Government doesn’t find conversation easy.  Its communication models tend to be predominantly one to many and it finds the megaphone more comfortable than the ear trumpet.  No news in that of course, and the principle of trying to do better, of trying to be more conversational, is a long-standing one.  It was much less noticeable, though, for as long as that was the predominant model of discourse in other areas too – the mass in mass media always used to be about the size of the audience, not about the number of voices speaking.

But all of that is changing, and changing rapidly, with serious arguments being advanced that the significance of change is comparable with the invention of movable type – and that, as then, the social consequences will lag significantly behind the technological change.  So we are in a world where the technology has advanced and a few have adapted, but where most of us are still struggling to work out and apply the social norms which will govern the new world.

One part of that is in the use of social media.  Government is in a simple position here:  with some very honourable exceptions, it ignores them.  That at least means that the direction of travel is unambiguous, but leaves open the question of how far we have come and how far we have got to go.  We could simply apply the Kübler-Ross model on which we would pretty clearly be on step one of five – and if the approach is good enough for All That Jazz, who are we to quibble?

But there is a slightly more sophisticated tool to hand.  Jeremiah Owyang has listed the five questions companies ask about social media:

  • What is social media?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What does it mean to my business?
  • How do I do it right?
  • How do I integrate across the Enterprise?

And he observes:

Often, when I meet companies for the first time, I try to find out which of the following questions that they are answering, as it determines their level of sophistication.

As one might expect, brands in tech, media, and some consumer goods are more advanced, and finance, insurance, and sometimes government are trying to answer the first questions.

The reasons for that are no doubt many and varied, but one which rings true is a function of the immaturity of this:  much of it doesn’t work, not in a technical sense (that clearly works pretty well) but in a social or organisational sense, as Suw Charman notes in reflecting on the importance of pigheadedness:

Every now and again I’ll be talking to a client or a journalist or some random person at a conference, and they’ll ask me if I think that social software is a fad. Invariably they’ll have anecdotal evidence of some company, somewhere, who tried to start up blogs or a wiki inside their business, and it failed. That, they say, is proof that social software has nothing to offer business, and that if we give it a few more years it will just go away. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The problem with this interpretation is that these failures – which are common, but largely unexamined and unpublished because no one likes to admit they failed – are part and parcel of the process of negotiating how we can use these new tools in business. They are inevitable and, were they discussed in public, I’d even call them necessary as they would allow us to learn what does and doesn’t work. Sadly, we don’t often get a glimpse inside failed projects so we end up making the same mistakes over and over until someone, somewhere sees enough bits of the jigsaw to start putting them together.

There is a lot of failure in the use of social software in business, on the web, in civic society, but we need to see this as a part of the cycle, a step along on the learning curve. We can’t afford to stop experimenting, just because something failed once, or because it didn’t work out for someone else. And we can’t afford to take part in the Great Race To Be Second, either, because if you’re waiting to see how other businesses succeed (or fail) before you leave the starting line, you’re not going to be second, you’re going to be last.

All of that is by way of preamble to the fact that Tom Watson has announced new guidelines for online participation by civil servants.  They are elegantly simple, with five short principles:

  • Be credible:  Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.
  • Be consistent:  Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.Guidance wordle
  • Be responsive:  When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.
  • Be integrated:  Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.
  • Be a civil servant:  Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency.

The word cloud takes those words and the explanatory paragraphs which go with them, with size proportionate to frequency.  It’s rather reassuring that ‘partcipation’ comes out as the dominant word.  Whether they will support the embrace of failure, as Suw Charman suggests, is another question – as is that of how many civil servants will get to access social networking sites which are currently blocked to them, which is a fairly essential precondition for participation.  But it’s a good first step, well worth watching for what it unlocks.


  1. I love the word cloud and would be interested to know how you generated it – is there a simple tool somewhere or is this is a personal labour of love?

  2. I would love to say I spent yesterday evening with a big box of crayons on the kitchen table, but it’s more fun and simpler than that. I coincidentally came across and immediately started looking for an excuse to use it here. You just drop in some text and set it going.

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