Friday, December 21, 2012

How good have government agencies in Australia become at social record keeping?

An interesting study has come across my desk from Rebecca Stoks, who is working on a Master of Information Management at Victoria University in New Zealand.

She sought in the report to answer the following question:
Recordkeeping is essential to the democratic process, but how can governments maintain public records when they are being created outside their realm of control? 
To answer this, earlier in 2012 she conducted a study of government agencies in Australia to discover the extent to which they were capturing public records created on third party social media sites.

She approached agencies at local, state/territory and federal level, receiving 63 responses, about half from state government agencies and about 25% from local and federal.

Of these respondents 54 used social media, with 41 having used it for a year or more. However only 26 had a social media policy in place, with another 23 in the process of developing social media policies.

Of the 26 with a social media policy in place, only 13 of these policies mentioned the recordkeeping implications of using social media.

At the same time, 32 of the 63 respondents had been approached internally for advice on social media recordkeeping. As a result 11 had developed a procedure on social media recordkeeping, while another 19 were in the process of developing a procedure.

Rebecca found that of the 54 respondents using social media, most did not feel confident they were meeting their legal obligations to keep records, only 18 were capturing records.

Of these 18, some captured everything while others only capturing selected records - with most capturing records created and received by their agency as well as basic metadata associated with social media records, however only a few captured social media interactions such as ratings, tags and re-postings.

The agencies capturing social media records mostly used more than one method, with the most popular being taking screenshots, subscribing to syndication feeds or using a third party archiving service.

Only half of those agencies capturing social media records thought their methods were sustainable, with most who felt they were using more automated capture methods such as archiving services and syndication feeds.

Rebecca's study also found that most respondents to the survey had consulted their local public records office about social media recordkeeping and found their advice useful. However, she says,
when asked what gaps existed in the current guidance on social media records, several respondents expressed a desire for practical and sustainable solutions for what to capture and how to capture.
In a review of Public Record Offices in May 2012, Rebecca found that six of the nine Australian Public Record Offices had published guidance, however most had only been first published in the last year and the depth and approach of the guidance varied enormously across jurisdiction, despite the goals being very similar.

To illustrate this, I've included a table from Rebecca's report below

11.3 Common themes in the guidance on Social Media Recordkeeping

Practical and Procedural Advice
Public Record Office
NAA SRNSW QSA TRO TAHO PROV
Consider and mitigate the risks of using a cloud service

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes
Create policies and procedures for social media that detail recordkeeping requirements
Yes
Yes
Yes

Yes

Conduct a risk assessment of social media records

Yes
Yes
Yes


Identify which records need to be captured and create a strategy for how and when they will be captured
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

Collaborate with the business
Yes
Yes


Yes

Make a file note

Yes
Yes



Only capture/retain original records
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

Yes
Export data/Take screenshots
Yes
Yes
Yes


Yes
Create a “bridge” to internal systems

Yes

Yes


Use in-house solutions where possible

Yes


Yes

Attach minimum metadata to records


Yes

Yes
Yes
Use automated solutions where possible

Yes

Yes
Yes
Yes
Promote awareness/provide training


Yes

Yes
Yes

If you're interested in more information or a copy of Rebecca's study - which is packed full of more juicy information (90 pages long), email me and I can put you in touch with her.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

AGIMO restructure offers promise of improved whole-of-government IT efficiency

Yesterday AGIMO announced that the Australian Government Information Management Office was adopting a number of the recommendations of the Williams review.

In particular the Williams review identified that AGIMO had moved away from the IT policy and analysis role recommended by the 2008 Gershon review to take on a range of whole-of-government IT implementation functions.

These didn't necessarily always fit together well, with cultural differences (which Williams termed a 'schism') between policy and implementation Divisions and a split focus for AGIMO which diluted its effectiveness in driving government IT reforms.

In the new reform, taken following the departure of Ann Steward, AGIMO will be splitting into the AGCIO (Australian Government Chief Information Office), providing ICT Governance and policy investment advice around information and ICT for whole of government; and the AGCTO (Australian Government Chief Technology Office), providing whole of government service delivery and support including networks, online services and ICT procurement.

The current AGIMO First Assistant Secretaries will be taking on the leadership of these new offices. Glenn Archer as CIO and John Sheridan at CTO - though it is unclear if either or both of them are being promoted in level.

