Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why senior public officials need to be web-savvy

In The Techie in Chief, appearing in next week's Newsweek, Anna Quindlen provides a strong case why no-one at senior levels in the public sector can afford to be unfamiliar with modern telecommunications technologies.

One key reason she highlights is that leaders need to lead - they need to be out in front of the pack, rather than trailing behind.

If not, they are vulnerable to faster moving opponents, as well as to loss of respect from their constituents and staff.

Quindlen also points out that without making effective use of modern telecommunications tools government-agency heads can become blind to how their policies really work for ordinary people, and political figures can be insensible to undercurrents amongst their constituents.

So fundamentally senior public officials need to be web-savvy because they are senior figures with decision-making responsibility.

If they do not embrace emerging technologies they will be increasingly unable to understand their environment or make appropriate decisions in order to deliver relevant outcomes for citizens.

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US releases eGovernment satisfaction results - useful benchmark for Australian sites

ForeSee Results has just released the findings of the latest quarterly US eGovernment satisfaction survey, looking at citizen satisfaction with over 100 US government websites.

Available as a PDF download, the E-Government Satisfaction Index (PDF 1.2Mb) uses a uniform system to compare satisfaction across US sites and was selected as the US government's standard measure in 1999.

Based on the results of this latest survey, there has been a small increase in average satisfaction to 72.9 percent, the first rise in a year.

The report does a good job of identifying the US government sites with the highest level of citizen satisfaction, which can be used by Australian government as good benchmarking examples.

It identifies the major priorities for improvement across agencies, with search topping the list (88% of agencies identified it as a top priority) followed by functionality at 59% and navigation at 41%.

The benefits of higher satisfaction have also been identified in the report, being that highly satisfied customers (scores of 80 or more) are;

  • 84% more likely to use the website as a primary resource
  • 83% more likely to recommend the website
  • 57% more likely to return to the site


The use of a standard government website satisfaction methodology, as I have previously suggested, makes it much easier for government agencies to compare their performance, identify and learn from successes and address issues. It is also an excellent accountability tool for Ministers and agency heads.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why can one man in a cave out-communicate the government of the world's superpower?

There was an interesting admission from the US Army Secretary last week in Inside Defense as reported in the Wired Danger Room Blog,

Senior Army leaders have fallen behind the breakneck development of cheap
digital communications including cell phones, digital cameras and Web 2.0
Internet sites such as blogs and Facebook, Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a
trade conference on July 10. That helps explain how "just one man in a cave
that's hooked up to the Internet has been able to out-communicate the greatest
communications society in the history of the world -- the United States," Geren
said.

"It's a challenge not only at home, it's a challenge in recruiting, it's a challenge internationally, because effective communication brings people over to our side and ineffective communication allows the enemy to pull people to their side," Geren continued. He said the Army brass needs to catch up -- fast. But how exactly?

One solution: "Find a blog to be a part of," Geren said.

Young people embrace social media "as a fluent second language," he added. Army leaders have to do the same.
The article went on to describe some of the initiatives underway at the US Army to help it prepare for the new world - including adding blogging to their graduate school curriculum and allowing a tiny office of Web-savvy mavericks at West Point to create Army-specific Web 2.0 tools (blogs, forums, social networks) for soldiers.

At the same time the US Air Force is using blogs, wikis and personal profile pages to better support its missions, per a Network World article, U.S. Air Force lets Web 2.0 flourish behind walls.

I expect that the Australian armed forces are watching and learning from our US counterparts. The online channel can deliver major benefits to the training and operations of a defense force.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's the level of security risk from government's internal IT staff?

Over the last week a rogue IT employee in the San Francisco Department of Technology Information Services has held the city to ransom - locking down many of the city's services by refusing to disclose an administration password.

The employee, Terry Childs, helped create the city's FiberWAN network , used for controlling the city's emails, law enforcement records, payroll, and personal records. It controls 60 percent of the city's municipal data.

Using his access as administrator, Childs stopped other authorized network users from accessing parts of the network and gave himself access to parts from which he should have been restricted.

To compound this, the city apparently did not keep adequate system backups, and so cannot restore the system from an earlier state.

Fixing the situation is likely to take several weeks and cost in the order of $500,000, including hardware and system changes.

Childs was taken to court by the city, with a US$5 million bail set - that's five times as much as is usual for a murder in California.

Why did Childs lock down San Francisco? Network World reports in IT administrator pleads not guilty to network tampering that,

He became erratic and then hostile with colleagues after a recent security
audit uncovered his activity on the network, according to a source familiar with
the situation.


An article in Wired, San Francisco Admin Charged With Hijacking City's Network, discusses how Childs could have brought down the entire San Francisco city's network if he'd wanted to.

Fortunately for San Francisco, as reported in eFluxMedia, Childs finally turned over the password to San Francisco's Mayor on 24 July - claiming that only the Mayor was trustworthy enough to have the password.

Do you know how much power your department's IT team has?

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Obama pledges to appoint a national cyber advisor - does IT need more senior representation in Australia?

As reported in NextGov, Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential candidate, has pledged to appoint a direct report focusing on online security.

"As president, I'll make cybersecurity the top priority that it should be in the 21st century," Obama said during a summit on national security at Purdue University. "I'll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and
appoint a national cyber adviser, who will report directly to me. We'll
coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national
cybersecurity policy and tighten standards to secure information -- from the
networks that power the federal government to the networks that you use in your
personal lives."

Security analysts praise Obama's pledge for a cyber chief

Today most of the money supply and trading in the finance sector, our telecommunications and entertainment industries, a significant proportion of our retail activity and a number of government initiatives are focused on, or reliant on, the use of robust and secure broadband and online services.

I wonder when a similar approach to Obama's proposal will be adopted in Australia?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The first language of the internet is now Mandarin

The China Internet Network Information Center has reported that China's online population has now reached 253 million people, a smidgen more than the US's 223 million, coming from a Sydney Morning Herald article, China steals internet crown from US.

Of course the 300 million English speakers in India will help redress this balance as more of them come online, however the future of the internet will not necessarily be written in English.

At the moment the revenue for China's online services is estimated at only around US$5.9 billion, compared the the US$21 billion estimated for the US.

China's online revenues are reportedly growing at 30 percent per year, so at some point this balance as well will be redressed - making this, at present, at least a US$15 billion dollar opportunity.

As yet I have not seen much in the way of Chinese language sites from Australia, however if I had to pick it, I'd rate this as possibly the largest area for growth today for the online sector.

I wonder what types of grants and support the Commonwealth and state governments will be offering Australian innovators to assist them in supporting Chinese language versions of their websites - after all China is becoming our most significant international trading partner, and Chinese speakers are a significant market worldwide.

I also wonder when Australian governments will get more serious about multi-language websites - as the Europeans already do by default.

In areas such as tourism, trade, business and finance, supporting multiple languages online will become very important in supporting our relationships with other nations.

We are coming from a cold start, in a very real sense we live in a single language country, with English being the language of government, commerce and education. Whilst we have a large number of multi-lingual people, our institutions are not set up to be multi-lingual in a real, embedded sense as they have to be in other parts of the world.

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Do government departments have the right to refuse to engage citizens via the online channel?

Let’s assume you work for a government body that is deeply involved in highly contentious issues - issues that are very interesting (and frustrating) to communities both online and offline. Let’s also assume that your organization has very little chance of changing the fundamental policies and procedures that frame these issues in the public’s eyes.

