More Blogging in Government | December 8, 2005

A few months ago I had the pleasure of being invited to talk to a group of civil servants on the subject of blogging in government. The talk was part of a larger event that also covered web accessibility, so myself and Tom were only really able to scratch the surface. The day was really fun, and I was surprised how interested people were in the subject. So much so, I was invited back to give an expanded talk, which I gave yesterday.

I do a lot of talking to tech savvy audiences who have already bought into the ideas I’m talking about. So it is a really nice change to talk to a group of people about an idea or concept they know little or nothing about. Most of yesterdays audience fell into that category. Everybody had heard the term “blog” and about 10 percent of the audience visited blogs on a regular basis. A few people even owned up to having a personal blog. However I believe very few people in the audience had considered using blogs as either internal or external communication tools. Demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t find a single central government blog when researching my talk (if you know of one, please let me know).

The talk began with a bit of an overview of blogging. What blogging was, how blogging evolved and the features of a typical weblog. I then discussed the ascendance of blogging from a minority geek pursuit to an important part of the countries media culture.

I talked about how events such as 9/11, the US elections and the war on Iraq had effected the popularity of blogging in the US, and how the recent UK elections and the London tube bombings had done the same in the UK. I mentioned how people were becoming jaded with the mainstream media and increasingly turning to blogs for news, debate and the ability to hear different perspectives and opinions.

I also talked about the motivations behind blogging, and conversely why people read blogs and participate in the blogging community. I even, rather embarrassingly, had a slide titled “the ‘blogsphere’” where I discussed the size and shape of the community. Later I was asked if I knew of any research done on the number of blogs and bloggers. I didn’t, but if anybody knows of some reliable papers, please let me know.

Next, I discussed how government could use internal weblogs. I talked about how weblogs were essentially free (or very cheap), lightweight and disposable content management systems. They were easy to install, and provided search and RSS out of the box.

Many government institutions get fixated on content management systems, both internally and externally. They will run lengthy feasibility studies to work out their requirements then commission a huge, all singing all dancing system that costs a fortune and doesn’t solve the core problem of needing somebody with the necessary skills to manage the content in the first place. I honestly think some organisations think that a CMS will just sit there and manage content on its own. If only that was the case.

Instead of this, I suggested that weblogs were perfect as small, ad-hoc CMS systems. Rather than running a lengthy consultation on the viability of a new Intranet application, you could simply install some blog software and see if your idea was feasible by actually doing it. If your concept failed, you wouldn’t have wasted lots of time and money on expensive software and studies.

I talked about how weblogs were great for internal communication and a way of cutting down the huge weight of email most large companies are drowning in. I suggested that department heads could set up weblogs to communicate with staff members, or committees could use weblogs to post minutes, to-do items and the status of projects.

I also talked about how blogs could be used for internal knowledge management, by encouraging key staff to blog their collective knowledge rather than keeping it locked up. After the presentation one individual told me that his job was basically to monitor newspapers and the media and let people know what was going on via email. This was such a perfect example of how an internal weblog could be used. Rather than emailing the information, you could blog about it, and anybody who was interested could subscribe to the feed. What’s more, all this information would now be searchable.

Next, I talked about the benefits of blogging to management, and how staff blogs could help managers know what was going on in their organisation. Conversely, it would also let staff know what their manager was doing. After the talk another person said that it would be fantastic if their manager had a blog because their staff never knew where they were or what they were doing.

However the thing I was most interested in was how governments could use external blogs to connect with the people they served. An external blog could really help demystify the workings of government, while at the same time creating a sense of empathy and trust. For the ministers and departments themselves, a blog would be a great way of getting important information out to the public, unfettered by the media. If blogging became popular, editors and journalists would subscribe to government blogs so it would be a great way of getting information out to the media as well.

I can’t see it happening any time soon, but how cool would it be if the Prime Minister had a blog? You could subscribe to his RSS feed and it would really give you a window into his life. I even joked that other country leaders could subscribe to each others feeds to know what the other person was doing. How great would that be for international détente?

I finished up by discussing how government institutions should handle staff that blogged. I said that their staff would blog whether they liked it or not, and being draconian about things would just send bloggers underground. As such, I said the best option was to create a fair weblog policy that let staff know where they stood.

After I’d finished, I had quite a few people come up to talk to me about how their departments could use blogs, both internally and externally. It seemed that their was definite interest in blogging amongst the audience and it would be great if the UK government became the first to really make use of social software such as blogs. And it would be even better if the UK had the first blogging Prime Minister. I’d add that to my RSS feed. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, if you are interested in my presentation, you can download my presentation notes as a PDF.

Posted at December 8, 2005 5:31 PM

Comments

Northshore said on December 8, 2005 7:41 PM

Well you may - or may not - be interested to see that Chester City Council has made the step towards creating 60 blogs for their councillors - first 5 or so have been rolled out - councillorblogs - part of a wider Chester Blogs initiative. A lot of other councils have picked up and are very interested in the idea…

http://www.chesterblogs.co.uk

Dominic Mitchell said on December 8, 2005 8:12 PM

Dave Sifry at Technorati has good updates about how big the blgosphere is. Look for his State of the Blogosphere posts.