Both have sound track records in AGIMO and, while government employs merit-based promotion, it is no surprise that they've both been awarded these new roles ahead of any external candidates.

So what does this practically mean for AGIMO, the government and Australia?

Firstly, it is unclear whether AGIMO itself will continue to exist as a single entity, or as two separate offices who must work in close collaboration. This will require some short-term adaptation for AGIMO staff as they come to terms with the changes and how these offices work individually and together in practice.

Given than Glenn and John have a history of working together this, at least, bodes well for continued cooperation - though it is unlikely that the separation of the offices is likely to resolve the cultural 'schism' that Williams identified.

I expect the change process will see the AGCIO and AGCTO engage in navel-gazing for a few months as they develop their internal plans and come to grips with the new arrangements.

Both offices will then need to make it clear to the government and external stakeholders which is responsible for what areas. While one Office will be policy-focused and one implementation, in practice there are likely to be gray areas for which responsibility may not be clear to external observers.

This could create confusion as to which Office an agency, media representative, external stakeholder or supplier should speak to on given topics, which in turn could lead to misunderstandings and mistakes.

More critically is how the government will view and use the office to pursue whole-of-government IT reform and policy outcomes.

This reform is administrative - designed to make the machinery run better. There's been no public leadership from our elected government on what the new AGCIO and AGCTO are there to achieve.

This means that even if the AGCIO and AGCTO are doing their jobs - developing IT policies and implementing whole-of-government solutions around web hosting, IT procurement and governance - it remains unclear how this tactical work is being used strategically to bring the government's infrastructure and engagement into the 21st Century.

This is a major concern for me, per my last blog post on this subject. IT needs to be employed within a strategic framework, rather than treated as just one of the cogs in an agency's gears.

When agencies are unable to carry out policy goals for the government of the day due to their IT configuration, or when agencies are unable to effectively engage the community because their IT is substandard, there is a major issue that affects how Australia's elected representatives meet the needs of the community.

The new AGIMO structure doesn't appear to come with any additional mandate or resources (though more might be revealed next year) and this, in my opinion, will limit the ability of both AGCIO and AGCTO to be successful.

The new structure may even be counterproductive. If the AGCIO and AGCTO need to compete against each other for sufficient people and funds to achieve their goals, or a change in leadership sees the two offices less cooperative this will only weaken their effectiveness.

It is early days yet, and it takes time for this type of change to be fully communicated, considered, implemented and embedded.

I do believe that the restructure will provide a solid administrative base to continue to improve centralised strategic IT thinking, leadership and delivery.

I hope that, over the next few months, it will also become clear that there is the right political support and resourcing to use this base effectively - that it won't be starved to the point of irrelevance.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Social media 2013 - the new socialnomics video

Erik Qualman of Socialnomics has released the 2013 annual Social Media video, chock full of awe-inspiring statistics on the continuing rise of social media and its increasing influence on the world today.

In a new twist, it's available with two different music tracks (for those of you tired of an annual dose of FatBoy Slim). I've embedded both versions for your viewing pleasure below.

Keep in mind that while in Australia we appear to have quite a mature social media market, with year on year change more being a factor of population ageing than increasing widespread adoption, we are only at around 50% smartphone penetration - where desktop connections to the internet sat back in 2006 - allowing for much further growth in the mobile social media market.

We also have the NBN on the way, which presents entirely new opportunities for integrated digital services, for example having ongoing real-time online conversations integrated with TV and radio experiences - an extension of the Twitter hashtags and forums used to support popular programs today.

Around the world there is much 'blue sky' growth remaining for social media, with over 50% of the world's population under the age of 30, the rapid rate of mobile adoption in countries across asia and africa and the fact that even the largest social network in the world (Facebook) only has 14% of the world's population as members.

Continued rising social media use around the world will trigger the development of new services which, in turn, will further drive adoption in countries like Australia - such as how the emergence of platforms like Ushahidi from Kenya have led to global adoption of new tools for public engagement.

Socialnomics' Social Media Video 2013 with FatBoy Slim music:


Socialnomics' Social Media Video 2013 with new music:

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Solving the problems of cities via crowdsourcing - LLGA Cities pilot the future program

As cities are become more complex, so are their strategic challenges and the need to find innovative solutions to best serve their citizens.

