Guest Post: The Victorian Department of Justice and Web 2.0
Darren Whitelaw is what I call a public sector entrepreneur – which means nothing more nor less than that he’s someone tries to get things done including new things. He’s with the Department of Justice in Victoria and is very active in Government 2.0 in that state. I suggested to him through Patrick McCormick who is similarly a public sector entrepreneur and recently moved to Justice that a guest post on what the Department had been up to would be welcomed. And so here is his post.
A journey of discovery
The Gov2.0 Taskforce’s final report provides a compelling roadmap for the Australian public sector’s future online journey and contributes new insights and ideas to the global Gov 2.0 conversation. As online service delivery becomes commonplace, and citizen expectations for more efficient and effective public services increase, the role of Web 2.0 in government cannot be underestimated.
The challenge for the public sector, much like the private sector, is not only to make use of these emerging technologies, but also to ensure there is the cultural change to support them. Victoria’s Justice Department has been using various Web 2.0 technologies over the past 18 months – to help respond to Black Saturday bushfires, reduce the impact of problem gambling, tackle excessive drinking, show public support for emergency service volunteers, help people assess their level of fire season readiness, and demonstrate transparency around speed cameras. These efforts have delivered tangible benefits but it hasn’t always been a smooth journey.
We’ve learnt that adoption of community collaboration takes time. Creating online communities built on credibility and trust is a big job, one that involves tinkering, listening, revising and trying again. It’s more a slow burn, than an explosion. And if we are going to fail, it’s best to fail small and fast, so we can adapt and try again. It’s an iterative process.
I can think of three things that have been instrumental to this journey:
1) Provide access to information
2) Enable user-generated content
3) Go where people are
Provide access to information
The horrific bushfires that swept Victoria in February 2009 placed immense pressure on our emergency services. Not only in fighting fires, dispatching equipment and personnel, but in responding to the public’s thirst for information. To help alleviate pressure, we responded by developing a widget (now decommissioned) to provide easy access to latest news, info and pictures about the crisis. This was built using a white-label software solution, spread virally, and used RSS, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. Only around 130 people installed the widget on their social networking page, but that small base led to more than 80,000 unique views, and more than 26,000 people interacting with it. Not too bad for our first attempt, I reckon.
In August 2008, we launched a new website that mapped the location of all the fixed speed and red light cameras in Victoria. The site also included evidence demonstrating when each camera had last been calibrated and tested, as well as telling motorists with a good driving record how they could apply to have their fine revoked with an official warning.
There’s a major overhaul planned for early 2010, this time using Google Maps to display the camera locations. A lot of effort has gone into busting many of the myths around speed enforcement, driving safety and traffic cameras – recognising people want credible, authoritative information on topics of interest to them – and if we don’t fill that void, others will.
Enable user-generated content
Another path we took on our Web 2.0 journey was user-generated content. Our first attempt was earlier this year on a revamped website designed to help problem gamblers. Along with the usual information to help gamblers and their loved ones, the site gave people the chance to share their stories. Despite a slow start, there have been some really positive and emotional stories.
User-generated content was key to our campaign to give people the chance to show their support for Victoria’s emergency services volunteers. A modern-day twist on an old-fashioned letter writing campaign, instead of dumping a mail bag full of correspondence on a desk, we got people to stick a virtual post-it note on a wall of thanks. This campaign leveraged the benefits of microblogging (contributors were limited to 250 characters) making it quick, and easy, for people to say thanks and also learn about the kind of person it takes to be an emergency services volunteer. Visitors to the site also had the chance to create a blog, post longer messages, and upload photos.
To date, there have been 556 messages of support, and nearly 20,000 people have visited. I encourage you to check out the site
and scroll through the message wall – the posts are inspiring and really show the level of heartfelt appreciation in the community.
Go where people are
The volunteer campaign showed us how important it was to go where the crowds gather. We had a healthy interest in the microblogging message site, and the biggest success was on Facebook, where more than 9,000 people have shown their support by joining the fan page. Hundreds have also taken part in a conversation about how valued our volunteers are by leaving messages on the wall. Twitter users were also quick to show their support, and stay up-to-date with emergency volunteer news, with 1,206 followers to date.
Facebook is also being used to help spread the fire ready message in preparation for this summer. An app has been developed, as a quick test for homeowners and others in fire-prone areas to gauge their level of preparedness. The idea is to raise awareness, then get people to go to the CFA website to complete the detailed self-assessment.
The success of Facebook and Twitter has shown us how important it is for public services to move out from behind our websites and to go to where the people are.
So where to from here?
So what have we learnt? New paths along unfamiliar territory are unlikely to be smooth and trouble-free. That’s why it is vital to be agile and flexible, so failures will be both small and short. It’s also important to tinker first, to always keep listening, to continually revise, and when you’re done, go back and try again.
Perhaps the first step is tackling the biggest barrier: cultural change. The key to accepting Web 2.0 within government relies on a cultural change within the public service itself, rather than a change within technology.
Government’s traditional role-based authority can only get us so far. The input of communities, peers, and others through an authentic and meaningful conversation is vital, and Web 2.0 technologies allow this to happen on a scale never seen before. This two-way interaction is vital for policymakers because of the persuasive authority that comes from fostering this conversation. People like it because it’s not just big-government telling them what to think, feel and do – it’s their family, friends, neighbours and peers as well. It’s not Government vs Citizens, but Government AND Citizens.
This kind of engagement isn’t free. Sometimes, it comes with a significant cost. Not just a financial cost, but on other valuable resources such as time and people as well. There’s also a cost to reputation if the risks aren’t minimised. But the bigger thing to calculate is the cost of not doing it.
As the taskforce wraps up its work, how can we in the Australian public sector use this as a catalyst for our own conversations? How do we mobilise those exploring the Web 2.0 space and continue to share the experiences of our journeys? Not just the good, but the bad and the ugly as well – to learn from our fellow travellers, collectively find our way in this new space and seize opportunities as they arise. By doing so, not only will we be able to deliver more tailored, effective and efficient public services, but be able to foster stronger community engagement and social innovation as well.
Darren Whitelaw (@DarrenWhitelaw) is the General Manager of Corporate Communication at Victoria’s Department of Justice. The views expressed in this post are those of the individual and do not represent those of his employer.