Nathan Smith said on December 8, 2005 8:54 PM

That’s a really insightful suggestion. While I do know of those in governmental jobs that have their own blogs, I couldn’t find a blog specifically for usage in gov’t communication. Off-topic: I “pre-ordered” your book, looking forward to it.

Geert Leyseele said on December 9, 2005 9:23 AM

Our Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has an RSS feed on his page and he does a weekly podcast too. There are some ministers that have a weblog already in Belgium like Bert Anciaux for example. He writes about personal impressions but it is in Dutch of course. There are other that have a blog too.

Small Paul said on December 9, 2005 10:40 AM

The American president does, or used to do, a weekly radio address to the nation, right? A Prime Ministerial blog could be a bit like that.

Can’t imagine Alistair Campbell, and the like, giving a PM free reign on Wordpress.

Egor Kloos said on December 9, 2005 11:13 AM

Yeah, the Netherlands is rife with blogging politicians. Blogging is really big in the Netherlands and it’s the commercial institutions that are lagging behind. With nearly 80% of the Dutch population on broadband and even more hooked up with instant messaging blogging has become a natural part of the mix due to the high rate of communication amongst users.

Andy Budd said on December 9, 2005 3:22 PM

The UK also has lots of blogging politicians. However the law in the UK means that their must be a clear separation between government and party politics.

If a Minister had an official Government blog, they wouldn’t be allowed to talk about Labour party policy or party politics. In fact they are not really supposed to do anything that could be considered self promotional at all. Otherwise it would look as though the Government was favoring one party over another.

This makes things a little difficult, especially as the reason may politicians would want a blog is to promote their party, political career and essentially help them get reelected.

That being said, I do think it is possible and think gov blogging would help people reconnect with government.

Thanks for the heads up Geert on the Belgium PM. I’l have to check that page out. If anybody knows of any other government blogs, please let me know.

I believe the US President used to have a blog on the Whitehouse site, although it was actually run by his press secretary. However it seems to have transformed more into a regular news feed along with clipping of his speeches.

Sorry to any of my American readers for the next inane comment but …

I guess reading about him struggling to find waldo got a little bit boring.

Nick Toye said on December 9, 2005 5:10 PM

I’m from Chester and I never knew about this blog, I may have to see what is being said, I certainly have a few things to say to the councillors of Chester.

I believe though that government blogs would read like a broadsheet. The usual spin, the reading what they want you to read, same fiction that we get now.

I don’t think the governments are ready for such a public blog. Internal blogs could also cause problems and become a dangerous tool if it ever got compromised.

Tom Simcox said on December 10, 2005 1:47 PM

Congratulations on an extemeley well delivered presentation which left me with a great deal of food for thought - not least - how on earth can I convince the people where I work that blogging is a tool we could and should be using?

Unfortunately it is often the same old story when it comes to infiltrating government with new ideas and ways of working, particularly when IT is involved. People at the top are wary of adopting something without massive tendering and feasibility exercises. Unfortunately the press is full of examples of failing government IT projects and systems so it does open up the debate as to whether this approach really works in the first place. Oh how cynical I have become in 18 months!

There are also problems with external IT contractors and suppliers restricting the amount of freedom you have to “do you own thing” and to innovate.

This aside I do intend to push for the use of blogging within my Government Department. No doubt this will involve much jumping through hoops but I do agree with what was said at the talk, that it is often best to start small, at the bottom of the ladder with the people who are most enthusiastic and capable of making blogging work. As it becomes popular, morale increases and email usage shrinks, management will see the benefits of they themselves blogging and so it goes on until you have the head of Department blogging. Or that’s the theory anyway.

Mark said on December 21, 2005 3:46 PM

Andy,

I know the Cabinet office IT department uses Lotus Notes & Domino allot.

Maybe you should get Jake Howlett to have a word ;-)

Julie - U.S. Federal employee said on January 26, 2006 8:49 PM

Your article is very encouraging. I am convinced that blogs can offer a much more robust, effective, and efficient dialogue than some traditional communication mediums, especially in the governmental arena. Of course, there is a time and place for blogs…..and time will tell the most appropriate applications.

My colleague, who is fellow federal employee in the United States, has been trying to promote blogs as a useful internal and external communication tool for our federal government agency. I encourage Andy Budd and others to take a peek at some of my colleague’s blogs to get a sense of how one U.S. federal employee is trying to promote a newer communication tool in a federal agency – all in an unofficial capacity. Though his blogs are posted via commercial blog sites, they are intended for use by federal employees and the public. I am sure he would appreciate your feedback on this issue.

Thanks.

http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/

http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/ems/

http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/am/