Why isn’t Government adopting social software?

15 01 2008

Just quickly picking up on posts from two people who I hold in regard in the matter of social networking.

From my perspective, which I’ll say right now has little to do with social networking applications, but more to do with enabling change to new concepts within the Federal Government…

I both agree and disagree with my brothers in arms Matthew Hodgson and Stephen Collins.

Now I’ve had little to do with social network software other than my own personal tinkering. What I HAVE had a lot of experience in doing is implementation of new concepts within the Federal Government.

One of my own personal trophies, was within an Australian Federal organisation of about 4,500 people, around 3,800 of them customer service officers. The organisation had no concepts of User Centric considerations from any perspective within the organisation. This extended from how processes were created, policy was developed, software designed and delivered let alone maintained, forms design and documentation development, and sadly even marketing campaigns had a lot to be desired. Fundamentally the organisation was failing to provide quality customer service to both it’s internal workers and it’s clients becaue of it. Everything else was blamed, and the dead cat of poor design was simply ignored as the development process just kept running the same way.

It took several years of very strategic proofs of concept activities, done as pet projects where I could bargain my way in but in the end, the concepts were adopted, and it got change beginning to occur. Eventually a critical mass of people became tuned to the concepts, and that was the catalyst it needed to keep on going under it’s own steam.

The story there is the same in my mind, when it comes to instilling that sort of ‘new technology’ concept within the Federal Government. I’m yet to come across someone in the Government who genuinely doesn’t want to do things better, or to make better products. I have come across many people who have been beaten by the ‘system’ and fallen victim to the “I can’t change things” attitude.

The key point for achieving success in getting new concepts in place really falls to a few things in my experience:

1. Not everyone, in fact most people within Government get caught or have been caught out ‘prematurely’ adopting new technology, and therefore have developed a fear based resistance to anything new. This can be overcome, if you as the instigator of the change, can indeed PROVE that what you are suggesting is of worth of some kind. For government, this must be tangible and measurable, so it can withstand the battering it will get from the accountability police.

2. Proof is not what YOU as the instigator think is a good thing, it’s what THEY as the recipient think is a good thing. Things like social networking do have value, and do have many non or hard to measure benefits. But again, to beat the risk beast, you have to provide evidence that the concepts deliver against THEIR values. Sadly “this is the coolest thing on the web right now and is going to provide amazing networking options” simply doesn’t cut it with the accountants.

3. Return on investment. Government is held accountable for every cent it spends. End of story. Therefore the people involved do in my experience make significant effort to ensure that they spend well. Failure is acceptable, but if the risk of failure is increased due to unmeasurable benefits at the end of the day, you won’t find a buyer.

So how do you get around this stuff?

Well to make a long story short, if you have an idea and want to get it in play;

Firstly, remember you are working in or talking to a large organisation. Change takes time, and is not easy. So be “patient, persistent, and positive while maintaining perseverance”. (Thanks Pat)

Secondly,  figure out what is of value to both the person you are talking to, and the organisation on the whole. Your solution has to map to those values, not yours. If you are finding yourself making up values that align to your solution, you may be doing this the wrong way around.

Thirdly, look for opportunities to demonstrate in a controlled and risk free or contained environment what you are thinking. Pictures speak a thousand words… active prototypes being used by real people speak a heck of a lot more.

Fourthly, and this is critical. Figure out how to measure the performance of the idea both for now and over time, and then actually measure or concept clearly in the right language (in terms of values discussed above). If you cannot measure and justify the value of doing something, it’ll never happen, or it’ll get ridiculed and no one will do it.

It’s never easy, and people in my experience can get short sighted in terms of seeing long term benefits of many things. Years of beatings over ‘cowboy applications’ and ‘poor decisions’ can do that to a person, even me. To get a concept over the line, at least to proof of concept stage (which is about as far as you’ll need to get in many cases) you need to be able to prove it’s value, in the same terms as those you are pitching to.

Hold a positive view of the Government, there are many things that can be done better, but without a doubt, there are many things they could do far far worse too.

Please send hate mail to benwintergilesatgmaildotcom





6 responses

15 01 2008
Stephen Collins

Nice take, Ben. Smart thinking and definitely something that adds to the mix. Softly, softly does tend to work in government. Tightly controlled environments are the cause of damage here – it’s often near-impossible to get sneaky test servers up and working inside the wall unless you are embedded with the IT folks. My current project definitely isn’t and it’s absolutely a barrier to me trying things out.

18 01 2008
Ruth Ellison

Good post, in particularly #2. I’ve worked with Business Analysts and Project Managers who keep mentioning about the “talk being cheap” and “actions speak louder than words” concept. This is a particular problem with UX and social media ‘stuff’ where there are a lot of good speakers in the field, but not a lot of “action”. One of the secrets in Federal Government is lots of small wins to build trust and relationships.

30 04 2008

Good points Ben. One other point – there are too many old baby boomers at the top who are traditionally very cautious in the implementation of anything new. We just need to wait for Gen X and Y managers to come through the system 😉

30 04 2008

Thanks Jessica,

You may in fact be very very right. Perhaps it will be a case of “if you build it, they will come”.

Can we wait?

Do we get to choose?

Influence where we can, wait when we should.

13 10 2008
Man with no Blog » Government 2.0

[…] Ben Winter-Giles points out most Government agencies are just coming to grips with user centric considerations, let […]

4 06 2012
Jayden Waller

In the classroom you will be taught the terminology and concepts that are necessary to be a safe diver.

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