With governments tightening their budgets at the same time, the challenges of modern cities are beginning to slip beyond the ability of city councils, or even national governments, to solve alone.

As a result many are now looking beyond their bureaucrats for support and solutions, using crowd sourcing to drive innovation and broaden their policy and service options.

A key example of this is the LLGA's Cities Pilot the Future program, now entering its fourth year.

The premise is simple. Cities publish details of a strategic challenge they need help solving and the public, social enterprises, research centres, not-for-profit and for-profit organisations are invited to contribute their solutions. Jurors shortlist and select winning solutions, which are then implemented.

Over the past three years 42 global cities from Europe, North, Central and South America, Africa and Asia have taken part in the annual programs - in fact the only populated continent not to have taken part in the program is Australia.

The last three programs received in more than 1,197 entries, leading to over 30 pilot programs, affecting 285 million citizens across 38 cities.

The 2013 program, which opened last week for entries, features an enormous range of different strategic challenges from 21 cities including:

  • Aalborg, Denmark: Traffic congestion early-warning system
  • Barcelona, Spain: Regenerate neighbourhoods using vacant space
  • Boston, USA: Rethinking road castings
  • Christchurch, NZ: Transformational lighting system
  • Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Data exchange on public facilities and activities
  • Fukuka, Japan: Smart international conference destination
  • Lagos, Nigeria: Networked standalone content hotspots
  • Lavasa, India: Social uplift and empowerment
  • London, UK: Energy and greenhouse gas measurement
  • Mexico City, Mexico: Digital tools for better, healthier ageing
  • Oulu, Finland: Encourage visitor engagement through technology
  • Paris, France: Making outside seating more resilient
  • Rio De Janeiro, Brazil: Accessible healthcare in intelligent cities
  • Rosario, Argentina: Network of green homes
  • San Francisco, USA: Storm response coordination tool
  • Sant Cugat, Spain: Smart Cityscape - maximising existing resources
  • Sheffield, UK: Capturing and distributing industrial heat
  • Tacoma, USA: Sustainable return on investment tool
  • Terrassa, Spain: Connecting people to progress
  • York, UK: Reducing health inequality in York

I think the list above, together with the diverse range of strategic issues cities identified in past years, demonstrates the potential range of challenges that crowdsourcing can be used to help cities solve.

Given the global range of participating cities in the LLGA program, my question is - where are the Aussies? 

Is it that our governments have single-handedly solved every strategic challenge in our cities?
(I don't believe this is true)

Or is it that Australian governments are dropping behind the rest of the world in adopting innovative approaches to solving challenges - afraid of involving citizens more broadly in finding solutions?
(I hope this isn't true!)

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Should politicians tweet (and how should they if they do)?

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Liberal Party had 'slapped a social media gag on MPs'. While the article didn't live up to the sensation of the headline, it did touch on an area I had provided a media comment on last week.

As such I thought I would publish my full notes, edited and updated with a view to the content of this article.

Firstly, I think social media has become an important 'toolkit' of channels for politicians to use to engage constituents, stakeholders and the media.

While politicians may personally choose whether or not they wish to use social media, based on their available time, need for the reach and comfort with the technology, when parties actively or passively gag politicians on social media it sends a dangerous message - the party can't trust its own electoral candidates to behave appropriately in public discourse, so why should the public trust these candidates in public office?

I think that if a party can't trust its candidates to behave properly online or provide clear guidance to candidates on how to use social media effectively, the issue is with the candidate selection, not the channels (social media).

Effectively if a politician isn't able to present themselves appropriately through social media channels, perhaps they need to consider a different career (and political parties should not pre-select them).

In my view, in modern societies the majority of politicians at all levels of government should engage through appropriate social media channels.

These channels help amplify their direct public voice (uninterpreted by traditional media) and allow politicians to interact more broadly and deeply with constituents and interest groups than is possible through time constrained face-to-face events and meetings or traditional media channels.

Also, many of the constituents politicians can reach through social media are far harder to reach through other approaches and so the service allows them, as it allows brands and government agencies, to reach people who otherwise would not engage with them through other channels.

