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Online engagement

2009 July 27
by Martin Stewart-Weeks

Web 2.0 enables and accelerates the transition to a more connected world in which open, user-centred and self-organising networks create value, including public value. That’s the Web 2.0 proposition with which millions of people and thousands of organisations around the world are busy experimenting to see just exactly what kinds of value they can get from these new ways of organizing.

As governments and the public sector start to do the same, they will encounter the same challenge as others have, which is that these new tools don’t just change structures and processes, they change behaviour as well. In order to thrive in this kind of world – connected, contingent, collaborative – you have to adopt a certain set of behaviours that are similarly open, interactive and engaged. The obvious conclusion is simple, but demanding – no change without culture shift.

This is the big challenge underlying the ability for governments to make the most of this new way of working and these new tools for democratic conversation. If they want to use them to improve the design of public services, to empower citizens to use information to create new services themselves or to harness more powerful combinations of knowledge and expertise for better policy, then they have to embrace the consequent shift of culture and behaviour too.

As it turns out, this is much harder than it sounds in the public sector, although it’s true that it’s turned out to be much harder in the corporate sector too (even though they might not always admit it). As the Issues Paper points out, we’ve spent quite some time defining what it is that constitutes the requisite behaviour from a public servant, including things like impartiality, balance, fairness and the absence of partisan political advocacy.

The problem, though, is that these definitions were shaped in a world fundamentally different to the one which ‘government 2.0’ is ushering in, including especially the speed with which issues emerge and change, the level of transparency about government thinking and activity and the complexity of the ideas and inputs now clamouring not just to be heard but to be influential.

Somehow we have to find a way for public servants to be able to engage with this world on terms that are both satisfying and safe. Assuming that the twin extremes of prohibition and unfettered licence are unlikely to work, we have to set about finding some new territory somewhere along that spectrum that is fit for purpose.

I have no idea where that point on the spectrum is. My inclination is to be more permissive than not. But perhaps more useful than any single attempt to pick the new sweet spot is to encourage a process of active and energetic experimentation that will get us closer to that outcome, and more quickly, than simply sitting around talking about it.

One key to this dilemma is to accept that we may need more than one set of rules for public servants, over and above the core values set out in the Act. This goes to the heart of a more profound discussion about the role of the public service itself, and therefore of the people who work in and with it. It may be that we’ve arrived at a point where a richer and more nuanced set of rules, differentiated for changing conditions and contexts, need to be developed and tested.

The Web 2.0 tools and platforms have the capacity to do in the public sector what they demonstrably have done in other sectors – to dramatically open up the landscape of innovation by making it possible to think about, design and execute whole new business processes, products and services and radically more open and democratic ways of communicating and collaborating.

For the public sector too, the rising demand for innovation in policy development, program design and delivery and organisational practice is enabled, and sometimes accelerated, by the new tools themselves. In that sense, the rapid spread of use and influence by social networking technologies, and the habits of mind and culture that they reflect and reinforce, is becoming an inescapable feature of public innovation in its own right.

Many agencies lack the experience necessary to move towards Web 2.0 and may even be protecting themselves from gaining it. The fact is that these new tools thrive on the principle of ‘learn by doing’. The whole point is to experiment with their capabilities and potential and, in the process, bring about change and renewal.
A determination to invest time and effort to nurture that process, as a natural consequence of the more widespread adoption of the new tools themselves, might be a necessary priority.

It would be a good outcome from this discussion if, over the next little while, we engaged on a deliberate but gradual conversation about what it is to be a ‘good’ public servant. If that means revisiting some of the ways in which that question is being framed at the moment that might be no bad thing. To find a way to unlock the considerable expertise and insight that public servants can bring to the big issues and policy challenges of the day so they can play a full and active role in the more open, connected and collaborative models of governance that are taking shape would be both worthy and timely.

15 Responses
  1. 2009 July 28
    Kevin Cox permalink

    Social norms will arise through use. The critical issue is to build a system that can adapt and change with changing circumstances. However a key issue is in all communication is accountability and trust. We have to be able to know that we can trust the person or entity on the other side of the conversation and they us. We do not have to know who they are but we must know the context and authority with which they speak.

    If we build a system it must allow for different behaviour and “rules” for different situations and for different people. That is, if we build systems that have rules but those rules are flexible. If this is the case then public servants can fit into the same system but with varying rules according to context of their communications.

