Monday, May 11, 2015

Select your strategic approach carefully in social engagement - Treasury faltering at Census-like approach

Imitation is often referred to as the sincerest form of flattery, however the attempt by the Treasury to mimic the success of Census Australia's lighthearted Twitter approach demonstrates how carefully agencies must consider their social strategies in light of public opinion.

Many will remember when the ABS launched its Census Twitter campaign with an engagement styled to help make census numbers relevant to the average Australian using humour and cleverly written tweets.

The @2011Census account (now @CensusAustralia) attracted enormous public and media attention across Australia and internationally, and there was a significant increase in Census completion rates (though a number of initiatives would have helped contribute to this).

The ABS even went so far as to 'Rickroll' its followers, a sign of a government agency so comfortable with its own communication and audience that it could engage them playfully and without fear.

It was a brilliant strategy (well done Michelle), breaking the mold for government social engagement.

Now The Treasury is attempting a similar strategy on Twitter, however is receiving a very different reaction and engagement from the public.

The Treasury is a relative newcomer to social engagement, having first tweeted in July 2012. Being one of the more formal and less public-facing government agencies it took longer for The Treasury to make a decision that a social presence was safe and needed to support its external engagement activities.

However when it leapt into social, it did so with both feet, using Twitter to announce and engage on tax reform consultations and highlight its very important activities, which rarely receive public attention. 

The agency did suffer some of the usual starting pains of new organisational social users, not using hashtags, avoiding engagement with other users and generally treating Twitter as a broadcast feed resembling a news ticker, however they've grown more interactive of late and look more comfortable on the platform.

This year The Treasury has taken an additional step - taking a leaf out of the ABS's book to engage more proactively around the organisation's most significant annual event, bringing down the Australian Government Budget.

Using factoids, like the Tweet below, the agency is seeking to engage Australians in a more human and interactive way.

Now this is a good thing, and speaks to the growing confidence of the agency on social channels. It's not easy for conservative organisations to 'let go' and allow themselves to engage in less formal and more human ways.

However the specific strategy The Treasury is using runs a large risk of backfiring on the agency.

The ABS could take a very interactive and light approach with the Census to make it relevant to Australians for the very reason that it wasn't especially relevant to many of them.

Few people had strong views about the Census process, either negative or positive. It only occurs once every five years, it has no discernable impact on people's lives the rest of the time and, while completing a census form was inconvenient for some people, it didn't really trigger a strong opposing reaction.

Essentially the ABS approach helped make the Census relevant to people, taking it from a position of irrelevance.

The Treasury is in a very different position with the Australian Government Budget.

The Budget is one of the most significant government activities each year. It is comprehensively covered by the media and is seen as a defining moment for governments, used by the public to judge their performance and their future.

Decisions in the budget affect every Australian, often in very personal and direct ways. Some see their lifestyles improve, others see them falter. It is extensively leaked and discussed ahead of its release, and the shockwaves it can send through the Australian economy can profoundly shape how the government and Australia are perceived globally and locally.

In the case of the current budget, much of the public still feel wounded from last year's budget, which saw a number of budget measures not passed and the government have to take steps back in a number of areas.

The government has taken steps to 'defuse' concerns over the current budget, and have done a good job of leaking key measures ahead of its release to assay some of the community's fears regarding its impact on their lives.

However it probably isn't the right environment to replicate the ABS census strategy - the differences in the public's starting views towards Census 2011 and Budget 2015 are enormous.

As such it looks to me as if The Treasury has perhaps become too ambitious in its approach to budget social engagement this year - a view that's being supported by the types of comments the agency is receiving on its account.

For example, The Treasury's latest tweet deals with the amount of M&Ms consumed by their Budget division staff in the weeks leading up to the budget (image below).

While the tweet, coming from the ABS Census account, would likely be well-received, coming from The Treasury it is interpreted in quite a different manner.

While it has decent retweets, the responding comments suggest that the agency doesn't (yet) have the same license to be as light and engaging as the ABS.

The tweet suggests to me the very public social mistake by Qantas a few weeks after it grounded its fleet. The #QantasLuxury campaign turned into an opportunity for the public to vent their anger.

The Treasury is risking a similar backlash to what could be seen as self-indulgent and commercial tweets, such as the one portrayed above. 

Talking about their staff's consumption of a brand of chocolate treats, or otherwise being light-hearted in engagement is not the best strategy at a time when the public is waiting in trepidation at the impact on their lives from the budget.

For the ABS a high engagement, high risk strategy had limited downside, for The Treasury there's far more potential risk and far less reward - although this tweet did get the gong as the most engaging government tweet in Australia for 10 May 2015 from Great Oz Gov Tweets (which I helped establish).

