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The year of living (slightly) dangerously

Kingsgate House

(Image: Google Street View, DIUS Kingsgate House, London)

This week marked a year since I joined DIUS as the first permanent member of staff working exclusively on social media, and roughly a year or so since Justin’s pioneering social media strategy started to take shape.

It’s been a fantastic year. From being a ‘Team Leader’ of a one person team, having merged with another team and picked up some great talents along the way, we’re now briefly a team of eight (give or take). Growth isn’t everything, but it means we can do more interesting things, more quickly, across a wider swathe of policy areas, and is hopefully a good sign.

Some of the highlights of this last year for me:

Exploring what we can do with consultation: The work Michelle did on the Innovation Nation white paper supported by a Commentpress site taught us a lot about the potential for niche engagement, and we’re taking the learnings from the ups and downs of Science and Society and the HE Debate into future projects which challenge the old slap-a-PDF-on-the-website, 12-week approach.

Maintaining a JFDI attitude: I’m proud that we’ve overcome the treacle of well-meaning bureaucracy and delivered quite so many projects – some relatively successful, others undoubtedly flops – whilst remaining on good terms with IT, finance, comms and policy. We’ve taken measured risks… and the sky didn’t fall on our heads. Yet. Best of all, we’ve given courage to a few others to do some of the same, only better.

Taking the broad view of engagement: Though based in Comms as most digital teams are, we’ve consistently argued that digital engagement has a wider role, from customer insight and consultation through to marketing and press – the Mature Students project in partnership with The Student Room is perhaps the most lovely illustration.

Open sourcing our stuff: A key plank of Justin’s strategy was open innovation through sharing of our tools and experiences – I’m pleased with just what shameless cross-government networkers we’ve become, and the open sourcing of Commentariat and Bookmarklist which seem to be helping others already.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy, of course. Some days, I feel like we’ve done little more than waste time, money or – even worse – opportunity. We certainly haven’t embedded digital engagement in everyday thinking yet. When push comes to shove, many apparent enthusiasts are still sceptics at heart. We still haven’t nailed some of the basics like evaluation, the business case or routinely procuring the right kind of suppliers (with some honourable exceptions, of course). And we’re still very much feeling our way as a combined online/offline engagement team. Three months into 2009, we still need to work harder to support pioneers within the organisation to stand any chance of scaling up the impact of our work.

As I’ve posted over on Emma’s blog, the lessons of the last year have taught us:

  1. Interactive websites need interactive organisations. Don’t embark on digital engagement projects without recognition from all involved that they need to actively engage with feedback – and then do something with the outputs.
  2. Focus on the content, not the platform. Don’t get too hung up on the tool, or even online as a whole. People engage with issues, so try and bring those to life and don’t let the medium become the message.
  3. Find and support the pioneers and champions. There is enormous latent enthusiasm and goodwill towards digital engagement within big organisations – find these people, get them the permission they need, and support them to do digital engagement for themselves. (Though self-evident, I’ve found this one tough to put into practice.)
  4. Be honest about scope and boundaries. Find out up front what is up for discussion, and what’s been decided. You’ll defuse arguments and minimise hostility if you’re open about identity, remit and agendas.
  5. Protect information that needs to be protected. Manage the risks of digital engagement – not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of how the tools are used, data storage and archiving.
  6. Integrate with other partners and channels. Combine things: be nervous if a project is based on a single platform or organisation. Build it and they won’t necessarily come. Be smart about your online PR.
  7. Make it enjoyable and interesting for your different audiences. Policy discussions work at different levels: facilitate a credible, interesting discussion for the experts, but also something more accessible and – dammit – fun for public/younger groups. And we’re generally not the best people to decide what constitutes ‘fun’.
  8. Enable remixing & co-design: ask who can help us do this? Providing open data lets other people do what we can’t yet imagine, or with a frankness we simply can’t say ourselves.
  9. Enhance progressively: build from inclusive and accessible base of information. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t a tickbox, and it isn’t pass/fail either. Choose social media platforms wisely but pragmatically, on the basis of publishing core information which is multimodal, customisable and platform-neutral.
  10. Evaluate intelligently and share openly. Write down what you’re trying to achieve, work out if you achieved it, and tell people what your learned.