    What I am trying to say is that we should not focus too much on the exact rules but rather build a system that can accommodate a variety of rules and behaviour – and be able to ensure that people behave according to the rules.

  2. 2009 July 28

    interesting related release from the UK re use of Twitter.

    Template Twitter strategy for Government Departments –

  3. 2009 July 28
    ben rogers permalink


    there are many of us who would dearly love to be able to get involved as public servants in the gov2.0 space, however some agencies seem to be taking a – lets see what everyone else does approach. Try as we might until we able to influence at the secretary or ministerial level we may not get the opportunity to innovate in this space until its all old hat and no fun anymore.

    What do you suggest?


    • 2009 July 28
      Nicholas Gruen permalink

      Ben – and others like you. I suggest we get in touch with you . . . Feel free to set out your concerns/thoughts here or in a private email to me at ngruen AT

      • 2009 July 30
        Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

        Agree with Nicholas – we should meet and talk some more. Best thing I can suggest is to talk with others in similar position within the public service. Do you know Craig Thomler for example at the Child Support Agency (and a commenter on this stream of the blog)? He has a very active eGovtau blog and has just been nominated as one of the 10 most influential people in this space! I know it’s not without the occasional moment of tension, but he’s not waiting to be invited (one of the most endearing and subverisve characteristics of Web 2.0 I think).

        There is solidarity to be gained by linking up with fellow enthusiasts inside the pbulic service, as well as with cheerleaders from outside, who can be helpful and encouraging but inevitably distant.

      • 2009 July 30
        Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

        Should have read Laura Sommer’s piece in this thread – her pragmatic advice, born of direct and very recent experience in NZ, is helpful. Start local and start ’safe’. Seems like a sensible prescription…

  4. 2009 July 28
    Kevin Cox permalink


    I am preparing a “proper” submission on it. You can view the little on it so far at

    The next part is to tidy it up, think of some mechanisms to address the problem and then to try to derive some “principles” for government 2.0 to consider.

    It comes from thinking about providing an identification service for bloggers and what is needed to stop spammers and pretenders from destroying communication. You know the problem. You also know the problem of “reputation” and how you tend to read comments from some people and not others. An extension of this is ways of both building reputation and of being able to show it.

    If we make our design so that these problems can be addressed and solutions can evolve then I think Government 2.0 – which is about dialogue – will be much more viable. However, as you know describing regulations and getting compliance is difficult and a better solution is to build systems that have regulations and compliance “built in” and are suitable for purpose.

  5. 2009 July 28

    Great piece Martin,

    Following on your point regarding what makes a ‘good’ public servant, one of the dilemmas I struggle with in the public service is whether there is a conflict between loyalty to agency vs loyalty to whole-of-government.

    A lot of the work other and I do has relevance and would be useful when shared with other Departments – and there’s no privacy or security considerations.

    However the approval processes and frameworks for information sharing sometimes involves formal agreements and protocols regarding how different departments can share information or work collaboratively. These can add overheads to the process which, on occasion, make it easier for public servants to focus on their own ‘patch’ (Department) and reinvent the wheel when necessary rather than consult other Departments.

    I would like to see more recognition, support and mechanisms for the discovery and sharing of information, expertise and resources (including software modules, systems, training packages, and so on) between Departments.

    This would support innovation by cutting down the time and money spent on repeating the same mistakes – or successes. it would allow Departments to build on each others’ work and reinforce each others’ expertise for the good of the entire government.

    Web 2.0 technologies can support this by providing improved mechanisms for public servants to share their information, expertise and resources across Departments and discover and build on the good work done elsewhere.

    So perhaps a mechanism like the Victorian State Government Intranet would be useful at Federal level.

    • 2009 July 30
      Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

      Great point. In fact, maybe if we concentrated for now on improving the use of these tools within the public service, that might help to build confidence and competence more widely.

      My experience as a public servant was that one way of subverting the sometimes onerous overheads of official collaboration – which often felt like they had been designed by people with the express intent of making sure it never happened – was to simply create unofficial peer-to-peer networks where ideas got shared and information swapped anyway. In fact, in some ways the wonderful conversational world of Web 2.0 is really a digital version of the same instinct to connect and to work around the obstacles of official complexity.