...is it worth the effort to launch a blog or similar long term initiative if your comment fields will get filled with criticism, claims that your social media work is simply parroting or reinforcing your traditional media work, or growing references to critical reports, video clips and commentary that undermines the very point you were trying to make...
The extract above from a article in CanuckFlack titled Is a bad blog better than no blog at all? reflects a decision my agency is grappling with at the moment.

Many other government communicators across the globe are facing a similar choice - is it better to join online conversations, or avoid opening a Pandora's box of backlash?


Is this the right question for public servants to be asking?

My view is that we need to revisit the role of government agencies - which I characterise in its most basis form as to carry out the will of the elected government on behalf of citizens and the community.

If a government agency is tasked with implementing contentious legislation or programs then it is the role of that agency to build community understanding and engagement in order to best fulfil the requirements of the government.

This involves understanding and addressing community concerns, communicating and collaborating widely with stakeholders and the community and helping those affected to meet the legislative requirements by providing the tools and support they need.

Citizens need to understand what is expected of them and why, and have avenues to have their views heard and addressed by the agency within the limits of the legislation in place.

This role is not limited to the channels most comfortable to the agency - it needs to reach citizens in the channels most comfortable to them, within the resourcing restrictions placed on the agency.

If we trust the research we find,

So if online is one of the most used medium for Australian citizens, and the avenue of choice for engaging with Australian government, the channel needs appropriate weighting in resourcing and use by agencies.

There are issues remaining to be addressed - the speed of agency change, the scarcity of appropriate expertise and the cost required to implement this engagement.

But these are operational issues, we should have moved beyond the strategic question of whether the online channel is appropriate for government to use.

So my question becomes, not should we open Pandora's box, but rather:

Do we, as government departments, have the right to refuse to engage citizens via the online channel?

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Online government forms don't have to be boring

I'm one of those quirky people who finds forms intensely interesting.

I've had a great deal of past involvement with market reseach and online transaction sites which has emphasised to me how important effective and usable form design is in order to ensure that forms achieve the goals set.

In my current role I've guided my team into supporting a number of research projects and we're currently reviewing and redeveloping our website and intranet forms capacity - touching on every other area of the business.

So I was very interested to watch Jessica Ender's presentation at the Web Standards Group (WSG) in Canberra last week.

Jessica, who owns Formulate Information Design, a specialist form development consultancy in Canberra, gave a very professional and passionate talk focusing on the four layers of a form and the appropriate process to use when developing a form.

She brought it together with the four Cs of good form design, clear, concise, clever and contextual.

While much of this was not new to me, Jessica's talk placed it into a new context and I'll be revisiting our approach to the redevelopment of our forms based on her insights.

What type of methodology do you use for developing forms?

Are your online forms effective?

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Choosing a minimum resolution for a government site

In the good old days (around 1995), choosing a display resolution for a website was easy. Everyone had 640x480 monitors, so that's what we designed for.

By 1998 it was a little harder - many, but not all, people had upgraded to 800x600 screens. So if you wanted to target early adopters you could aim high and have all those additional pixels (over 170,000 extra!)

A few years later 1024x768 was building steam - finally overtaking 800x600 around 2004. However there was not a strong enough case to upgrade - 800x600 was still around 40 percent of the market.

This year I'm looking at an upgrade to our website's design, and are currently working through one of the most important questions - do we maintain the site at 800x600, or design it for 1024x768 (almost double the display real estate)?

To help answer this question I've had Google Analytics installed for my agency's website. This gives me a clearer picture of the display resolutions in use by our audience - and was simpler to implement than the method within WebTrends.

When I had it installed I told our web designer that if 800x600 (and smaller) was less than 5 percent of users, then I could make a case to switch to the higher minimum resolution.

Anyone using the lower resolution would have access to the same information, but right scrolling would be required.

After running Analytics for a while the display resolutions have stabilised as follows:

1024 x 768 - 43.76%
1280 x 1024 - 17.81%
1280 x 800 - 12.98%
800 x 600 - 6.01%
1440 x 900 - 5.91%
1680 x 1050 - 3.95%
1152 x 864 - 3.66%
1280 x 768 - 1.51%
1280 x 960 - 1.43%
1920 x 1200 - 0.69%
Others - 2.29%

Now clearly our website users are overwhelmingly using display resolutions larger than 800x600.

However the number of 800x600 users hasn't quite reduced to my magical 5 percent number.

So do I maintain a minimum of 800x600 to support the remaining 6 percent of people, but disadvantage the other 94 percent, or do I push forward to a 1024x768 minimum and potentially disadvantage that 6 percent?

Of course the decision isn't quite that straightforward - a 1024x768 screen doesn't actually offer all that space for a website - there's the browser frame to consider and many people do not maximise their browser screen.

Also it is possible to develop expanding websites that reconfigure for different resolutions - it just takes longer and costs more.

But it is an interesting question to consider - what's the official minimum resolution for your website, and why?

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Many different approaches to web marketing

I've just been directed to Jeremiah Owyang's post, A complete list of the many forms of web marketing for 2008.

It's quite a useful resource to draw on for innovative ways to use the online channel.

It's made me think on the communications approaches my agency has used in the last year - based on the categories and subcategories in Jeremiah's post.

Corporate domain

  • Corporate site
  • Microsites
  • Intranet
  • Extranet

Search marketing
  • Search engine optimisation
  • Search engine marketing

Outbound and syndicated web marketing
  • Email marketing
  • Syndicated content and RSS

Brand extension
  • Web advertising
  • Social networking, Forums, Wikis, Collaboration

Community marketing and social media marketing
  • Online video


How many of the areas indicated by Jeremiah is your organisation engaged in?

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No future for paper invoices?

These days the majority of postal mail people in Australia receive is either advertising material or bill. In the future, this may be cut even further to only ads.

In the European Union there's a major project underway to create a whole-of-government standard for all EU government invoicing, that can also be propagated across the private sector, creating savings estimated at EUR65.4 billion per year for businesses.

That's a staggering amount of savings simply for removing those paper bills - not to mention the environmental benefits of saving all of that paper, printing and transportation.

If successful it will mean that the EU government will strongly encourage all of its suppliers to move to e-procurement - at some point mandating the change. This will be propagated out to national, regional and local governments in the EU area.

The impacts of this are likely to be global. Any business with a relationship with EU governments will have to move towards the EU invoicing standards to maintain their billing arrangements. In turn this will influence them towards adopting a standard system across electronic billing for their other government and private customers around the world.

It will be interesting to see how far-reaching the effects will be, whether other governments will mandate other e-procurement invoicing standards - raising new barriers for organisations dealing across national boundaries, or will support the EU approach to potentially create global e-invoicing standards.

More information about the initiative is available at the European Commission website in the e-Invoicing working group site.

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How management beliefs inhibit egovernment

I've met people who consider their online communities and online friends as significant and real influences on their lives.

I've met others who regard online communities as some kind of crutch for a few lonely people with limited social skills.

This is often characterised as a generational gap, shaped by how people see themselves in context of digital technologies;
This division is significant for organisational management. It shapes the underlying beliefs, assumptions, culture and therefore strategy, policy and behaviours around internet use.

For example, a group of senior executives I worked with a number of years ago were avidly interested in technology and thought of themselves as in tune with the modern world.

However when presented with the concept of an online forum for their customers, they were extremely unwilling to take the risk of having negative feedback posted about their company.

They saw this as a major risk - many customers were already complaining about their company via other online forums, which were totally outside their control.

Their initial decision was to either prohibit any comments on their forum that could be construed as negative, or to not have a forum at all.