Looking specifically at Twitter as a channel for politicians (already used by a majority of Federal politicians in Australia), too many politicians are still using the service purely as a one-way tool for linking to media releases or 'vanity posts' they've made in traditional media outlets or in their own sites.

This is a valuable use of Twitter and, where politicians are Ministers or act in an official or honorary capacity for a particular movement or cause, they definitely should retweet tweets by the agencies and organisations they are responsible for. However if news announcements and retweets are the main or sole use of a Twitter account, followers will quickly switch off and ignore the politician as they're not adding value.

Politicians also should avoid using Twitter mainly or only for political positional and ideological statements such as "The Liberal party is committed to doing X - read about it in our site". These are commonly one-way closed statements and generally don't provide the space for politicians to engage in active conversations with the public. While important for positioning individuals and parties politically, when tweeted too often they can damage the credibility of politicians - making them appear interested only in making motherhood statements rather than engaging communities in real conversation.

I believe politicians need to consider Twitter as an engagement tool - like a meeting in their electorate or in-promptu drop-in at a shopping centre. It should be used by politicians and parties to engage actively with citizens and with groups discussing particular issues or topics.

They definitely should use Twitter's service to announce news and ideological positions, but also should use it to engage in discussions around the edges, and on topics where their party or themselves personally are still building an understanding of an issue and are willing to listen to and test ideas.

This use of Twitter for engaging in conversations can be conducted in a more structured manner than simply randomly responding to user tweets at different times when the politician is online. I recommend that politicians consider scheduled 'tweet-ups' with their constituents where they invite people to have an hour or two hour long conversation on a given topic. This has been successfully executed by the ACT Labor party through their Twitter cabinets, and can similarly work for individual politicians as it can for parties or cabinets.

To use this approach effectively, the politician or party should define a scope or topic for each conversation - this allows them to refrain from responding to hecklers who wish to go off topic.

It is important to set a hashtag for these events (in aggregate rather than individually) and promote them before the event to inform potential participants.

Politicians should to be prepared to respond quickly to comments - even having an aide or two involved to answer side questions and allow the politician to focus on the 'meat' of the conversation. If they are engaging in a conversation about their portfolio as a Minister, they should involve their agencies as well - if they have Twitter accounts (and if they don't, they should be asking why!)

Finally, the use of Twitter to talk about what someone had for breakfast or their daily activities is often maligned ('who cares what I had for breakfast'), however it is important part of establishing a human connection between the tweeting politician and their constituents.

In face-to-face conversation it is normal to engage in pleasantries and small talk, comments about the weather, asking how people are. This is a conversational tool for establishing a connection and building an initial trust relationship.

In social media there is a similar, if not greater, need to establish a connection and, when tweeting, politicians who talk about what they are doing and engage in conversation about it (such as asking for movie suggestions - as Kevin Rudd has done) help build trust and active engagement with constituents - so long as they are genuine and not forced or exaggerated.

To break tweeting down in percentage terms, I'd say politicians should tweet in roughly the following proportions (though each should adjust this to suit their particular positioning and strategy):
  • Announcements (media releases/decisions/actions): 10%
  • News (tweet headlines and link to statements/articles/posts): 10%
  • Retweets (of agencies/causes/related parties): 10-20%
  • Inpromptu engagement (responding to interesting tweets/correcting misinformation): 20-30%
  • Scheduled engagement (organised tweet-ups/twitter chats): 10%
  • Activities (where they are/what they are doing): 20-30%
Are Australian politicians using Twitter effectively?
A few are with, federally, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Kate Lundy standing-out, through the entire Greens team have been growing their effectiveness, as has the Prime Minister who, after a shaky start, has found her own social media rhythm.

At state/territory levels Katy Gallagher and her cabinet are very good at using Twitter - possibly because they've had so much practice and have considered it a useful and effective way to engage with the ACT community for some time through their Twitter cabinets. Kristina Kenneally was also quite effective, as are several current State Premiers, Ministers and a few back benchers.

I'm not aware of any stand-out local councillors tweeting, although as this is more localised and fragmented due to the number of councils, there may be many great councillors out there.

Overall our politicians primarily appear to follow other politicians and traditional media representatives, shaping their tweets to these audiences.

The public remain more spoken at than too by most politicians - an issue that appears linked to political parties seeing the public as a passive group, rather than an active and involved audience.

