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



Enterprise Human Factors…001

13 11 2007

There’s a lot of talk I come across from some very very clever people in the UX, UCD, BA, WebTech spaces that revolves around doing user centred work.

Including user centred work and themes during the software delivery lifecycle (SDLC) is a great thing. I’ve been involved in many key works doing exactly that, right from being the designer, to being the antagonist pushing to get the concepts in place. It’s all good stuff really, getting user research down as being a standard part of the process for developing software, getting rapid prototyping in all its forms in to the way of life, was and still is a great way to spend the day.

But am I really fixing anything? is the source of the problem resolved?

In some ways, while designing the software to help the users is fixing one problem, being that the solution provided at the end of the day is usable, easy to work with, likable even…. is the task that it has to perform sharing those traits?

Lets look at the eTax system from the ATO. The software itself is designed relatively well, not how I would do it, but well enough. Admittedly they have a hard ask posed to them, no one likes doing their tax, they just want to get the cheque at the end of the day. Well I do anyway.

The ATO software is designed relatively well, it’s easy to use (ish) and relatively well positioned in terms of providing good support to novices. Plus I know from personal experience, the ATO invests heavily into it’s user centred design concepts and work, and they have truely top class people on board doing the work.

But, are they addressing this one:

“Are human factors considerations implicated across all facets of our business?”

When policy is created, is the real world impact of the decisions being made at that crucial point in time being considered? What will happen to the Australian public if we generate just one more form for them to fill in? Are we generating a cost for the public through the generation of that form? What is the cost to the public of filling in that form, and is that something that the ATO needs to consider?

Small companies / organisations have less of this issue, but let’s look at this one.

Say there is a reporting requirement for all Australian Residents to fill in a simple 20 data element form, which confirms their postal address. This form conceivably could take no more than 3 minutes to fill in, lick the envelope and put in in your bag to go to the post office tomorrow.

Now for the unseen overhead:

– two minutes to read the envelope, swear about having to fill in another form, find pen and load the requirements of the form into the brain.

– three minutes to fill it in, pack it for posting and whack it in your bag.

– 10 minutes to locate a post office box, post it, and recover from your detour on your way to work or way home.

So the total spend is 15 minutes to do all of that.

Spread that across all mature adults in Australia (i.e. over 18) 15,917,876 X 15 minutes = 3,979,519 Hours spent across Australia.

Now imagine if that were to be paid back at the minimum average hourly rate of Australia, being $12.42/hour.


OK, so that little calculation is rough as guts, but the point being that with large organisations / enterprises, small changes can have large ripples across their user groups. In the ATO’s case, all of Australia.

I’ll say at this point, ATO are keenly aware of this fact, and go to great lengths to limit this kind of effect occurring.

Large enterprises can take that concept of careful consideration of the user base to form not only support or rationale for doing or not doing something, but even for discovering what activities they should be undertaking to meet the needs of the communities they serve (or wish to serve).

The concepts behind benefits profiling being the keystone for delivering an organisations plan can and perhaps even should be created in part through considerations of the humans who will be affected by the desired benefits.

In software development, humans are intertwined into the design and indeed the final output. These concepts can be applied to an entire organisation, how it operates, what benefit it delivers, how it measures success, and how it supports itself into the future.

Perhaps if organisations adopted some of the human centric concepts that occur at the implementation layer of an enterprise, they may be able to significantly improve their success and ease of operation.

Remember consideration is not about constraining change, it’s about optimising and embracing that change.

Thanks to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the numbers.