The Inaugural Social Media in Government Conference

Yesterday I spoke at the inaugural Social Media in Government Conference here in Canberra. It was great to have the chance to talk about the ACT Government's world first (well we think it is the world first anyway!) Twitter Cabinet and where we are planning to go in the future.

Below is my speech, please feel free to comment with your ideas on ways we can continue to be innovative in the way we engage with our local community (and sometimes not so local but interested others)

Social Media in Government

Conversations with the community have always been essential to democratic political processes. In fact, without conversation, no system of government could genuinely qualify as a democracy.

Through history, technology has transformed our ability to conduct those conversations. The printing press is an obvious example. The railway is another, giving politicians the ability to cover great distances in a day, addressing local crowds from the open platform of an observation car before continuing to the next town and the next rally.

Later technologies such as radio and television have made it possible to reach even more people, even more easily.

But while each of these inventions has allowed governments to reach their communities more cheaply, more quickly, and in greater numbers, each has also carried with it the risk of conversation becoming a one-way process.

In some cases, government agencies focus so much on ‘getting information out there’ – letterboxing households, making presentations at public meetings, putting paid advertisements in the media – that they cannot understand when the community rises up and insists that it has not been consulted about a particular issue.

In other cases, even when agencies have consciously sought the public’s views and ideas, and then factored those views and ideas into decisions, they’ve been bad at closing the loop – at telling people how their views were incorporated. From there it’s an easy step for the public to suspect that the consultation has been a sham.

In 2008, the ACT Government’s Chief Minister and Cabinet Directorate developed a Citizen Centred Governance paper setting a platform for effective two-way communication between the community and government. The OECD notes that “Highly educated, well-informed citizens expect government to take their views and knowledge into account when making decision”. The Canberra community is generally well educated, has a higher wage earning capacity than our interstate counterparts and an expectation to be involved in the governance of the place in which they live and work.

So, how can social media help governments – not just politicians, but agencies, departments, directorates and statutory authorities – better engage the community in decision-making?

I think social media is one tool for re-starting a proper two-way dialogue between governments and the communities they serve, but for some of us at least, it will mean re-learning the skill of conversing.

Even Twitter and real-time blogging, which carry such obvious potential for ‘virtual face-to-face conversation between politicians and members of the community, depend on us all re-learning the skill of conversing.

We shouldn’t imagine that just because we are using social media, we are automatically having a genuine, productive conversation, or genuinely engaging the community.

Earlier this year my Government decided to conduct a virtual Cabinet meeting, using the medium of Twitter. We’ve now conducted three of these hour-long Twitter Cabinets, experimenting with the timing, to capture different groups, and I think that with each one, we learn how to do it better.

The basic idea is that Ministers gather in the Cabinet room and collectively engage with tweets sent to the #ACTVCC hashtag. The events are advertised in the conventional media, with posters and postcards distributed in Government shopfronts, bars and cafes, and online through Twitter.

Ministers are networked and have an overhead display, so we can watch the tweets coming in, discuss them and reply to as many as possible in real-time.

We follow up afterwards, to make sure that nothing has been missed, and increasingly, the conversations begun during the session are continued afterwards.

Around 200 people participated in the first Twitter Cabinet held in July this year, with 450 tweets sent and received over the hour long event.

Subjects raised included: light rail, speed limits, bus routes, development of the iPhone app, roadworks, health services, affordable housing, local shopping centres and facilities in Gungahlin.

We’ve since hosted two subsequent Twitter Cabinets, experimenting with an evening event on 30 August and more recently another day-time one on the 28 November. These were more focused on themes. The theme of the August one was “Community Engagement: Does Twitter Work?” and the November one was “2013 and beyond, the Canberra you’d like to see”.

There were 93 participants and 378 tweets in August and 84 participants and 384 tweets in November, with a continuing focus on Transport, Health and Open government issues.

Having fewer unique users in the subsequent Twitter Cabinets wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, what we saw emerging during the most recent Twitter Cabinet were real, to-and-fro conversations between Ministers and constituents. This is what Twitter Cabinet has the potential to generate: real-time, meaningful engagement. Engagement about ideas and the development of a better understanding of what the people of Canberra want to see happen in their city.

The November Twitter Cabinet in particular generated creative ideas about Canberra’s future, including ideas around festivals, transport, planning, environment and sustainability, health and education. A suggestion was made that the next Twitter Cabinet might be specifically focused on Canberra’s school children, an idea that we will definitely explore.

For future Twitter Cabinets we are also looking at ways to engage a broader cross-section of the community, including those without access to a computer or mobile phone.

We are looking at possibly booking out banks of computers in public libraries for use during the allocated time, with staff on hand to teach newcomers how to set up a Twitter account, use hashtags and direct comments to the relevant minister.