In conclusion, few politicians use Twitter effectively - but they should. Twitter, and other social media channels, shouldn't be seen solely as a way to broadcast political positions and decisions, but as a channel to tap the wisdom of the crowd - sourcing ideas and perspectives that rarely filter their way to Ministers through public sector or political machinery.

This does involve a level of judgement and skill on behalf of politicians to be able to identify good ideas, test them and debate them in a public way, which few of our politicians appear to have really learnt, and poses one of the biggest challenges for the future of Australia.

Measuring Twitter's effectiveness for politicians
While many organisations do look to Klout or Kred scores, follower numbers or even semantic-type analysis through services such as Brandtology as a way to measure their effectiveness, it is important to keep in mind that these don't measure actual engagement or influence and simply reflect interactions.

While they are useful metrics to track, they don't accurately quantify whether politicians are building trust and respect online, getting their messages across or actively engaging the community to help foster deeper political engagement and inject new (and sometimes better) ideas into the political process.

To assess effectiveness for politicians using Twitter it is important to consider the level of retweeting and sharing - including how broadly politicians retweet community members, not just their own parties or media. Other factors should also be considered, such as the community's level of @ responses (in Twitter terms) to community members, as well as participation in hashtag (#) based discussions on topics related to the politician's portfolio areas and political interests.

Another measure of effectiveness - or at least notoriety - is the number and sophistication of the parody accounts for a politician. If I were a senior Minister or Shadow Minister and didn't have someone parodying me on Twitter in a humorous and subtle manner, then I would be worried that I wasn't really cutting through to my constituency and having an impact. Boring and unengaging politicians are less likely to achieve a long future on the government's front-bench.

Finally, politicians and the media should judge the effectiveness of politicians' engagement on Twitter through actual engagement - looking at the relationships they are building and the engagements they are having. This tells a story beyond the statistics - just as OpenAustralia's statistics on how often politicians speak in parliament only tell part of the story as to how effective those politicians are at getting things done in their electorates.

Politicians are already being judged on social media - but verdicts are not necessarily in
Politicians are already being judged on Twitter and other social media channels by their acts and words - how often, broadly and deeply they engage. Those who primarily make announcements, or selectively follow and retweet their political colleagues and the press gallery, are being judged harshly - even if this isn't necessarily obvious to them.

Politicians who are actively engaging, building trust relationships, debating politely with those who hold opposing views, use linking, retweets and hashtags wisely and are otherwise acting as good Twitter 'citizens' will reap the benefits through trust and respect over time. They are also exercising their social media muscles and building skills that will help them in their future careers as other social media channels emerge and become important for engagement with the public.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Australian government's opportunity to rethink the role of Government CIO

A few weeks ago Ann Steward, the Australian Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Deputy Secretary leading AGIMO (the Australian Government Information Management Office) announced she was retiring from the public service after seven years in her current role.

Her announcement was widely covered in the media, and there's been a number of public and, I am sure, private thanks and congratulations to her from her (soon to be) former colleagues across the Australian Public Service, from the present and from former Australian Governments for her work in the service of Australia.

I'm not going to add to this chorus, other than to say that I believe Ann performed admirably, given the opportunities and constraints of her roles and duties.

Instead I want to look forward - to consider how this is an opportunity for the Australian Government.

When Ann took up her role in 2005 as Government CIO, about 67% of Australian households had a computer and only 56% had internet access. The majority accessed the internet via dial-up (67%), with only 28% using broadband (with most broadband 2Mbps or less in speed) (ABS Household use of Information Technology 2004-2005 - PDF).

YouTube and Google Maps were new, both launched in February 2005, while Facebook was over a year away from extending beyond universities to the public (in September 2006). Geocities and MySpace ruled the roost.

Government's online IT efforts were focused on eGovernment - streamlining the speed and cost of services through online forms and reports. Government 2.0 had only just been coined as a term and the use of social media for government engagement was barely on the radar of the most progressive public servants.

The role of Australian Government CIO was defined in the context of these times. AGIMO was focused on providing IT leadership to agencies around egovernment, but had a weak mandate when it came to doing more than advising or suggesting and had no mandate at all for supporting and encouraging other forms of online engagement by agencies.

