How Web 2.0 is government at managing big news?

The big news story of the week is undoubtedly the Pre-Budget Report on Monday – although the name doesn’t do justice to what was in reality a quite extraordinary emergency full Budget in effect. So how did the government online presence manage in reporting the developments?

Front page of HM Treasury site

The immediate place I would think of looking is the HM Treasury site. And they do have the information, it’s just a little … underplayed, shall we say, with the Pre-Budget Report just another panel down the middle, with the thrilling strapline of “Alistair Darling made his Pre-Budget statement on 24th November 2008 at 3:30pm”. It links to a page full of all the source documents – but it’s difficult not to be immediately lost and overwhelmed unless you’re a fund manager in the City.

Front page of HM Treasury microsite

There is a boiled-down summary microsite as well (strange that it doesn’t appear to be on the main departmental content management system but is a separate ‘flat’ HTML site) which seeks to convey the main points in plain English. However the strapline is once again not all that compelling – “Overview of key points including a what the PBR means for your region” – and it’s not really talking to the proverbial “man on the Clapham Omnibus.” But at least it’s all there, if you dig around a bit, know what you’re looking for, and can understand it.

Front page of Directgov site

For the “ordinary person”, you’re probably meant to think first of looking on Directgov which is of course the main public access point for all things UK government these days. And they do have a section flagged at the top of the home page, although its impact is lessened somewhat by being sandwiched between the more routine “Care and support” and “Looking for work”, but when you open the page it has a clearly marked “How it will affect you” section which does a good job in summarising, in brief understandable bullet points, all the details that are likely to affect the regular citizen. It’s a shame that neither the HM Treasury main site or microsite don’t think to link to the specific Directgov section in order to reroute any lost citizens finding the ‘official’ version of the information incomprehensible and urgently needing a more relevant distillation of the facts.

So it’s not hard to find the Pre-Budget Report details if you’re looking for them, whichever audience group you’re in. If I were to gripe it would be to say that it’s a shame that the information wasn’t released quicker – the budget reports were up within half an hour of the speech, but that’s still an eternity online where you could practically hear the drumming of impatient fingers. Government websites just aren’t built for the speed of turnaround of news sites, which is why the BBC News site will wins hands down everytime. It’s for this reason I suspect that the HM Treasury’s summary section is on a separate microsite which could be rolled out quicker than on the main departmental site could manage.

But even the BBC have found that in this day and age, their traditional newsroom set-up and state-of-the-art content management systems aren’t fast enough. They’re getting out-performed by bloggers watching the speech at home and getting posts up almost instantaneously – which is why the BBC has recently launched itself into the world of Web 2.0 with such energy and determination, using blogs and Twitter feeds so that the BBC’s voice is right there from the start.

The Government’s missing a trick here – by not embracing the same sort of Web 2.0 technologies they’re looking slow, sluggish, out-of-date and disinterested. Worse, they’re leaving the playing field wide open to the likes of right wing political blogger Guido Fawkes (the UK’s answer to Matt Drudge in a sense), and that means they lose control of the story almost as the Chancellor is speaking the words in the House of Commons.

The government needs to be smarter than this. President-Elect Obama has realised this in the United States, and it’s about time that the communications directors in Whitehall were given the freedom to learn from the BBC and Obama examples and allowed to be pro-active about engaging with the news agenda early on, rather than be fire-fighting and damage limitation later on. In dealing with something with an economic crisis – and with public fears about recession – the right communications are almost as important as the substance of the economic announcements at a time like this.

Why, for example, did HM Treasury not run a Twitter feed (and/or a comment feed streamed live on the HM Treasury site) alongside the Chancellor’s speech? Why was there no official forum or Twiter feed that people could send questions and comments to? Yes, it would make the BBC’s recent meltdown over John Sergeant‘s resignation from Strictly Come Dancing look like a walk in the park: but the problem is that if the treasury doesn’t provide this sort of channel, there are plenty of others who will. And they won’t be anything like as friendly or supportive or as accurate as the Treasury could be.

Government officials will argue that a simultaneous Twitter-esque feed is not appropriate, because the Chancellor’s speech is the “official live feed” and nothing should distract from it – there shouldn’t be two people putting out messages at one or the whole thing will get dangerously confused. Well, if that were the case then there wouldn’t be an explosion of blogs and Twitter feeds offering a running commentary and “decoding” service out there. The result of not doing it is that the story can get hijacked: no one even listens to the source material, so all those pages of reports and speeches on the HM Treasury and Directgov sites go unread, because people are reading the news sites and the political bloggers and already making up their minds.

Government can’t just sit and gripe about political bloggers poisoning debate as Hazel Blears did a couple of weeks ago, and then complacently leave the playing field wide open. If government is serious about engagment – and I think it is – then it needs to learn that this means Web 2.0 technologies and not town hall meetings anymore, and start to get serious and professional about what it does in these areas.

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  1. Isn’t the problem quite a lot deeper than Web 2.0? It’s the tendency of civil servants to want to speak in policy rather than to their intended audience.
    How can the government create an engaging web presence when it fails to engage under any other channels? Or do you think that the web can be used to push government along and improve its more general communication?

  2. andrewlewin

    Hi Proops, great to see you here!

    Web 2.0 is only the ‘problem’ in the sense that it’s the wave crashing over traditional media. It’s also the opportunity for government to revolutionise how it does things. It’s the 21st century equivalent to the introduction of ‘spin’ in the 90s. So I agree, they need to engage in all these other channels, that’s just what I was trying to convey in the article.

    It’s true that there are a lot of civil servants with no clue about Web 2.0 (or indeed comms in general); but the communications professionals who do know what they’re doing here are being held back, both by politicians (who don’t get it) and colleague civil servants. But it can be changed, and the Civil Service culture has changed massively in the last decade – this is just one more thing they need to start adapting to. But it won’t happen without leadership (or at least encouragement and permission) from the ministers otherwise inertia will win out.




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