It's a bold strategy for The Treasury, and I hope it pays off, but in future the agency need to more carefully consider the environment they operate in and the profile of their subject matter, not simply their own desire to communicate and connect.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Use open data in your business or not-for-profit? Contribute to Australia's first formal Open Data study

Earlier this month the Department of Communication, in conjunction with New York University's GovLab team, launched the Open Data 500 research project as the first comprehensive study of Australian companies and non-profit organisations that use open government data to generate new business, develop new products and services, improve business operations or create social value.

The research initiative was launched by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Locate15 conference on 11 March.

The results of the study will be used to develop a publicly available report that will help businesses to identify ways to reduce the costs of accessing government data, including licencing, versioning and control costs.

GovLab was founded by Beth Simone Novak, who was formally the United States deputy chief technology officer for open government and led President Obama's Open Government initiative.

If your organisation uses open data, or you know an organisation that does, please participate in this study. The more information available on how and why open data is used, the more attention it will receive from Australia's governments.

More information about the study, and the survey for businesses and not-for-profits to complete are available at the website -

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Why not elect our political system as well as our politicians?

History has shown that over time it is inevitable that any human political system will be gamed by those who wish to gain from it.

Some is done with the public good at heart, to fix system and policy flaws, some is done based on ideological belief and some is done out of pure selfish motives – profit and power.

Whether it be politicians voting themselves pay rises and greater powers, advisors playing influence games on policy while pocketing lobbying fees, bureaucrats over-classifying material and splitting legislative hairs to protect their agencies and Ministers at public cost, corporations and their representative groups influencing policies and laws to their own advantage or foreign nations seeking to press their own national interests, there’s many groups with many reasons to subvert any political system.

The traditional approach to checking this subversion has been through institutional checks and balances and the existence of a constitution or similar foundation document which defines the spirit and the actual limits of governance. These controls work to some degree, allowing nations to thrive for decades without renewing their political systems.

However in certain cases this ends up with nations surviving on momentum alone – as institutions continue to serve their functions for years after their funding is cut below sustainable levels and politicians hold to the words, if not the spirit, of the governance intent of a nation’s ‘founding fathers’.

We see this today where governments allow important institutions and infrastructure to run down, continually being asked to do more for less; in the redefinition of human rights and freedoms, such as limiting them to citizens or even to just citizens with the financial capacity to afford them; the compromises politicians tell us are for our own good; and in failures by the corporations that run traditional media to hold a mirror to the conduct of other corporations and politicians in order to maintain their revenues and influence.

Of course under democracy we have the right to throw out our government and replace them with another – a cycle that has sped up globally over the last fifty years as people are more rapidly dissatisfied with how the stated goals of their elected representatives are translated into action.

However this electoral process increasingly resembles a simple rearrangement of the deckchairs, with politicians using science, psychology and marketing to identify where they should differentiate themselves or mirror the policies of other parties.

It has become increasingly hard to differentiate the different political brands as they have professionalised, replacing leaders with managers and true believers with corporatised career officials, whose goal is simply to take and hold power rather than to benefit and improve the lot of citizens.

This leads to even more gaming of the system – ‘preference whisperers’ advising minor parties how to structure preferences to maximise their chance of a seat, politicians who have realised that electoral promises are non-binding and can be discarded as soon as power is gained, an army of unelected partisan advisors who feed from the public purse but whose actions are not scrutinised as are career bureaucrats, and the casualisation of the public service, where cutting headcount is mandatory and agency heads and managers rename units or sack and reemploy bureaucrats as contractors and consultants to move them between funding and headcount buckets, regardless of the lost expertise or increased costs.

So perhaps we need to think outside the box of electoral democracy and think about the system itself.

What’s the best way to prevent people from gaming a system over time? Changing the rules.

We have mechanisms for doing this now – through courts and the constitution. However these mechanisms are under the oversight of elected politicians and are very difficult to change – particularly when the incumbents are happy with how things work, even if they don’t deliver the outcomes the public expects.

How about instead if we put our entire governance system up for election on a regular basis, perhaps every 12 or 20 years, allowing the public to vote on whether they felt the existing system still satisfied the needs of the nation, or whether it needed to be changed?

Perhaps Australians could vote to affirm or change the preferential system of electing representatives to a proportional or first past the post approach, change the period between elections from a variable three years to a fixed five year term, or limit the time that politicians can remain in office or as a Minister to a few terms.

Perhaps Australians could choose whether we ban all political parties, have an elected head of state, change the size or number of state governments or reallocate policy and service responsibilities between governance tiers.

Perhaps we could choose to have appointed, not elected, Ministers, or to have citizen panels, selected in similar ways to juries, provide formal and ongoing oversight to Ministers, or make decisions on key policy areas.

We could choose whether to have the entire electoral population vote on key decisions and programs – the budget, major national infrastructure, on whether to commit Australia to wars.

Of course there needs to be some structure behind this to allow it to work successfully – and there’s also the potential for this system of voting for our governance system to be itself gamed.