We now live in a different world. Close to 100% of Australians use the internet for an average of over 48 hours per month online. The overwhelming majority of Australians use broadband (96%) and it is their most popular way of engaging with governments.

Social media rules the roost online, with Social Media News reporting that over 11.5 million Australians are using Facebook, 11 million use YouTube and 3.7 million use Blogspot - each month.

Internationally we've seen many governments introduce strong central mandates for the use of the internet in service provision, public engagement, policy development, accountability and transparency.

The US and UK have introduced strong central government CIO roles, who were not only first amongst equals, but who were mandated and empowered to proactively lead whole-of-government agendas for IT, particularly online.

Australia's government has an opportunity to similarly rethink the role of Government CIO - whether the current role definition, whole-of-government responsibilities, placement (currently in the Department of Finance and Deregulation), funding and objectives.

There is an opportunity for Australia to follow the bold leadership of other nations to mandate a more powerful and central role for the Government CIO than was previously the case. A role that allows the CIO to mandate and enforce standards on agencies, rather than simply providing advise and support which can be ignored.

The main risks that I see right now are that Ann Steward's replacement is appointed as a matter of procedure - selecting the best person for the currently defined role, rather than reconsidering how the role should be defined. This will send a critical message to agencies, the media and the public that the Australian Government is still living in 2005, seeing the internet as a 'nice-to-have' cost-efficiency channel alongside their other one-way engagement channels, rather than as a paradigm shift in how societies interact with each other and with governments.

The second risk is that the role is redefined behind closed doors, not secretly, but through old practices, where a small group of people decide what is appropriate without consultation with the broader engaged community. This would send a message that, while government recognises the challenges brought on by the digitalisation of engagement, it is not yet ready to embrace the opportunities - to bring a larger set of voices into the conversation and pursue more transparent and accountable governance.

I've heard nothing about the process for replacing Ann as yet, and the government and Department are likely still coming to terms with her decision and the ramifications. There's still opportunity to consider taking a different approach to what is becoming an increasingly important central role for spearheading the necessary cultural and IT changes in government to help Australia's government remain fit and competitive for the 21st century.

The process and the new appointment could have a large impact on how Australian Government employs IT and engages online to meet the needs of society, the type of level of impact that could see individual governments rise or fall based on how well they meet community needs.

I hope that the Australian Government takes up this opportunity, providing strategic leadership by reconsidering the role of Government CIO and opening the doors to hear the views of the many engaged stakeholders who have thoughts as to what the role could be and how it could support the government in achieving its broader policy and service delivery goals - all of which now rely on IT and the internet for public engagement, promotion and delivery.

This would send a strong positive message to current and prospective public servants, to the community, industry, the media and to other nations - that Australia is one of the powers to watch in the 21st century.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Is social media blurring the non-partisan status of appointed public servants?

A separation that is widely understood within governments, but often less well understood in the rest of the community, is the separation between politics and public service.

Elected public servants, politicians, ascribe to specific political ideologies and policy positions which form the basis of how people select which politicians and parties to support and cast their votes for.

Unelected public servants, the appointed public service, strive to remain politically unaligned and non-partisan, neutral advisors and implementers of the ideological and political wishes of elected politicians.

This system is designed to balance the instability of democracy with the continuity, stability and certainty of continued governance and public service delivery, allowing appointed public servants to continue on an ongoing basis while elected politicians of various political stripes come and go.

Shifting the balance to largely political - where the majority of the public service is replaced at each change of government - would make governance unstable, with nations unable to rely on the continuity of contracts, laws, support or services they need to conduct their lives and businesses.

Whereas shifting the balance to largely apolitical - where elections are rare or of figurehead positions only - would remove the democratic option for nations to change their minds as to how they prefer to be governed, effectively dictatorships in all but name.

Therefore preserving the separation between politicians and public servants is a primary consideration of Australia's system of governance - as it is in most democratic states - while a delicate balance needs to be maintained where public services willingly and proactively carry out the will of the elected (political) government, however unelected career public servants retain the independence to provide frank and fearless non-partisan advice in their professional lives and the ability to participate as full citizens (with their own political views) in their private lives.

Australia has legislation, codes and policies to maintain this separation, which have largely worked well over the last century, although I - and most current or former public servants - have seen cases where the lines can get quite blurry between serving the government of the day and 'signing on' to the government's political position and cases where individuals have let their personal views overwhelm their professional need to remain non-partisan.

