Targeting for open government

In building open government services, we often focus on work that delivers fantastic value to the public. But what comes before that? We need to decide who we’re talking to. How we’re doing it. Why we’re doing it. What our expectations are.

The slides below accompany my talk at the Social Media in Government conference in Canberra on 13-14 December 2011. The text below the slides is the “official” version, but is unlikely to resemble the talk as delivered.

For the past 15 months, I’ve been working with a small government organisation with the most forgettable name, but perhaps one of the most interesting missions of any organisation with a .gov.au domain name.

It’s mission, as stated, is to “improve Australia’s effectiveness in civil-military collaboration for conflict and disaster management overseas”.

The Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence is a multi-agency collection of people seconded from the uniformed military, civilian Department of Defence, DFAT, AusAID, Attorney-General’s and Emergency Management Australia, the Australian Federal Police and the NGO sector. The Deputy Director is a secondee from the New Zealand Government.

It’s a fairly top-heavy organisation. Everyone there is an expert of significant standing in their area of expertise, from the former AFP representative to Afghanistan, an Ambassador or Deputy Head of Mission in several countries, experts on international relations, women in conflict, disaster management, and their just retired Executive Director, Mike Smith, who was a senior General in East Timor and former CEO of Austcare Australia (now ActionAID).

On any given day, the Centre can be delivering training to the civilian, police or military staff bound for overseas peacekeeping or disaster recovery deployments, conducting and funding research into strategic policy on civilian-police-military collaboration in conflict and disaster zones or hosting Ambassadors, inter-governmental delegations, senior UN and 3rd sector staff on visits to their salubrious Queanbeyan headquarters.

These people are great at working with each other when deployed and living in demountables in Oruzgan or sub-Saharan Africa, and they’re great at getting together in formal situations such as conferences and high-level meetings – and believe me, these people live for that stuff. What they’re not so good at, and what they pretty much had no idea about when I got there a year ago was open government.

These people are used to dealing in the Chatham House Rule. In diplomatic negotiation. In strategic talks. In their every day work.

And, for that reason, they weren’t good at getting the message out. My mission, in my time at the Centre, has been as part of a two person strategic communications team, to focus on online communications, on stakeholder outreach, on knowledge sharing and on bringing these people slowly and gently into a world where open government and 21st Century communications exists.

Let’s say from the start, this hasn’t been easy. And there’s a long way to go.

So, to set the scene… when I arrived at the Centre, not including me (I’m a little different to the norm) there were, from a 35 person staff:

  • two Twitter accounts
  • four Facebook accounts
  • five people on LinkedIn
  • no Flickr users

Today, it’s a little bit different. There are a few more Twitter users, several more on Facebook and so on. But these people are so busy with their regular workload it’s unreasonable to expect them to be rapid adopters of social tools for their day-to-day work. That stuff just doesn’t fit in with their regular way of operating, and it’s unreasonable (no matter how much the Chief of Staff, the Strat Comms Manager and I want it to be different) to expect otherwise.

So, in a place like this, where getting the message out about what you do and why it’s important is your key task, what do you do? Especially if you’re the only resource with the necessary knowledge and skills?

At the Centre, we took a look at a number of elements:

  • What is the overarching strategic communications goal for the Centre? Who do we need to influence? How? And why?
  • Where are we already achieving those goals? Where are the gaps?
  • Who might we be missing? Who were the “known unknowns”?

What this all led to were a number of short and long term goals, tied into the Centre’s strategic communications plan, that had open government elements attached to them. I have strong management support, all the way to the top of the Centre, and, even though we belong to the otherwise conservative VCDF Group within the Department of Defence, and we need to manage that relationship carefully, there is support there as well.

So, what did we do at the Centre to make open government and social media a part of how the Centre does business? We did a number of things:

  • we reserved Centre identities on a number of social networks
  • we wrote a short, clear, staff social media guidance and had it approved by VCDF and the Minister for Defence
  • we began using Twitter to put out notices about things the Centre was doing and also use Facebook to supplement those messages
  • we started doing project management using Basecamp, allowing us to track project activities and to bring in the frequent external collaborators we work with
  • we redeveloped what was a pretty terrible web site into something more flexible, rebuilding using WordPress. We’re still the only Defence-based organisation with a blog that allows open comments
  • we made a deliberate decision that all future publications released by the Centre would be licensed CC-BY. We’re also publishing all papers produced by Centre staff and our funded researchers online as HTML and PDF on our site as well as on SlideShare
  • we started posting Centre imagery to Flickr. Sure, it’s mostly people at meetings in suits, but it’s a record worth having
  • we started a YouTube channel off the back of our major event last year. It now includes video interviews with a number of leading authorities on civil-military interaction and will shortly be getting several new additions
  • we refreshed the Centre’s newsletter, formerly an email-attached PDF to a couple of hundred people, to be a Campaign Monitor driven email newsletter to over 1000 opt-in subscribers. It largely directs readers to full length content on our site, but also includes newsletter-only content to keep people interested

Now, none of this is terribly different to anything many organisations have done. However, I like to think we’ve done one thing a little differently, and that’s audience targeting.

The Centre has a fairly small, highly specialised audience. It’s mostly very senior people. They’re often not terribly familiar with open government or social tools. They work all over the world and usually have on the ground, “dirty boots” experience. They work for the UN, the African Union, or 3rd sector organisations like the ICRC, or Australian Government agencies, or one of the several near-equivalents to the Centre based in other countries such as the UK Government’s Stabilisation Task Force, Sweden’s Folke Bernadotte Academy, Canada’s START or the US’s Centre for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs.

We also have a growing group of people interested in our work from the academic sector, especially the security and defence colleges, and from policy and security think-tanks like the Lowy Institute.

We decided pretty early on that these were the people we most needed to focus on in our open government and strategic communications efforts. Unlike a lot of the open government case studies about public-facing efforts we see at the gazillion conferences that now cover the subject, the decision to focus on “people like us” has paid real dividends.

We’re measuring as much as we can as efficiently as we can (and it needs some improvement, no question) but here’s what we’ve noticed (qualifying all this with the fact that our audience is small and highly focussed):

  • our web site receives more than twice the traffic the old site did. We don’t get too many comments yet, but as with everything, it’s a work in progress
  • we have several people who now chat to us on Twitter and Facebook (and we chat back)
  • we’ve improved awareness of our work with all our “parent” stakeholders with Australian Government and with those stakeholders elsewhere who care about our subject matter
  • we’ve begun to pay attention to a raft of new and emergent activity in the civil-military sector that wasn’t even on the radar before we began looking online. In particular, the capacity for online volunteer communities and social media to be a part of the conflict and disaster management first response is an emergent and growing part of the work the Centre is looking at

We’re still not quite a year in to our open government efforts. We have a very long way to go to be anywhere near where I think we could and should be. But, for an organisation that had no idea what was possible a year ago, the fact that we’re doing all this is a big step. Not to mention (and I haven’t mentioned this before now) that we now have a deployed and richly developing wiki-based social intranet that all staff are using.

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