These meetings are still very much ‘experimental’ – in fact, I believe we may even be the first government in the world to attempt a Twitter Cabinet. But even at this early stage, Ministers are starting to get used to the idea that this isn’t just about members of the public asking a question, or making a complaint, and getting an instant answer, instant resolution.

That’s not how real conversations develop in life outside politics. Often, in real conversation, a question isn’t answered at all, but is responded to with another question.

It can be surprisingly challenging for a politician who just wants to ‘fix things’ for a constituent, to embark on a conversation that is more open-ended.

But if you are serious about Open Government – as I am, and as my Government is – it’s a challenge that just has to be embraced. All the evidence shows that when genuine two-way interaction is embraced, we get better outcomes: better policies, better services, stronger communities.

Genuine two-way conversation is one of the most crucial elements of Open Government.

The others are greater transparency around government information and government processes, and greater collaboration between governments, citizens, community groups and non-government organisations.

I’m working in each of these areas to implement change. For example, we are releasing government datasets, posting FOI documents online and posting online summaries of Cabinet decisions – all of these are firsts for the ACT.

We’re also using the Internet and Gov 2.0 to encourage participation in government policy-making and decision-making by a broader cross-section of the community – including people who can’t realistically get to public meetings.

All of this work builds upon a major exercise we undertook in 2010 – Canberra 2030 – Time to Talk. Over a period of three months in 2010 the Government hosted 27 events – face-to-face, and online – designed to give Canberrans a chance to debate what Canberra could and should look like in 2030 – and how to get there.

The interactive website we set up for that community-wide consultation has continued, and is now a permanent online forum.

Add to this mix Facebook, personal Twitter accounts, and official and personal websites, as well as a long-running Chief Minister talkback program on the local ABC radio station, and now a similar event on commercial radio, and I think our small ACT Cabinet of five Ministers is pretty active in its efforts to generate a conversation with our community.

It doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped talking to the community in more traditional ways: face to face, by post, through the mass media, through community Cabinet meetings out in the suburbs, or even in the aisle at the supermarket. We still do all of that. The social media is another layer, another option for engagement, and we are still playing around with the format. For example, it could be that a hybrid real-time online discussion forum with both Twitter and Facebook feeds could work.

I think it is important to recognise that while social media can be a powerful tool, it is just that – a communications tool. It is not, at least as yet, a strategy of itself. It complements our offline or traditional media strategy. It is another means of reaching, communicating and collaborating with the community. Traditional media remains a key way of disseminating our message.

And while the use of social media continues to grow rapidly, the popularity of individual social media tools has varied which also complicates any social media strategy. Which tools are here to stay and which will be fads? Remember MySpace? Most of us have probably moved on to other tools such as Facebook so while social media is undoubtedly here to stay, the tools of the trade may change and we will need to keep pace. This does add to the challenge of developing a measurable and effective social media strategy.

Having said that a recent study by Monash University found that MySpace was still the second most popular site for year 7 to 10 students in Australia, while Twitter barely rates a mention in this demographic so there is no one size fits all approach – as a Government we have to engage with a whole range of communications tools in order to effectively communicate with our constituents.

The other challenge as I’ve just touched on is measuring success. In the world of social media, how effective are these new online tools? Although there are ways of measuring social media reach, how do you measure whether you are being heard? We can look at how many hits our blog has received, how many ‘likes’ or ‘friends’ we have on Facebook, the number of followers or retweets on Twitter, perhaps even the conversation it has generated, but this still requires a significant amount of human resources to examine the metrics and do the analysis.

From my observations it also seems that it is easier to generate a large following for a stand alone event or one single big or controversial issue, even something humorous, than it is to generate interest in the day-to-day operations of government. Whether that says something about the tools or society’s engagement with politics is a question for another day.

Having said that, measuring success isn’t always easy with traditional media channels either. Yes we have circulation and estimated readership figures for newspapers and magazines, online we can see what debate an issue or idea has prompted, and we can get audience figures for radio and television, but again, it isn’t always easy to determine whether the message is being heard and determine whether we are getting runs on the board.

So where does this leave us? Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, linked in, blogging, MySpace – these are all tools that we are excited to be using and exploring as a Government even though we are still working out the optimal ways of using these tools.

The Government is also looking at innovations like on-line petitions and more in-depth extended community panel forums, where a registered group of citizens interested in a particular area of Government can collaborate on-line, with the benefit of background and reference materials, to produce suggestions for consideration by Cabinet.

It is a very exciting time to be working in government and looking at new ways to engage with our community. We should view developments in social media as opportunities to improve our processes and systems to ensure we are constantly seeking to engage more people in discussions and debates about our city’s future.

Thankyou and I’m happy to take questions.