It took several months to help the group understand that if they did constrain the participants in this way the forum would not be credible.

It took about as long to convince them that if they decided to not have a forum then others would fill the gap and the organisation would have no effective online channel to present their side of the story.

The organisation eventually gave the go-ahead to experiment with a forum - which my organisation managed and moderated. Other than screening for language and tone, no censorship of customer sentiment took place.

There were negative comments made. These were responded to with objective and factual information about the organisation's approach and how the matters raised were or would be addressed.

This approach helped turn several of the most vocal objectors into supporters of the company. It also allowed the organisation to uncover several easy, but important improvements that helped many other customers (who probably would never have bothered complaining, but would have changed suppliers).

The organisation now operates a number of extremely popular and successful forums and blogs and conducts much of its business online.

It has changed its mental model of the online world, and this has helped them better understand and meet their customers' needs.

Many organisations have not made this leap as yet, and some are in the process of doing it.

Where does your department sit?


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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Does your agency really hear customers and staff?

A constant theme I hear from friends, family and peers is that, while government agencies do put a lot of time and effort into listening to their customers, they don't often hear what is said correctly (any do not even appear to put much effort into listening to staff at all).

This issue is not limited to the public sector, but in the private sector there's a simple metric for judging how well an organisation meets its customers' needs - it's called sales.

In the public sector we don't have this simple feedback mechanism - we often judge by backlash, which can have large impacts on governments, agencies and individual careers.

DOCs is seeing some of this at the moment. It's not always useful as an early warning system.

Fortunately, with digital media, we have many new tools we can use to open lines of communication. Forums, collaborative groups, wikis and social media networks all help organisations to listen to their customers, stakeholders and staff.

Use of these tools by a government agency requires an operational shift in organisational policies. This can be difficult but is normally achievable.

But it isn't enough simply to hear - government agencies must also hear what is said.

This involves putting aside organisational filters, perceptions and judgements and actively working to understand the context and goals of those we are listening to. It means initiating and participating in conversations, getting to know the other participants as equals, as communities and as individuals.

Digital tools can help support conversations, but they cannot create them. This requires cultural change, which can be significantly more difficult than simply introducing online social tools.

It also does no good to delegate participation to those with no power in an organisation - the decision-makers must be part of the discussion.

Otherwise, no matter how many listening channels you use, you can end up getting the message as wrong as the lady in the BMW commercial below.

How well does your agency really hear what customers, stakeholders and staff are saying?




By the way - did you notice that I said it was a BMW commercial, when really it was for Mercedes-Benz.

How well were you hearing?

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Nextgov introduces security assessment tool for government websites

Over in the US, Nextgov has released an online tool explicitly for US public sector website administrators can use to check the security of their website versus the stipulations of the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act.

As hackers do not restrict themselves to national boundaries - or to government legislation - this tool is useful for government webmasters around the world as a simple test of their security levels against the standards applied by professional security analysts.

As stated in the Nextgov release,

Nextgov and the SANS Institute, a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization in Bethesda, Md., have teamed up on a Web-based tool. It's designed to provide federal officials a means to compare how secure FISMA says their systems are to what professional security analysts would say. As Alan Paller, director of research at SANS, points out, an agency can get an A on FISMA compliance, but receive an F from security analysts on how secure its systems are.

How secure are your systems?



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ATO showcase - government innovation on display

Yesterday I attended the ATO showcase - a day-long event demonstrating some of the ATO's vision for the future for enabling technologies across customer service, information management, collaboration and personalisation.

As part of the day, ATO employees demonstrated a series of working prototypes from business intelligence dashboard through facebook-style intranet applications to virtual customer service agents.

It was a fantastic opportunity to look inside another public sector organisation at how they are using tools available today to generate business value and improve outcomes for customers and for the agency for the future.

I hope it will not be the last such event.

The day also included a number of exceptional talks and panels by leaders from the private sector which ranged across the opportunities and challenges involved in digitalising public sector organisations.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the morning and lunch-time sessions, however brought away three key ideas for further exploration within my own agency.

I had a lot of takeaways from the day, including:

  • We're moving into a 'Participation Age' - younger people see and use PC desktops and browsers as a gateway to connecting and networking with other people

  • Sometimes we focus too much on the technology, instead the focus should be on citizen benefits; creating value and generating better outcomes

  • Significant reform needs to occur in government legislation, policy and agency operations to support participation

  • Government needs a clear mandate on how it may collect and use information in order to improve services to individuals

  • An aging population will make it necessary to use online tools to deliver services which are otherwise not cost-effective

  • Government should not duplicate services that are provided by the market, but should tap into them

  • eGovernment requires reassessment - presently it is government's view of how to interact with citizens, not citizens' views on how they wish to interact with government

  • The end goal should be more effective service provision - which doesn't necessarily mean more efficient service provision.

  • At times government tends to overanalyse - the best way forward is to get started and evolve services over time
More of my notes were recorded via Twitter during the event.

Much food for thought.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Should public servants blog about work-related matters?

Public sector blogging is becoming established in the UK, US and even New Zealand - although there is still very little being written by Australian public servants ('government' isn't even a category in Australian blog indexes such as The Australia Index).

Situations such as Civil Serf in the UK and Washingtonienne in the US raised the awareness and risks of public sector blogging. Both involved very personal 'gossip-style' commentary on the workplaces of the bloggers.

In both cases the official reaction was to shut down the blogs and then establish clear guidelines under which public sector blogging could productively take place - rather than to simply ban the activity altogether.

In Australia there are, as yet, no guidelines for public sector blogging. This may mean that the government hasn't yet seen the need (most likely), or that it wishes to keep its options open as to whether blogging is acceptable in the long-run.

The Guardian published an excellent article on the topic in April, New sphere of influence.

There will be many people who believe, often for good reason, that it is
simply not done for public servants to sound off in public. Would we be
comfortable with the commander in chief of the armed forces being so frank about
government policy?

And yet chief executives of public organisations are no longer expected to
be mere administrators. In the era of the £200,000-a-year council chief
executive, they are also expected to be leaders - arguing the case for policy,
engaging in debate, demonstrating accountability, and providing a degree of
transparency about the organisation's work.


What do you think - should public servants be entitled to blog about their workplaces?

What type of guidelines should be in place?

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Supporting innovation within government agencies via intranet and web

I've set myself a personal challenge this financial year to support innovation within my agency at all levels.

There have always been innovative people throughout organisations. Their challenge has been distribution and access - promoting their ideas to the people that could champion and introduce them.

Being the custodian (not the owner) of our website and intranet gives me access to a channel that can support the distibution and promotion of innovative ideas.

What systems or tools does your organisation have in place via your intranet or website for encouraging and supporting innovation?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The myth of mass media - it is only a flash in the pan

Paul Budde (former journalist and Australia's leading telecommunications researcher) has published a fantastic piece on how mass media - which anyone born since the 1960s takes for granted - is really an anomaly, titled The anomaly of the mass media.

Niche-based media is more reflective of human communications activity in the longer-term.

The piece also discusses how telecommunications developments, led by the internet, are fragmenting media back into niches - not only geographic, but also interest-based.

It is very thought-provoking for any communications professionals seeking to use media outlets to reach their audiences.

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The future of government - global mega-trends

IBM recently released it's 3rd biannual The enterprise of the future report for CEOs, identifying five global mega-trends fundamentally affecting the nature of business and public sector governance. The video is available here.