      • 2009 July 31

        The principle is often called ‘eating your own dogfood’.

        If you can get the insiders using official collaboration and consultation platforms within and across government, their familiarity improves and you’re better able to have knowledgeable discussions about using them between government and citizens and other groups.

        The informal networks exist – however formal networks imply endorsement and commitment, encourage participation and thereby carry greater weight. Such as the Vic Public Service Continuous Improvement Network.

  6. 2009 July 29

    Great posting Martin. Can I say that the challenges and opportunities outlined in your posting are challenges and opportunities for citizens and lobbyists as well as for public servants and policy makers.

    The culture shift falls not just on public servants alone. But government agencies can lead by example.

  7. 2009 July 29
    Laura Sommer permalink

    Thanks Martin. Really pleased to see these issues being raised about online participation and the challenges/opportunities that arise for governments. I agree with the ‘learning by doing’ which has been my experience with online participation.

    As a starting point, one opportunity is to practice with these tools of engagement inhouse. Use online participation as a way to engage staff in the organisation.

    We know that employees who are well engaged in the organisation deliver better services than those who are unmotivated, unconnected, etc.

    Encourage senior management to communicate via these online spaces (alongwith traditional forms of communication), which shows staff that they have permission to do the same. For example, a chief executive can use a blog to reflect what is informing his/her decisions (transparent decisionmaking).

    An online space, like a wiki, can be used to share knowledge, ideas across the organisation. A project team that creates such online spaces needs to involve diverse disciplines (IT, Legal, Communication, Policy, Service Delivery, Evaluation,…) in the development. Bring in the internal ‘customer’ in the design. This is putting participation into practice.

    Such online engagement would need to be integrated with normal business, otherwise it becomes an additional task on top of everything else that staff have to do. Linking with other communication channels within the organisation is also useful.

  8. 2009 July 30
    Neil Henderson permalink

    This is a very useful chain of discussion.
    I think this Web 2.0 initiative could be extremely useful in taking us towards a government online presence which is structured to deliver services which citizens want and need, rather than services which government wants to provide. Note that in general citizens tend not to care about the structure of government, but they do know the services they expect and have some idea of how they would like them delivered (which is rapidly becoming an online focussed channel).
    I have been involved in all of the major whole-of-government ICT projects/programs which have been run by government in the last 4 years or so and it is plain to me that government currently does not have the capabilities (People + Process + Technology) which are needed to effectively deliver whole-of-government systems. Note that some of thsoe projects have started the kernel of what could become teh WofG capabilities we need.
    We could do so much more than we do at the moment if we had:
    1) A government taxonomy for the basics
    2) An infrastructure which connected all 3 tiers of government
    3) Authentication of Business, Citizens, Public Servants
    4) Design methods for the design of citizen + agency services
    5) Funding models which funded WofG capabilities on an ongoing basis
    At the moment our FMA model for the management of government appears to do little to support the design, delivery and ongoing support of WofG capabilities.
    If web 2.0 is to have the services which it needs from agencies to deliver the citizen services that citizens want/need then I suggest the WofG blockers need to be addressed.
    Meanwhile please keep up the good work – good government needs these discussions which you have initiated!!

  9. 2009 August 1


    You said,

    Great point. In fact, maybe if we concentrated for now on improving the use of these tools within the public service, that might help to build confidence and competence more widely.

    Which I think is a 90% of the approach needed. If you think this way then you might log on to and compare the tools with govdex. Eventually the (preferred) tools for must align with those for so both sectors might share a common culture = government/education by enquiry instead of by delivery. It’s happening of course, and the will seems to there, but there are a few things which appears to be in need of cultivation, particularly now that (with the institutional network’s engineers) the discussion is about “grids” and “clouds”. Neil touched on them in the 1 to 5 (fantastic, neil!)

    In the edu space it’s called a “lifelong learning account”. It could be more, which you’ll get a feel for if you register at I’ll point you at a blog entry to try and explain what i mean here.

    I’ll also point you at this one in the UK, to see how a different culture approaches these things.

    And thanks to all of you. I feel like I’m finally talking to

  10. 2009 August 4
    Kevin Cox permalink

    Suggestion of another “principle” that is alluded to in the OECD principles but not made explicity.

