7 September 2005
Tech Culture

Blogging in Government

Today I had the pleasure of giving a talk to members of the governments e-communications network, part of the larger Government Communication Network. In the first of a series of events, the group invited a number of people from the web design community to discuss the subjects of accessibility and blogging. Along with Joe Clark, Alastair Campbell, Patrick Lauke and Tom Coates, I was given the honour of being asked to speak.

I headed up to London this morning and met up with Tom in Starbucks to go through our slides. Joe, Patrick and Alastair were talking about web accessibility, while myself and Tom were discussing how blogging could be used in government. We had divided our subjects evenly, with me talking about the history and culture of weblogging, as well as possible internal application, and Tom discussing external applications and how to handle staff with blogs.

After running though our notes and realising we had far too much material, we wandered through Westminster and met up with the other speakers. First up were Joe, Alastair and Patrick on the accessibility panel. Joe gave an excellent introduction to the topic of web accessibility, focussing heavily on the use of standards complaint code. Alastair then talked about the WCAG and touched on content management systems. Lastly Patrick discussed how organisations needed to see accessibility in terms of people as opposed to simply another series of checkpoint and guidelines to meet.

There was some lively discussion afterward, particularly on the subject of accessible content management systems. One of the audience members was currently trying to procure an off the shelf CMS and none of the vendors were able to provide one that met the double-A standard. Tom quite rightly pointed out that there is a huge market for good, accessible and standards based CMS systems out there.

We broke for a brief buffet lunch and a chance to chat with some of the attendees. After a suitable break we reconvened with mine and Toms' part of the presentation. Our topic was on blogging and how it could be used in government. I started off by canvassing the audience about their knowledge and experience of blogs. Most people knew what a blog was and about half said that they read blogs on a regular basis. Unlike most conferences I attend, only three people in the audience actually had a personal blog and none used a blog for work. When asked if anybody knew of any governmental blogs, only one person did, and apparently that blog got abandoned after only a couple of weeks due to lack of time and commitment from the author.

I began by discussing what blogs were, how they came about and how they were currently being used and perceived by people and organisations. I then discussed how blogs could be used internally as a communication tool, a way of knowledge sharing and a project management platform. I ended on some of the institutional issues that large organisations face when trying to use blogs such as relaxing the inherent control culture.

Tom then picked up where I left off, discussing how blogging culture was impacting the world and how you were either part of the conversation on not. Tom discussed how blogs could be used just for their technical abilities such as using RSS for press releases or for more B2B style communications. However the main benefit of governmental weblogging was the ability to communicate directly with the community, bypassing both internal and news based editorial control. Tom talked about how governmental weblogs could give a human face to often monolithic organisations and mentioned how Robert Scoble had helped change the public perception of Microsoft. Tom wrapped up by discussing how large organisations should treat the personal weblogs of staff. Tom suggested that rather than taking a draconian standpoint, organisations should have clear usage policies in place and treat staff weblogs like any other public conversation.

The post talk discussion was very interesting and ranged from questions about possible internal applications through to comments about the cultural barriers within government that could possibly inhibit the use of external weblogs, such as editorial control or legal accountability. I think people were genuinely interested and enthused by the idea of governmental weblogs, especially for internal communication management. I personally don't expect to see a rush of publicly facing weblogs in the near future for organisational culture reasons. However I do think the seed has been planted and as the internal culture starts to change over the next few years I see the potential for some very interesting and useful weblogs to develop.

[Updated] I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about blogging in government? Do you think it is a good idea and if so, how would you utilise it? What do you think the benefits are and also what are the pitfalls? Is your government beginning to utilise blogs, and if so, are they doing a good job?