The five trends can be paraphrased as:

  • Change is accelerating
    Organisations need to culturally attune to continuous change, supporting visionary champions who are empowered to effect meaningful change and embed innovation and change management at the core of their activities
  • Customers demand more - collaboration is essential
    In a world where citizens have almost instant access to information and services, organisations must become transparent, accountable, collaborative and responsive or lose the trust and respect - and therefore the business - of their customers.
    Existing silos and command and control cultures need to develop permeable edges, allowing free interaction between groups and individuals inside and outside the organisation.
  • The world is your constituency
    Leaders must think and act globally, considering global best practice and seeking opportunities to collaborate, innovate and integrate across nations. For government this includes sharing functions across traditional sovereign boundaries to serve constituents better.
  • Successful organisations are bold and disruptive
    Organisations need to have a disruptive mindset - supporting and empowering internal entrepreneurs and new ways of doing business that cut into the heart of organisational cultural traditions that lock organisations into old and wasteful patterns of behaviour.
  • Social responsibility must be internalised
    Environmental and social responsibility need to be integral to the organisation's mission, vision and behaviour - a key factor in all organisational goals and strategies and part of the organisation's culture at all levels of management.

These challenges for organisations are not substantially different from those outlined in 1999 by the OECD in the policy brief Government of the Future (PDF) or in a 2002 article in the OECD Observer, What future for government?

Do you think your organisation has taken the steps it needs to succeed into the future?

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Is a busy website really that bad?

A theme I often hear in Australian web design circles is "make the website less crowded".

It's accepted wisdom that a website should have plenty of white space, clearly separated parts - and as little text as possible - particularly on the homepage.

Similar to Google's 28 word limit, Australian communicators seem to consider the best homepage design as the one with the least on it.

Certainly in the user testing I've done over the years with Australians I've heard the terms 'too busy' and 'too crowded' come up frequently.

Those are, however, perceptual measures. What about actual usage?

I have never specifically tested for the 'busyness limit' (the theoretical limit when text, link or graphical density begins to negatively impact on user task completion) - nor am I aware of any testing that has ever been done on this basis.

I am aware, however, of cultural differences in website design and use.

Look at the difference between US or Australian and Chinese or Japanese websites for example. In China and Japan, as well other Asian countries, the density of graphics, links and text is up to five times as high as in the US or Australia.

These high-density website countries also have high populations for their geographic size - which may form part of the difference in approach. Perhaps the amount of personal space people expect is related to the amount of whitespace they want to see in a website - although some high density European nations do not exhibit quite the same trend.

With the changing demographics in Australia it's important to keep an eye on what our citizens are looking for - our communicators and graphic designers may not always represent thecultural spread of the public.

So is anyone aware of research undertaken to look at the differences in expected information and graphical density of websites across different countries or cultural groups?

It could be an interesting (and useful) thesis project for someone.

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Why do some local councils in the UK have better websites than some Commonwealth agencies in Australia?

The question in my title is of course a little provocative - who is to say whether a website is better or worse?

The answer, in my view, is our users.

For some reason in Australian we have never, to my knowledge, asked our citizens to compare government websites against universal categories such as awareness, ease of task completion, information depth and quality, findability, usability or design aesthetics.

There are few objective standards or comparison processes in use in government - although Global Reviews has a good stab at rating local council sites. Having worked with them before, their methodology is robust and well developed.

Users aside, I do feel safe in saying that the UK is far ahead of Australia in the field of egovernment. While some Australian Commonwealth agencies are still struggling to introduce Web content management systems some UK local councils are now adding advanced Web 2.0 features as below (and it's not the only example, just currently the best one).


Redbridge-i
Redbridge Borough's website is a leading example of user customisable government websites in the UK and is recognised as a world leader.

As a London Borough with roughly 250,000 constituents, Redbridge's site was developed on the basis that the public own the local administration and should have the ability to comment on services and engage on an ongoing basis with the council.

It drew from best practice private sector websites, incorporating features from sites such as Amazon, Google, eBay and Facebook.

Part of the design philosophy was to allow the public to decide what was most important to them. Therefore, except for a fixed space in the upper right, the website's homepage can be reorganised as desired by individual citizens, with sections able to be dragged and dropped to other locations on the page and content hidden or show.

The site can also be customised by postcode to show the services most relevant to individual households.

Another decision was to continuously innovate, develop and release new features and let citizens decide how valuable they are. This taps into actual citizen behaviour, rather than anticipated behaviour and provides a uage-based measure of what the website's users will use than do focus groups and wishlists.

One particularly successful feature of the site are the forums supporting community consultation. Councillors are active at responding and use the forums to identify comment trends and useful stakeholders to inform council decision-making processes.

The site also has a growing transactional function and has demonstrated cost saving by transferring business from phone and face-to-face channels.

The site was developed in-house over a nine month period by a team of up to 6 people, with up to 500 staff consulted about the development, and released in 2007.

The best way to learn to learn the site is to play with it. It really is easy to use and effective at task completion.

More information about the site is available from the Innovation in local government services awards page.

A very good 5 minute video about the Redbridge-i website is available at Localgov.tv.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Who is watching The Hollowmen?

For a fantastic (satirical) look into the halls of power in Canberra, the ABC's The Hollowmen is a great watch.

What does this have to do with eGovernment?

Well in Episode 2 it does suggest that 90% of what most of our overseas embassies do could be done remotely via the internet with a few local staff.

Now that's an interesting thought!

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Do people want the same things from council, state and federal government websites?

The UK recently held its annual seminar on How to build the perfect council website.

This discussed strategic approaches to egovernment at a local level and provided key insights into what local residents needed and expected from their councils and shires.

Carl Haggerty of Devon County Council, one of the presenters, has provided a synopsis of his observations and thoughts from the event in a post titled Thoughts on a “perfect council website”.

Reading his post, I do not see enormous differences between what it appears people want from local councils and what they want from state and Federal agencies;

  • Get rid of those damn press releases (who the heck reads them).
  • Stop the political messages (Our Leader).
  • Nobody cares for this stuff, they are task focused and don’t have much time.
  • We already take their money and if we take even more of there time we will only create more frustrated citizens and visitors.
  • Delete most of your content as nobody reads or even maintains the stuff.
  • 80% of web management is observing behaviour.
  • Do the tasks your customers do and experience the “journey” yourself.
  • Personalisation doesn’t work, most people don’t want to do it - interesting considering i was on the panel about web 2.0 techniques with “Steve Johnson” from Redbridge and “Suraj Kiki” founder of Jadu CMS, more on this later)
  • Start with your top tasks and get them on your homepage to stop people having to search for them.
  • Don’t force “corporate” crap at your customers, they don’t really care
Presentations from the 2007 seminar are available online and I am hopeful that the 2008 presentations will be as well soon.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

What's next for your agency's search tools? Google testing user rated search

Some readers may be aware of Digg, a site where the users vote on news stories and those with the most votes get listed on the homepage.

It's an approach based on a news site's users knowing more about what they want to see than the professional news makers - and it has been relatively successful to-date (valued north of US$100 million).

Google has been testing similar features, allowing individuals to rate search results and make comments, then in future searches only see the results they prefer.

This would also be an interesting feature within websites and intranets, providing a human way to validate the search acronyms in use and ensure that the most relevant result - as determined by a person - is displayed at top.

Now this is still in 'bucket' testing at Google - meaning that a small select group of their users get to see the function. However TechCrunch has provided a video on what users see and how the system works.

Take a look below, or read the article Is This The Future Of Search?