Thanks to everyone who has helped us on our way so far: you know who you are. Here’s to Year Two.

11 Comments

  1. Steph – just doing some digging around and came across your blog. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the last year and it’s gone well for you. You’ll be pleased to know we’re just starting Phase 3 of Information Prescriptions, and all the research you did for it initially is still really relevant. Hope sunny SE London is working out well for you and the family. Hopefully our paths will cross soon 🙂

  2. Nice post, Steph. I’d say that in a year you’ve achieved an unprecedented amount – providing tools for others to re-use, proving the case for JFDI with successful engagement exercises, and pretty much showing the rest of us what can and should be done.

    But I also take your point on the more to be done. Light touch/swift procurement, embedding this activity into the culture, and efficient and credible evaluation are the three biggest challenges now. And that feels like a big job, even for eight people.

  3. Possible number 11? Figure out what you don’t know and either find someone to fill the gaps or get down to some studying.

  4. I was really impressed by the transparency of this. Others would be well-placed to watch and learn.

    As budgets get squeezed, as they will, the need for provable results is only going one way. Motto: Be a Boy Scout and be prepared.

    This comment was originally posted on DavePress

  5. I’m wary of people using the London Summit as a role model, though. Too big, too global.

    I’ve never felt comfortable with short term, fixed term projects like this. The examples of true ‘engagement’ which I’ve experienced have been when people open themselves up to the wider world, not for one specific day, but as an integral part of their work and/or life.

    Let’s think about the word ‘engagement’. When two lovers get engaged, they aren’t doing so – in theory, at least! – just to organise a large one-off event, namely the wedding. It’s the first step in a much longer process leading to ’til death us do part’.

    This comment was originally posted on DavePress

  6. Must – get – evaluation – post – written…

    Re: business case – it may be just a point of terminology, but I see the basic task of project definition (what it is you’re doing, why, how, with what and to whom) as slightly separate from the business case which to me is about having an evidence base for a justification why the project will achieve its aims, based on prior examples. Maybe I just have rather high hopes for my business cases.

    @Simon: Agreed, it’s an unusual example. But it’s not the success or otherwise of the engagement so much that I find really positive, but the fact that it had clearly defined goals, some proper welly behind it and is being thoroughly evaluated – at least partially in public. Sure, we’ve seen evaluations like the Hansard Society’s Digital Dialogues before but defining, implementing and evaluating your own digital engagement is still unusual and rather impressive.

    This comment was originally posted on DavePress

  7. Thanks for pointing this out Mr Briggs. I’ve forwarded on to the team. It’s very interesting to see some of the info around big events and how different departments are measuring their success .

    This comment was originally posted on DavePress

  8. There appears to be several things being discussed here.

    1) Evaluation of online activity (website around the G20 summit & online consultation etc); and
    2) Digital engagement which is about open and transparent government practice that begins with a conversation and builds into a meaningful ongoing relationship.

    The type of evaluation metrics needed for these two distinct activities are very different. It becomes a question of volume versus quality of interaction (in it’s most basic form).

    At the moment there are plenty of guides and frameworks that outline how to evaluate consultation and engagement activities. However, there isn’t anything that outlines how integrated (on-&-offline) approaches are measured nor how relationships are maintained and built over time.

    Steph’s and Stephen’s work are great starting points but as Simon quite rightly points out we need to move away from one-off events/projects that engage citizens and move towards involving citizens in the policy/decision making process. This, of course, would require a different set of metrics.

    In terms of a common framework it is difficult to achieve. When I was working @ DIUS with Steph (hi!) I invited people to contribute to an evaluation framework but only a couple of people responded – probably because it’s an emerging area.

    This comment was originally posted on DavePress

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  • The importance of evaluation | DavePress April 22, 2009

    […] this ties in with Steph’s recent (and overly-modest) post about the achievements of the engagement bods at DIUS over the last year or so. He wrote: We still […]