How's that going to work, then? - Government 2.0 and purdah | acidlabs
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How’s that going to work, then? – Government 2.0 and purdah

How’s that going to work, then? – Government 2.0 and purdah

While it’s arguable that here in Australia, we’re somewhat behind our UK and US cousins in what we’re doing with Government 2.0, it is apparent that in others we’re moving strongly ahead. As an example of us being a touch behind the 8-ball, I, along with others, am still waiting for the official government response to the Government 2.0 Taskforce Report.

On the other hand, some agencies, notably the Department of Finance and Deregulation, have opened the virtual wall around their organisation and are actively encouraging their staff, with appropriate and well-considered boundaries, to engage freely online. This is a move I strongly encourage, and I very much hope that where they have led, others will soon follow. Interestingly, and to the point I will come to shortly, this was announced by a senior public servant on Twitter and on the Department’s blog.

In year, where like our UK friends, we will face a federal election, social tools will play a major and perhaps telling role in the election itself.

At the last election, three years ago, politicians were just taking their first baby steps into this strange online world, with things such as the now Prime Minister’s Kevin ’07 videos. To be honest, I suspect most politicians are still barely at this level. There are a number of notable exceptions across all three major parties, already adept at using social tools, for whom the election will be a real test of their ability to truly engage online rather than simply using it as another place to broadcast the party line. I hope they get it right.

As freelance journalist, John Kerrison, puts it:

The options are endless but is [there] the will to really engage?

I suspect not in most cases.

But, finally, to my point in writing this post.

What I really think is going to be an additional, risk-filled, and telling part of the social media component of the election is the one we’re seeing right now in the UK general election. And that’s purdah. Or, as we so eloquently put it here, the “caretaker period”.

While here in Australia, we’re somewhat behind the UK agencies in engaging with the constituent groups the many departments serve, there are definitely strong and sometimes successful, moves afoot to engage through social media with the groups served by many federal departments. Yet, the moment the general election was called in the UK, announcements across the social sphere were made declaring these efforts closed for the duration.

This may have worked in the pre-hyperconnected world where a conversation with the department looking after your interest in something, be that social security, a passport, health matters, or whatever, only ever spoke to you by letter and occasionally phone, but it’s a move sure to cause problems today. But it’s going to cause singular problems in 2010, both in the UK and here.

I completely understand the purpose and intent of caretaker periods; placing the government and public sector on hold in terms of new work while an election takes place, but we have a problem here. People now expect their governments and the public servants who serve them to engage with them. The politicians won’t stop, yet the public servants doing the real, on the ground work, will literally stop dead. I’ve been through this several times on the inside, as a public servant, and it’s a massive disruption.

The very real risk is that difficult, hard-fought, often nascent, sometimes successful efforts at public sector to public engagement (one of the pillars of Government 2.0) suddenly gets cut off at the knees because the online world and its power is misunderstood. The early wins we’re seeing in online public engagement all of a sudden go away, potentially never to return. Especially if there’s a new government or Minister for whom online engagement is a lower priority.

Will agencies stop making phone calls to their clients? Stop writing letters? I think not.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped considering departmental web sites and social tools an optional bolt-on and put them where they belong – as a part of the critical communication network government agencies rely upon to get their message out and serve their government and public.

Stephen Collins
  • Delimiter – How’s that going to work, then? – Government 2.0 and purdah
    Posted at 10:02h, 12 April Reply

    […] Read the full story by Stephen Collins at acidlabs […]

  • Kerry Webb
    Posted at 10:36h, 13 April Reply

    A very good post, especially in light of Peter Alexander’s recent comments on the AGIMO guidelines. The caretaker period throws up some challenges – ones that should be explicitly addressed.

    As to whether Social Media will play a part in the coming elections – I doubt it. Has there been any reporting on what impact it had in SA and Tas, both of which promised to be close run things?

  • trib
    Posted at 10:57h, 13 April Reply

    Kerry, I think there are real challenges for caretaker periods and the way governments continue to engage and consult both online and off. I know it’s being thought about and discussed, certainly at the federal level.

    As for the social media impact on the next election, I think it has many facets, from things like Pat McGorry’s campaign with GetUp! to promote mental health reform, which will get a lot of attention because of the weight behind them, to discussion and pressure on the filter, to winning hearts and minds through grassroots connection and influence between voters.

    That said, there’s a big chunk of the population that won’t be affected by social media during the election. Still, with over 6 million active Australian users of Facebook, for example, there’s a big constituency out there listening.

  • Kerry Webb
    Posted at 11:11h, 13 April Reply

    Forgive my contrarian position – old habits die hard.

    I’d argue that the number of people who “use” Facebook is not as relevant as some might think. We all use it for different purposes – and become friends/fans with all sorts of motives.

    I’d still be interested in any indications of how social media were used in or influenced the recent elections.

    Back to the caretaker period, we’ll be discussing this in the ACT later this week. I hope we get some clarity then.

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