Can you see uses in this for your website or intranet?

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Should there be paid advertisements on Australian government websites?

The Investments blog posted a thought-provoking post a few days ago, asking Should Government Websites Be Allowed to Post Google Ads to Offset Deficient Budgets?

This was based on a question put to 'Father of the internet' and Google head evangelist, Vinton Cerf, who was asked at an eGovernment seminar,

"if he thought that there was a way for Google to have special “Google AdSense” for government websites. He smiled one of his famous smiles and indicated he liked the question very much."
This post went on to raise the point that certain advertising may be appropriate on government website, related to not-for-profit support organisations and services that help users of government services.

The hosting of these ads would provide a revenue stream for government sites, helping to offset their costs. Ads could be carefully placed with a disclaimer to ensure it was clear to visitors that these were advertisement and manage any legal issues around endorsement.

It is an intriguing concept, and not entirely dissimilar to how CSIRO commercialises intellectual capital or agencies such as ABS have monetised their reports and products.


Now I'm not the first to suggest this be considered for Australian government sites.

Net Traveller author, Tom Worthington, made a slightly different suggestion in a post on January 2007,
Governments may not wish to have paid commercial advertising on their web sites, but perhaps they could have internal government advertising. Each government web page could have a space reserved for advertising. Normally this would be used to promote government initiatives and publicize web sites (in effect the Government's own Google AdWords). The reserved space would also be used to advise the public of emergency information (emergency information is an area where Federal and State Australian governments do poorly online and as a result are placing the lives of citizens at risk).

There is also at least one government site in Australia already featuring paid commercial advertising. Ourbrisbane.com, owned and operated by the Brisbane City Council.

This site features ads for services such as Seek and RSVP as well as other advertisers.


Looking around the world, there are other examples of the acceptance of advertising on government sites.

US experience
In the US while there is an overall policy that government sites should not feature paid advertising, exemptions can be granted, as detailed in Webcontent.gov, the guide to managing US government websites.

I've found evidence that advertising has government sites in the US offering paid advertising for at least four years, as evidenced by this article in Slashdot on 27 July 2004, Advertising Hits Arizona County Government Website,
Maricopa County, home to 3.4 million people in the Phoenix metropolitan area, has seen their GIS website "become an every day tool for realtors, developers, mortgage and title companies, appraisers, inspectors, attorneys and many other professionals associated with the real estate industry." As a result, they are now accepting bids for Web advertisements. As the county is one of the best-run in the nation, this could set quite the precedent.
The Maricopa County website is still delivering paid advertising to Phoenix's citizens today.


UK experience
In the UK there is an even more pragmatic approach.

Within the UK Cabinet's guidelines for web site management is included a guide for buying and selling advertising and sponsorship space which states;
Advertising on the web is envisaged as being a revenue stream for government websites. It can reduce the cost of providing government information and services, which saves the taxpayer money or results in better quality services and faster delivery of information and services on-line. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as long as the guidelines are adhered to.
This guideline was first written in 2002 and remains in force today, six years later, indicating to me that there has not been any major backlash by citizens towards advertising on government sites.


What do you think?
So what do you think of the idea of placing paid advertising on Australian government websites?
Would it be appropriate for your website?
Would a revenue stream help raise the profile of your site in the department?

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Promoting innovation - how can government tap Australia's creativity?

This post has been inspired by a post in the blog Here Comes Everybody, titled Gin, Television and Social Surplus. I strongly suggest that you also read this and think about the ramifications.

With the globe's total knowledge doubling every two years, being innovative is not longer simply an economic advantage for nations - it's a vital factor in their survival into the future.

Therefore fostering innovation should be (and fortunately is) high on the agenda for Australian governments.

However tapping creativity is not easy to do. Most organisations and institutions tend to have a love/hate relationship with innovation, seeking to foster it, but also seeking to direct and control it - resisting any potential paradigm-shifting changes that might spoil their plans.

There's an AIM breakfast briefing coming up in Canberra on 26 August featuring Mr Terry Moran AO, Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to discuss fostering innovation in the public sector.

I want to instead explore one way that Australia's governments can tap into the creativity and innovative capacity of all our citizens for the public good.

To achieve this I have to first diverge slightly, to look at what the innovation potential of Australia might be.

Wikipedia
Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in the world.

The English version of Wikipedia, as at July 2008, featured more than 2.4 million articles consisting of a total of over 1 billion words. The full Wikipedia is substantially larger - with figures from April 2008 indicating it had over 10 million articles in 253 languages.

These figures, reported in Wikipedia itself, represent over 100 million hours of human thought and creative effort - all contributed freely.

Australian internet usage
As of March 2008, the average Australian watched 13.3 hours of television and used the internet for 13.7 hours per week, according to Nielsen Online’s 10th Australian Internet and Technology Report (PDF media release) - By the way, this is the first time internet usage has exceeded television usage in Neilsen's research.

Based on a population of 21.5 million Australians, the time spent using the internet equals 15,136,600,000 hours per year - or over 15 billion hours (using American billions).

If Australians decided to spend all of this online time recreating Wikipedia, it would take them the equivalent of three days to create the entire 10 million pages - assuming they started with just the basis Wiki software.

Another way of looking at this is that Australians could in a year create over 150 Wikipedias, simply using the time they are now spending communicating, collaborating, creating and interacting online.

As a contrast - the time Australians spend watching television generates no creative value whatsoever. Television watching is a passive activity that does not involve the creation of any content - it will never result in a Wikipedia or any other creative value.

Fortunately television watching is in decline, while internet usage is climbing quickly.


Tapping Australia's creativity
One way for government to tap the innovation potential of Australians would be to provide the tools and motivation for citizens to interact creatively with government online.

This includes approaches such as

  • Collective policy development such as the New Zealand wiki Police Act, as I have previously discussed

  • Providing social service forums, where people can share information and collaborate on the development of online and physical products to help others

  • Making public data available online in raw forms that citizens can 'mash-up' into useful information and services and share

  • eDemocracy initiatives - such as virtual town halls for individuals to interact with their representatives, voting and think-tank forums, where hundreds of thousands of citizens - not just a select 1,000 - can interact, engage and formulate ideas and strategies to enhance Australia's future.

Australia's governments have the ability right now to provide the framework and the opportunity for Australians to meaningfully engage in these, and other, ways.

Other governments are already providing some or all of these services, and are reaping the benefits.

Do Australian governments have the will and culture to step into these areas?

Are they willing to take a risk, allow citizens to share control, open themselves to criticism (which is already out there anyway)?

Assuming Australian governments are willing to take this risk, if, as a result of these initiatives, we capture just one hour per week of Australians' current internet usage, that would be equivalent to Australia creating 11 Wikipedias each year.

That's an enormous amount of creativity unleashed in the public interest.


What do you think?

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The relevance of search (and how to improve your rankings)

Search, search, search - it's been a popular topic for years but most people I talk to still only pay lip service to ensuring that their website is appropriately findable on the web, or that their own website and intranet's search tools work effectively.

With the large number of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) companies around, it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad and personally I've avoided using any of them at all.

However I do spend a lot of time thinking about search. It is important for my agency that our customers can find us online. It's even more important that they can find relevant content when they reach our site.

So how important is it to rate well in search engines?
The graphic below (courtesy of RSS Ray), is derived from accidentally leaked AOL search statistics from Google searches in 2006 and provides an insight into the relevant importance of the top ten search terms in a results page.

The first search result in Google accounted for over 42 percent of clicks through to the AOL site, with the 2nd and 3rd results counting for another 20 percent.