Social media is adding complexity to this mix, providing channels for government agencies and appointed public servants to have a louder and more direct public voice whereas previously government communications was limited to traditional media channels - radio, television and newsprint - where comments could be tightly filtered through communications teams, media specialists and Ministerial offices.

Today's media landscape allows every government agency and appointed public servant to be a participant, informer or influencer, in public debate. They can establish their own communications channels at little or no cost and distribute messages with, potentially, little or no central oversight (or as many approval processes as they like, but at the cost of speed and relevancy).

While for the most part agencies and public servants have been guarded and cautious in the use of these new channels - ensuring they have sound guidance and principles in place to preserve their non-partisan position - a few channels have become more blurry, presented as government channels but presenting political views.

These channels - and their proliferation as precedents are established - could easily confuse the lines between partisan and non-partisan, politicians and the professional appointed public service. This risks politicising the public service, confusing the public and damaging democracy.

Let me offer a few examples.

Firstly, in the Australian Government's list of official government social media accounts, Australia.gov.au (managed and administered by AGIMO in the Department of Finance and Administration) lists the Twitter account of Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard), Australia's Prime Minister, alongside the accounts of departments, agencies and government programs.

Unlike all of the other accounts listed by Australia.gov.au, Julia Gillard's account is operated by a politician (Julia Gillard herself) and her Ministerial staff - who are largely political appointments with strong links to the Australian Labor Party.

While Julia Gillard fills an official government role, that of Prime Minister, she is a politician, elected to this public office by her party, who happens to hold enough votes in the House of Representatives to be able to form government.

While her Twitter account (@JuliaGillard) does include apolitical tweets about the Australian Government, it is also used for her personal and party political purposes and cannot be considered apolitical or part of the professional and apolitical machinery of government.

Her account regularly tweets messages that slip into politically partisan territory, such as:
"As a government of purpose and strong policy commitments, we won’t be distracted by their weakness and negativity."
Source: https://twitter.com/JuliaGillard/status/275385120863703040

5 years of Labor. A lot done, a lot left to do. TeamJG
Source: https://twitter.com/JuliaGillard/status/272165948952285184

RT @AustralianLabor: Greg Combet today gave a great run down of how the is going and the Spring Racing form of the Liberals: 
Source: (Original tweet) https://twitter.com/AustralianLabor/status/263893246667812864

It is perfectly legitimate for our Prime Minister to have this account and to use it as she sees fit. However, on the basis of tweets such as those above, her account shouldn't be included in a list of official government Twitter accounts where it could be confused as the standard approach for all government departments and create a perception that the Australian Public Service is partisan towards the Labor party, rather than a non-partisan body that advises and implements the Australian Government's (who happens to be the Labor party) dictates.


A second example is from QLD, the @QLDStateBudget twitter account, owned and managed by the QLD Department of Treasury and Trade (see it linked from the bottom right of their page).

This account, which has provided good news and updates regarding the QLD government budget in a largely non-partisan way, has also (disconcertedly), published tweets like:
TOUGH CUTS: Wayne Swan should take a leaf out of Campbell Newman's book: 
Source: https://twitter.com/QldStateBudget/status/246439391512371200

Which is a very political tweet indeed.

This account, as a purported departmental account, shouldn't stray into this type of political commentary and is clearly being influenced by a Ministerial office.

While this Twitter account hasn't been tweeted from for over 80 days, and may no longer be active, the tweets remain public and therefore the perception remains plausible.

Perception is reality
In both examples above the lines between elected and appointed public servants are blurred - which can create confusion and a perception that Australia's professional public service is no longer operating in a non-partisan and independent fashion.

While I don't believe this is the case, as for many things in government perceptions are reality. In a situation where the public and the media are often already confused about the separation between elected and appointed public servants, it is critical for agencies and governments to ensure that the separation remains distinct and clear in perception, as well as reality.

If social media makes this harder, due to the ease of posting publicly and the difficulty in removing material from the public domain, then it becomes even more necessary for senior public servants and politicians to understand social mediums, be aware of the risks, sponsor the creation of appropriate guidance and training for their staff and apply appropriate discretion at all times to minimise and resist any tendency to blur the lines.

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