    Principle 14 – Reputation and Context.
    The transmission and accessing of information is more than the transmission of data. It is a communication event. Communication or the transfer of information is a social activity which requires both parties to know the reputation and characteristics of the other party and the context of the communication to be explicit and understood. When information is to be stored, the reputation and characteristics of those permitted to access it should be established and the reputation and characteristics of the person storing the data should be kept with the data and made accessible.

    Reputation is defined as The general estimation in which a person is held by the public. For Social Networks to work we must know the reputation of the other parties to any communication. Reputation is attached to individuals but it is separate from identity. Reputation consists of personal characteristics and of the performance of the person in past transactions.

    Electronic Social Networks depend for their success on the ability of people to easily share information and ideas with others. The attractiveness of the networks comes from the ease with which people can join and leave groups, and from the ability to remain anonymous if desired. Unfortunately as they become more popular rogue elements take advantage of the openness and pollute the social environment. This pollution takes different forms. Some of these are:

    Bad manners – forums and blog comments can become very confrontational with some people seeming to delight in negative, often abusive comments, attacking others behind the shelter of anonymity.
    Stolen identities – celebrities are a favourite target for frivolous passing-off, but stolen identities can also take a more sinister form particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as those involving children or distressed people.
    Fake identities – these are especially concerning when people pretend to have qualifications or expertise that they do not possess.
    Slander and defamation – where, under the guise of anonymity, people slander or defame others.
    Misuse of the network – people use the network to promote products or services inappropriately.
    Multiple identities – Sometimes people have multiple identities in an attempt to gain an advantage.
    Ill-defined and unreliable information – Some people “spread” rumours, partial, false or incomplete information.

    These problems can be addressed if we introduce the concept of responsibility with anonymity. That is, people can participate in some activities without publicly identifying themselves providing they first establish some level of identification with the system and they agree to abide by the rules of the network. The rules depend on the context of the interaction. The context also establish actions that will happen if rules are broken. Examples of possible actions are for the person to be excluded from further activity, an identity shown to an aggrieved party or revealed to the whole community, or it can be given to authorities for civil action to be taken. These actions impact on the reputation of the identity and are reflected in way reputation of the party is evaluated.

    It is important in Social Networks for the concept of reputation to be captured and available. It is reputation not identity that is important for the functioning of networks. To that end, identification is unimportant as long as the measures of reputation are reliable and accurate. The level of reputation required for different transactions varies from reputation not mattering to high reputation (which includes authority) being mandatory.

    Not all access and activities on social networks are subject to abuse and for those there is no reason for the access to be open and anonymous.

    To achieve control, where it is required, we need simple ways for people to identify themselves to a level appropriate to the context of the communication. That level of identity could be displayed on the social network site so that people can see how trustworthy the person is – without revealing who they are – and how trustworthy is the information. The person need not reveal anything about themselves (not even their pseudonym) but there should be mechanisms to provide a visual indication of the trustworthiness of both the government officials and members of the public.

    If we are going to permit the public to store information in government files, a person must first establish that their reputation is sufficient to allow the storage of the information. The most common case is where a personal data is stored about a person. The person providing the information must either be the person themselves or a person with sufficient reputation in the eyes of the person who is the subject of the information or a person of sufficient reputation as defined by the government. The reputation of the person storing the information, not the identity, should be kept with the data and made available to people accessing the information. For personal data only the person concerned, or those the person explicitly or implicitly approves, should be allowed to access persona data.


    Context is the circumstances in which a communication event occurs.

    There is no point in keeping information if it is never accessed or used. However, not all information should be available to all people at all times. Who should see information, at what time and for what
    reason is determined by context. When it is decided that information is to be stored, the context of when and how it is to be released should also be established. This means that the characteristics (including reputation) of the person requesting access should be defined. Also the characteristics of any government official who can access or see the data should be defined.

    If this is established at the time of storing data it means that if a person can prove they possess the appropriate characteristics access can be automated and there is no need to involve a government
    official. The same access mechanism can equally apply for the public and for government officials.

    In many circumstances a government official may be granted access to information that is not available to the general public. In those circumstances the public can ask the appropriate government official to access the information and the official may be able to provide an answer to a specific question without revealing any sensitive details. An example of this could be a researcher wishing to access information
    that is of a personal nature but not needing to know the identity of the persons involved.

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