After this the share drops rapidly. In total, 89.82 percent of clicks were from the first page of search results.












Source:
What a top google search ranking means to your bottom line - the value of search engine optimisation


So clearly being at the top of search results is extremely important if you want to attract attention, and you do not want to be out of the top ten results.

For intranets it's also a productivity tool. If staff can find information faster it means they can complete their task faster. If your agency sees 60,000 searches per month and can save 5 seconds of scanning results for each search, that equates to a saving of 83 hours per month - or 1,000 hours per year. That adds up.


For which terms do you want to be findable?
It's fine to search for your organisation's name (and acronym) and find it is at the top of a search engine's results. That's quite common for government agencies because of how results are weighted. In fact if you are not the top result for your own name you do have a major issue to address.

Common search behaviour is task-based, not category or organisation based.

Most people don't think 'I need to get rental support' and then search for 'Centrelink'.
They look for 'rental support'.

Therefore your organisation needs to place well for all tasks and services for which your customers might search you.

Think of all the services your organisation provides and test them in Google, how well does your organisation rate?


Ways to boost rankings
Once you've established how well you rank the next step is how to improve rankings.

There are a number of simple ways to do this without involving specialist consultants or questionable tactics.

The first step is to ensure that the text on your pages contains the appropriate keywords high in the page, and in titles and subheadings as appropriate. If the page is about rental assistance, then make sure it is titled 'Rental assistance' and mentions this again in the first paragraph.

The second step is to ensure the page HTML code uses appropriate tags for headings and subheadings. Most search engines treat a <> as more important than text that is simply 18pt and bold, and so on down the chain.

Also ensure that appropriate ALT tags exist for images (except for decorations). These also assist search engines understand the subject of the page and its contents.

Next, make sure that links throughout your site are well-formed. Any linking to the rental assistance page should include 'rental assistance' in the link, not simply 'click here' or another meaningless phrase. This also ensures the links are WCAG compliant.

You should also check that appropriate meta data is in place - this is not that important for search engines these days, but is still within your control to influence.

Finally, make sure that you have put a Google sitemap in place. This helps Google know which pages are most and least important in your site and how often they should be 'spidered' or reviewed by the search engine.


It also helps to have other people link to your organisation's site - with appropriately named links - however this is less under your control and link swaps are generally only beneficial when swapping with an organisation with a high level of trust - such as another government department.

What about website and intranet searches?
Much the same philosophy applies to website and intranet search - people are likely to click on the top results, so it is in an organisation's interest to ensure that the link they want people to click to is at the top - it saves time and frustration and can have a direct (positive) impact on productivity.

You also have ways to influence the search order by tweaking the search engine - possibly by setting up 'best bets', 'feature pages', 'like terms' or by adjusting how the tool weights different aspects of the page (meta data, headings, content, links, etc).

These vary so widely between search tools that it's hard to provide a basic approach.

We use feature pages in our website search, for instance for calculator searches, where a featured result appears at the top.

In our intranet we also use spelling correction and synonyms to help people find the right pages, and recently introduced category-based searching. I'll blog more on that after our next intranet satisfaction survey.

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Victorian government web usage survey

The Victorian government released the results of it's year-long internet usage survey last week, providing a Demographic Profiling of Victorian Government Website Visitors.

Taking into account nearly 250,000 respondents, this is the largest sample I've seen for an egovernment usage survey within Australia.

The full results are available from Victoria's eGovernment Resource Centre, however I've commented on some highlights below.


Demographic comments
  • Victorian users over-represented
    The survey was heavily weighed towards Victorian users, with roughly 80% of respondents living in the state - this may bias the survey, as Victorians may not have the same views towards egovernment as elsewhere in Australia. I'd love to see a breakout of the remaining 20% (around 50,000 respondents) to determine if there were differences by state.

  • Females slightly over-represented
    Women made up 60% of respondents - comparing this to other data I've seen from Hitwise, this makes them slightly over-represented. Hitwise generally reports that usage is, from memory, 53% women and 47% male.

  • The internet is mainstream
    The demographics largely represent the age spread of Australia's population - if you exclude those under 18, who are generally less likely to visit government sites as they do not transact with government in the same way.
    I have been noticing for years (in studies conducted by various organisations) that, except for a slight under-representation of older people, internet demographics and Australian population statistics align quite closely.


Usage comments

  • Citizens want to have input into state government policies and initiatives
    64% of respondents were interested in having input in the decision-making processes of state government. The report did not specify if this indicated online participation, however I would consider that respondents to online surveys would have at top-of-mind using the same medium for their input.

  • Citizens want governments to respond by email
    60% of respondents indicated that they wanted government to respond to their enquiries via email.

    This is particularly interesting to me as my agency prefers to channel responses to the phone channel, which is both higher-cost and requires that the caller catch the customer at an appropriate time. We also do not guarantee a fast response time for emails - maintaining the same response time (28 days) as with letters, and much slower than phone.

  • A large minority were interested in engaging online via live chat
    29% of respondents wished to be able to live chat with the government online. This percentage is higher than I have seen previously and is continuing to grow as this approach rolls out in the private sector.

    Telstra, eBay and similar sites offer this as one of their primary customer engagement tools and the awareness for this is building. My understanding, from past dealings with Telstra's customer service area, is that on average a customer service representative can deal with four times as many online chats as telephone conversations at the same time - making this an efficient means of engagement.

    Over 90% of enquiries can be handled within the chat, with any overly complex engagements transferred to telephone for resolution.

  • Large minorities of citizens are reading blogs, listening to podcasts and posting to online communities and forums
    Roughly a third of citizens were involved in these online mediums, 34% reading blogs, 30% participation in one or more communities/forums, and 29% listening to podcasts.

    14% indicated that they wrote blogs - this might sound small, but when you consider the percentage of Australians writing for newspapers (under 1%), the blog authoring community represents an extremely high level of active participation in the active creation and dissemination of content. Another point to consider is that (the printed version of) a newspaper is geographically restricted and articles disappear quickly. Blogs are available to all internet users, persistent (articles remain online for the life of the blog) and findable via universal search tools.

    A single blog article has significantly more impact than a single newspaper article, even, potentially, in the case of major dailies.

    These are mediums that government should not ignore.

  • More than half of respondents watch online video
    56% of respondents indicated that they watched online video, making this an important vector for government communications.

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Implementing a social media platform

It can seem very daunting to take that first step into social media.

However government agencies do not need to develop their own or purchase a plug-in to their web content management system.

There are also opportunities to procure a 'white label' social media platform - at little or no cost.

These platforms vary enormously in capacity, with the most advanced supporting Facebook like features, and more basic solutions being simply wikis or blogs.

Finding these platforms can be difficult, which is why my hat is off to Sergey Kapustin, who has compiled a list of 70 of these tools entitled White label community platforms.

This features all of the leading products and some niche products which are also very good.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Migrating government websites from WCAG 1.0 to WCAG 2.0

The Web Industry Professionals Association (WIPA) have published a guide to help webmasters migrating websites from the the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 1.0 to the soon-to-be-released WCAG 2.0.

The HTML version of "Migrating from WCAG 1.0 to WCAG 2.0" is at http://wipa.org.au/papers/wcag-migration.htm

As WCAG 1.0 is mandatory for Australian government agency websites, this is one to watch.

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43 reasons why government should blog

In the US government gateway site there's a page listing the active and past official Blogs from the U.S. Government.

