Cancer Research UK) talked about how the team there write and maintain a high quality Cancer Research UK science update blog, enabling the organisation to be proactive about mythbusting inaccurate science coverage (such as how purple tomatoes won’t beat cancer) and how such a fast moving blog can be maintained even with the need to get stories checked and approved prior to publication.

It was certainly a good day, well worth the time. The only trouble with events like this is that the more you go to them, the more you find others that you’d really like to be at as well. Reading through the Twitter back chatter from today’s ReadWriteGov event in Peterborough really makes me wish I was there, too, and feeling like I’m missing out on the good stuff all over again.


  1. carlhaggerty

    Thanks for the signpost, enjoyed your observations, it is great to get the different perspectives on these events.


  2. andrewlewin

    You’re very welcome – feeding back is the least we can do to thank you for the time yo spent pulling it together. And the subject was very much on point with my own interests (social media/Web 2.0) and COI’s particular areas of interest and concern (communicating with ‘hard to reach audiences” such as teenagers.)

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