However given the increasing calls for change in our electoral system and governance model, not simply in the politicians who we may elect within it, it’s definitely worth considering more than electoral reform, but governance reform – with the public, the citizens and shareholders in the nation of Australia, being the people who choose how they are governed, not simply who governs them.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

It's a good time to rethink the approach to Australia's Census

The first censuses reportedly took place around 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and the approach is mentioned in Exodus, one of the books of the Bible, commissioned by God in order to levy a per capita tax to upkeep the Israelite Tabernacle.

The ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians all conducted censuses before 1 AD, and censuses were vital for the Romans to levy the taxes that maintained their empire.

More recently, the Domesday book was commissioned by William the Conquerer, also known as William I of England, to properly tax the land he had conquered from the Saxons.

Independently the Inca Empire in South America, who had no written language, conducted censuses in the 15th century using base-ten notation knots in llama hair string.

In modern times over a hundred nations have conducted censuses on a regular or semi-regular basis, with nations like the US and UK conducting them every year and Australia every five.

A census collector from Egypt in 3000BC would probably have found it easy to comprehend the censuses Australia conducted in the 1990s.

While there's more questions today, the method of collecting census information had changed very little until recently.

Up until the introduction of electronic censuses this century, nations sent thousands of census collectors out and distributed millions of census forms for completion.  The collected data was then returned to central points for collation and analysis.

Now the ABS has prepared a paper to government suggesting that they may have better techniques for estimating population statistics rather than conducting an expensive national Census every five years.

This suggestion has caused media controversy, a public backlash and even a campaign to 'save our census'. Australians feel a sense of ownership over the Census, particularly after the fantastic work done by the ABS last census to engage people via social media and interactive tools.

However I think it's a good and appropriate conversation to have right now. We've advanced enormously technologically and scientifically in the last ten years, not to mention the last 5,000.

In fact, if you really think about it, conducting the census in a way that would be familiar to the Romans or William the Conquerer really doesn't make sense for the 21st Century.

With the data collection techniques available now, and the expertise we have in data analytics and prediction, surely we can find more cost-effective and less invasive ways of taking stock of our population than having every household fill in a form on one night.

So while I appreciate the concerns people have about change, and the nostalgia for our census-takers, I applaud the ABS and government for at least considering new approaches to the census.

If we truly want to digitally transform our government and society, we need to challenge practices that have become the norm.

This means not simply updating them (such as making a paper form electronic), but completely rethinking them beginning with our goals, applying the most appropriate approaches to data collection and analysis, and rethinking how we share and use the data for the benefit of society.

This needs to be done with an eye to improving outcomes, avoiding outcomes such as in Canada where it was about money, not quality. It also needs to be done with an effective change management campaign, involving the public in the debate.

Ignoring these two areas risks a messy and difficult process of reconsidering the Census, likely with poor outcomes both for the current government and for Australia.

However a well-thought-out public engagement campaign, combined with clearly superior techniques of collecting and analysing data could be a win for both.

I look forward to the day when children learn about the census in their history books, a system that was great for 5,000 years but was superseded by more effective techniques as humans advanced.

And I look forward to seeing more sacred cows in government and business challenged wisely and effectively with appropriate public engagement.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Don't expect the new normal to be normal

Around the world governments are struggling to understand and adopt social media and other digital tools into their business operations. 

In Australia many agencies are quite advanced in adopting social and Gov 2.0 tools - with digital firmly integrated into communication programs and, to a lesser extent, into program delivery and policy development.

In fact in some places I'm seeing a degree of complacency, the type that has senior public sector leaders saying "we have Facebook and Twitter and are using them successfully without any major issues or incidents".

This is a good thing. It's great to see agencies using digital channels well to engage with the community and each other.

However it is important to keep in mind that the world hasn't simply gone digital and stopped turning.

Technology continues to evolve at an incredible pace. 

Thirty years ago most of us used desktop computers with text interfaces. Twenty years ago the internet only had a few hundred web domains. Ten years ago there was no Twitter and both Facebook and Youtube were novel, with MySpace the dominant social network. Five years ago tablet computing devices were not in widespread use and mobile computing was still emerging as a thing.

While agencies may have developed the systems and expertise to navigate today's digital world, this map won't necessarily equip them for the digital world in five, ten or twenty years.

This means agencies need to continue to evolve and innovate, experimenting with new technologies and retesting their assumptions about older digital tools and approaches.

The new normal is evolutionary, not static, with technology increasingly reshaping societies into forms that were not predicted or prepared for.

Technology has already shifted the balance of power between large organisations and individuals, revolutionised manufacturing and medicine, made universal surveillance possible and given every person their own television, radio and newspaper channels.

What comes next - with 3D printing, nano-technology, robotics, self-drive vehicles, personal digital augmentations and more - will continue to challenge governments and societies to redefine what is appropriate and legal.

So keep up the good work using Facebook and Twitter to distribute your messages and to engage your audiences in open conversations. 

But keep an eye on the horizon for what may be ahead.


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