Looking through the list of 43 blogs, there's a wide range of topics on which this medium has been used - from AIDs education, through Art, Environmental issues and Foreign policy to Defense.

If your Department is considering whether a blog would be an appropriate tool to communicate your message and hold a broader conversation, this is a great starting reference.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Do government communications discriminate against - or for - the visually impaired?

I was reading a very interesting blog post the other day regarding the experiences of someone who is colourblind, Confessions of a colourblind man.

It raised a number of accessibility issues with printed material, moving images and websites that the author had experienced during their life.

Despite the requirement for government in Australia to ensure our websites are accessible, I worry both that we do not do enough, and that we do too much, in this area.

I also worry that we do not pay enough attention to our other communications channels - particularly print and television, which do not seem to have the same degree of scrutiny or governance.

Of course cost is a factor, but where should we draw the line between cost and equity?

We have explicit laws to prevent discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or physical impairments. The cost of equality is generally not an acceptable argument in these situations.

But do we still discriminate against people with visual and movement impairment in our communications based on cost?

Or do we go too far (which I have also seen done) - develop our websites and communications for the lowest common denominator (again because of cost), and therefore lose touch with the average Australian?

Many government websites (including my agency's) are designed in 800x600 monitor resolution despite this being used by under 10% of the audience and there being well-established technologies available to reshape a website to make it relevant at different resolutions.

For my agency this decision is definitely about cost. The cost of the content management system and accompanying work required to allow us to support multiple website standards.

My preferred option would be to have;

  • one website version for those with impairments (dial-up users/low resolution monitors/screen readers)
  • one website version for those without (broadband users/high resolution monitors)
It's a hard tightrope to walk - how does your department do it?

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What should egovernment focus on?

There's a great article up on BuzzMachine titled Google as the new press room.

It makes the point that newspapers are in the content business, not the printing and distribution or website business.

As such they should focus on what they do well (create excellent content) and outsource the non-core activities.

The specific example is to have Google, or someone like AP, provide the technology platform and allow newspapers to focus on providing content.

This philosophy applies for government as well.

In the public sector we seem to invest a great deal of money into creating new websites in order to deliver content to different stakeholder groups - I'm guilty of this approach as well.

However what does government really do well, and what do we do badly?

Firstly I'd go out on a limb and say that we do websites really badly. Most Australian government websites function differently, using different content management platforms, different technology platforms and different workflows.

The quality, structure and depth of content varies widely, as does design and the use of different enabling technologies such as Flash, AJAX and Livecycle, blogs, wikis, forums and RSS.

Realistically, across government, we could have a single web content management platform, with appropriate enabling technologies usable by any agency - including a consistent search tool and reporting system (imagine being able to see how all government websites were performing side by side!)

A central design team could provide web quality assurance - enabling agencies control over their distinctive look, but preserving a common high level of usability and accessibility.

A centralised editorial team could provide oversight for information quality and depth, allowing departments to focus on being content matter experts.

A central transactions and forms/workflows team could oversee the development of agency forms - ensuring they use consistent terminology, provide contextual support and make it as easy as possible for citizens to interact with the government.

This would allow government departments to focus on what they do best - provide specific customer services, be content matter and policy experts.

Sounds like a pipe dream?

I'm seeing the fringes of this starting now. The central DHS Letters and Forms Secretariat, AGOSP with it's single sign-on, Smartforms and geolocational services, AGIMO's existing GovDex wiki and Funnel Back search solutions.

These are all pieces in the overall puzzle.

The challenge moving forward is to overcome departmental silos, satisfy the interest groups and provide a robust centralised framework with sufficient funding and support to bring it all together.

It's a vision with enormous benefits for citizens and for governments. It just requires people in government to share the big vision and drive it forward.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The value of web 2.0 to government

I've been reading about a presentation given by Michael Specht at PubCamp Sydney, an event that brought together old and new media people to look at opportunities and threats facing the industry.

He gave a an impromptu presentation on Enterprise 2.0, which contained a number of insights that apply equally to the public sector.

The full presentation and Michael's slide notes are at Enterprise 2.0, employees and profits.

Below is a summary of some of the key takeaways for me, with quotes from Michael's slide notes.

  • The active engagement of employees in an organisation delivers enormous financial benefits
    A 2007/2008 Watson & Wyatt research report looked at employee engagement on a global basis and showed a strong linkage between engagement and financial performance. In summary organisations in the top 25% of engagement had a 20% total return to shareholders, a 22% market premium and $276K productivity per employee when compared to the bottom 25%.
  • Most Australian workers are not fully engaged - this results in productivity losses
    A Gallup poll in 2005 of 1,500 employees found that 20% are actively disengaged (disruptive, unproductive or disloyal), with another 62% not committed to their role or employer. Gallup estimated this was costing the Australian economy A$30 billion annually. This research is backed up by recent studies in the US that found only 27% of workers were actively engaged.
  • Communication and customer focus are key drivers for staff engagement
    A finding of the 2007/2008 Watson & Wyatt research report mentioned above was that communication and customer focus were two of the four key drivers for engagement. The others were compensation/benefits and strategic leadership.
My conclusion from these is that as social media is a key way to expand communication and customer engagement it's an important influencer of organisational effectiveness.

For government agencies this means that staff have a better understanding of customer needs and views and are able to collaborate effectively either within the agency or across all of government.

The combination of these two outcomes - understanding and collaboration - improves policy development, execution and service delivery.

Reduced costs, improved outcomes - that's the value I see in Web 2.0 for government.

What do you think?

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Does wireless internet access improve government productivity?

The Federal Mobility 2.0 Study, released a couple of days ago in the US, has reported that wireless internet access for Federal public servants improves their productivity.

In fact over 70% of respondents, who all used wireless internet, reported that it improved their productivity.

At the same time only 40% of Federal agencies reported that they allowed wireless internet access.

I'm currently blogging on my personal laptop using wireless and would agree with the productivity benefits.

I primarily use my laptop for work reasons, from conferences, at home and around town. I use it for taking meeting notes, developing wireframes, writing strategy papers, referencing net sites and monitoring activity on our website - amongst other things.

Internet access is a critical requirement for all of these tasks and I can generally access a wireless network wherever I go.

Except for one place - my office.

My agency has no wireless network in place for staff, although there are a couple of test networks in use by the IT team I can see when my laptop is at work.

This presents an interesting issue for me and for others. When at the office I am often in meetings in rooms with no computer, electronic whiteboard or any way to access resources on our internal network or on the web.

This leads to the need to print out any documents needed and bring them to the meeting. I don't know how many people attend how many meetings each day at my agency, but all that paper, printer ink and elecricity adds up quickly.

It would both be a major cost for the agency as well as a major timewaster - printing the documents in the first place, finding the references within the documents, then taking hand notes in the meeting and retyping them into a computer afterwards.

I'd like to see an inhouse wireless network we could use to save all this money and environmental cost.

Would that be secure you ask?
The same report indicated that 83% of IT Executives said that wireless networks can be secure.

Do you have wireless internet access in your agency?

And do you believe it improves productivity?

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Probably the first official Australian Commonwealth and State government Blog: blog.training.gov.au

Nathanael Boehm has provided more details on what may be the first official joint Commonwealth/State/Territory government blog in Australia.

In Government Blog: blog.training.gov.au, he talks about the purpose behind the site and how it was constructed, using opensource technologies to deliver a fast, cheap and secure solution.

This achievement is a great example of how a great deal of value can be delivered within government without the need to invest in high-cost and complicated infrastructure.

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Participate in the World Usability Challenge - 1 August 2008

This is a very worthwhile event with a simple theme.

As described on its website, what you need to do on 1 August 2008 is:

  1. Find a usability problem - it could be a poorly designed toaster, a confusing or redundant letter from your bank, or even a problem with your experience boarding, flying and disembarking an aeroplane.
  2. Design a solution - solve the usability problem, and write your solution down, sketch it up or (if you're feeling particularly keen) make a quick prototype of the improved product/service.
  3. Share it with a person who can solve the problem by implementing your solution - write to the toaster designer, call your bank manager, or talk to a stewardess. Hand him/her your idea. Encourage them to implement it. Be persuasive! and don't forget to post what you've done on the Google Group or the Facebook group.
Will you be participating in the World Usability Challenge?

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Web browser security - what is an agency's duty of care to customers?

Google recently released a report on web browser security, conducted in June 2008, which found that more than 630 million internet users were not using the most secure version of their chosen web browser.

Mainly this reflected Internet Explorer use - 577 million users were not using the most secure version of the browser - largely represented by those using Internet Explorer 6 (rather than upgrading to IE7, which was released in October 2006).

My agency also still uses Internet Explorer 6 as our default web browser.

Fortunately, as a large organisation. we do not rely on our web browser to provide network security. Our IT professionals employ a series of firewalls and other safeguards to mitigate the risks in using an older and more vulnerable browser.

However the majority of our customers do not have access to this level of IT skills and resources.

Home users either do not use firewalls, or rely on either the basic Windows firewall or one that came with their modem. Sometimes there isn't a robust anti-virus product in use either.

Based on our website statistics, about 27% of visitors still use Internet Explorer 6 and another 3-4% use old versions of other web browsers.

This means that more than 30% of our website users are more vulnerable to security risks than they need to be.

My question is, what is our agency's duty of care towards these people - 0ur customers?

I've identified the following options.

  1. No duty of care - it's a jungle out there, our job is to deliver government services not take on responsibility for the web browser choice of our customers.
  2. Warn - we should actively let people know that they should use the most current version of their web browser to protect their own security, but take no action to enforce the use of current browsers.
  3. Warn and inform - we should both actively warn people and show them visibly when they are not using the most secure version of a web browser, with a path to upgrade if they choose.
  4. Warn, show and take action - we should first warn and then block anyone not using the most secure browser versions, forcing our customers to upgrade.

Which is the best option?
I tend to disregard the first option - doing nothing is a poor solution when customer security is at risk.

The last option, take action, is a dangerous path to walk. For customers accessing our sites from within corporate environments there is generally no option to upgrade their browser. Forcing an upgrade would simply stop the sites being usable for these people - including our own staff (who use IE6).

We currently apply the second option - telling people they should use the most secure web browser, but stopping short of telling them whether they are using the most secure version. The shortcoming here is that many people do not know how to check if their web browser is the most current version, so may place themselves at risk unknowingly.

The third option - warn and inform
The report from Google recommends the third option - both warning the customer about the risk and telling them whether they are using the most secure version - with a path to upgrade if needed.

This approach is the most satisfying for me. It covers the duty of care I feel our agency has and supports customers who are not technically literate.

Which approach does your organisation take, and why?

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

US campaign to allow congressmen to use social media launches

Following from my post yesterday regarding the US senate debate over the use of social media by congressmen, several congressmen have launched a campaign to remove restrictions on internet use by the US congress.

The campaign is entitled Let Our Congress Tweet and, as you'd expect, makes extensive use of social media to put across its views.

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How do you judge if a government intranet is a success?

I regularly struggle with how to best evaluate the success of my agency's intranet.

In generaly there are six different sets of metrics I use, grouped into 'hard' and 'soft' as follows:

Hard (numerical)

  • Statistics - traffic (visits/pageviews),
  • Content (age/timeliness/findability),

Soft (subjective)

  • Design - usability/accessibility/attraction (task completion, screen reading),
  • Development - standards (code validation)
  • User satisfaction (what do staff, contributors and managers tell us formally?),
  • Word-of-mouth (what do staff, contributors and managers say informally?)

Overall I'm happy with our intranet's performance.

However I don't have a consolidated measure that combines these measures into a single number I can track over time as an Intranet Success Index.

How do you go about rating your intranet's success?

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Using social networks to support youth education

Digizen have conducted a project and produced a report looking at how young people use, and could use social networking services to support their learning experience.

It's a fascinating read with some very practical examples of how to utilise these networks to engage young people and enrich and extend the learning experience.

The report is available both online and as a downloadable document from Digizen at Young People and Social Networking Services.

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Is it time for a government mobile broadband guarantee?

The Australian government has an opportunity to expand its support for national fixed line broadband to include mobile broadband, spearheaded by the release of the Apple iPhone this week.

The phone is a revolutionary device and reports out of the US indicate that people using the phone are using internet data services 50x as frequently as on other phone handsets.

However with the release of telecommunications plans by Optus, Vodaphone and Telstra, there has been considerable backlash within online communities.

The general theme is that the data allocations are too small, and the cost of data much too high.

The view is stated sucinctly by Stephen Collins of Acidlabs in his post, The iPhone as social umbilical cord (and how Australian telcos don’t get it).

Mobile internet has to-date been largely a non-event in Australia. With the rollout of 3G networks, telecommunications providers have focused on providing content via walled gardens from selected media services. Data usage has been low as the cost of data has been high - often 10x the cost of fixed broadband.

The release of the iPhone and similar multi-channel handheld devices changes the game.

Services such as Twitter, Plurk, Friendfeed, instant messaging clients and other 'stream of consciousness' communications technologies are easily accessible via the device.

This turns the publisher -> consumer walled garden of current mobile internet services into a conversation - a multi-user <-> multi-user always-on social and business experience.

Unfortunately the launch plans for the product from all three telecommunications players do not support this type of product use, pricing data out of the reach of an always-on experience.


The Australia government has its Australian Broadband Guarantee program poised to roll-out for 2008-2009 in August. This program is admirable - it helps ensure that Australians have access to fixed wire broadband in ever growing numbers.

However much of the world is now beginning to substitute fixed broadband for more mobile solutions, via mobile phone or dedicated wireless networks.

In many developing countries expensive fixed networks are not being rolled out - instead they are rolling out wireless, which is cheaper and easier to deliver to remove areas.

For Australia to stay in the game, let alone remain an innovator, there is the need to take a longer-term view and support the mobile broadband industry.


How to do this
The first step is to understand the seachange occuring overseas and review what can be done in Australia to reduce the cost of mobile data.

The second step is to take steps - quickly - to reduce those costs, encouraging Australians to use handheld devices for the uses they are being put to overseas.

This will establish the environment for greater innovation in mobile broadband. These innovations will have global potential, helping Australian companies to competitively play on the world stage.

It will also, though increasing usage, deliver greater profits to the telecommunications companies.

Finally it can also be used to address some of the inconsistencies and inequitites in the fixed broadband market.


What's the alternative?
The alternative is for the government to let the market take the lead, locking in expensive mobile broadband solutions and leaving Australia a 'follow-me' country that adopts overseas technologies rather than innovating locally.

This outcome would be extremely detrimental to Australia's long-term future.

The internet is the nervous system of the world, allowing individuals and organisations to come together to create and share ideas, solve problems and build new businesses regardless of their geographic location.

If Australia is not embedded firmly in this nervous system it will become increasingly uncompetitive over time.

What's your view on the steps the government should take?

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