Archive | March, 2009

How not to do it: Public Transport Authority

31 Mar

I’m going to start a semi-regular feature piece here, at the moment under a working title of how not to do it.

I want to make it crystal clear from the outset – I’m not trying to embarrass the agencies, companies or parties featured in these posts. The intent is to highlight some of the mistakes we’ve made as collectively as a sector in the citizen engagement arena, and hopefully suggest solutions to help us not repeat it.

It’s not going to be a cure for our problems, but at least it might start us talking and put us on the road to finding one.

It also might seem a little odd for me to open this series with the Public Transport Authority (PTA), considering I have given them kudos for their efforts in some areas such as open data access. However, while they have been a leading light in some areas, they are let down by their performance in others.

The two examples from the PTA I wish to discuss for this first edition are:

Old information is just as bad as no information

Recently, the PTA held a competition asking the public to suggest a name for their new ferry due to be commissioned sometime this year. I only found out about this while on the PTA site doing some research for an earlier posting.

The PTA’s media article didn’t mention the closing date of the competition, so naturally I clicked on the link to the Transperth website to enter and find out more. Having some ideas, I started to complete the entry form and while doing so looked at the text on this page.

The competition closed on March 16, 2009.

It’s been two weeks since the competition closed, so why is the page or at least the entry form still there? An update to the page advising the competition has closed and winners are to be announced shortly would have been a simple to achieve. This however goes to the core of some agency web operations, my own included, where we don’t keep good action calendars or don’t have a decent content management system (CMS) in place to do these things for us busy web managers and maintainers.

I’ll admit openly that I’ve been guilty of this with the websites I manage more frequently that I’d like (job listings being a primary offender). It’s still no excuse for letting it happen and as a sector we must do better to manage old, outdated or expired content, along with keeping the good content fresh and up to date.

Participation, participation, participation

Something else I found out while on the PTA site is that their enabling legislation is up for review. Section 70 of their act requires a review of the operation and effectiveness of the Act be carried out every five years. No problems there, their act is up for review and I might consider making a submission considering I use their services every day as part of my commute to and from work.

Where they have missed the opportunity here is to use the full suite of tools and services available to them, to provide every opportunity for interested parties to become aware of the review and have the opportunity to participate and contribute.
Some of the avenues available for use included:

  • Utilising their major websites for awareness
    I would reasonably assume that not all customers of the PTA visit their main corporate site on a daily basis. I suspect they’re more like to visit one of their brand sites for information relevant to them. Why not spend a short amount of time drafting some copy for the brand websites targeting these consumers, and inviting their participation in the process. It could even give them ideas for the types of feedback that are relevant to the review, and offer alternative channels for submitting that feedback.
  • Mailing lists
    The Transperth brand has access to a number of mailing lists, including the TravelEasy announcements and registered SmartRider users. Again, utilise the power of these lists and directly invite consumers to participate in the review – an email with a good enough hook or reason to participate in directly influencing the direction of public transport shouldn’t be hard to draft.
  • Citizenscape
    This is a tool available to every WA government, and I personally get annoyed as a customer when agencies consulting on issues relevant to my needs don’t use it. This site was developed with the purpose of being the one place to go when citizens want to know what is happening within government and how they can directly participate. I’ve searched this site and there’s no reference to the PTA Act review in there at all.

Now why do I suggest these three items and not some expensive, costly, time consuming solution? Simple, all three of these options are already available for use and the time and costs of utilising them is non-existent to inconsequential.

When it comes time for the review report to be tabled in Parliament, it enables the PTA to demonstrate they have used the breath of tools available to them for consulting with the public, and raising awareness of the review – a proactive use of public funds and resources to try and achieve the best possible outcomes.

I personally plan to ask the question if and when I sit down to submit my own comments on the review, likely discussing some of the points I’ve raised in this article. I’d also love to see a representative of the people ask a similar question in Parliament when reviews are submitted, asking agencies why they didn’t use every avenue available to them to raise awareness of and encourage participation.

Now let’s get positive

So there’s a couple of example where we’ve not exactly done well as a sector, so let’s find some positive efforts to hopefully inspire us.

One of the best examples in recent history comes from my trans-tasman colleagues in the New Zealand Police Service, who in 2007 undertook wholesale public engagement to deliver a redeveloped version of their Police Act, last revised in 1958.

They decided to go online to encourage wide public participation, and the entire act was placed on a wiki. It took four full time staff to monitor, but for these rather minimal costs the outcome was an act that better delivered on constituent needs that also generated new ideas.

From the collaboration project:

The Police Act review team met consequences as well as successes when the wiki became a forum for the public to express its displeasure with speeding ticket enforcement and other unpopular laws, despite their necessity for public safety. A participatory legislation model such as this requires a more extensive trial to determine whether this sort of collaboration can create reasoned legislation that would include not just the public’s desires but their careful considerations of the limitations inherent in governance, such as budgets, regulations, and obligations.

Ultimately the wiki served to build consensus among ideas for the new legislation which the review team offered to legislators for consideration in their own drafting of a new act.

The community consultation efforts of New Zealand Police to revising their act received worldwide attention, with positive reports in the mainstream media and support and praise from the online community.

Ok, not everyone has the time or resources to set up a wiki, but what we do have the time to do is think about the resources and services we have available to our agencies and use them for their benefit when opportunities like this arise. It helps cement our position as a provider of solutions, and a group of people who are actively seeking to improve the triple bottom line outcomes for our employers by reducing costs and increasing community participation.

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Is information held by the Government a national resource?

30 Mar

There’s been much discussion in the last few days over proposed changes to Australia’s freedom of information laws.

As part of its policy platform announced at the 2007 Federal election, it committed to reforming the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) with the principal objects of promoting a pro-disclosure culture across the Government and building a stronger foundation for more openness in government.

While these reforms won’t have much of an impact at state Government levels (yet), I am in two minds over the following statement made by Senator the Hon Robert Faulkner in a companion guide to the reforms:

Information held by the Government is a national resource and should be managed in the public interest. Access to government information increases public participation, and leads to increased scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activity.

The upsides of improved access to information

I am all for the intent of the statement, and there’s been several examples where access to government information has enhanced the ability of citizens to access services and information. One example which springs to mind is the iTT Perth application built for the iPhone platform. Thanks to the Public Transport Authority (PTA) releasing their timetable information in an open format, it has enabled developers to repurpose and reuse this data for the benefit of all.

In the case of the iTT Perth application, the developer has taken the data, ported it to a handheld platform, and added a useful interface over the top to enable easy access to timetable information. The application also leverages the iPhone’s GPS capabilities so instead of having to be at a physical stop to capture the stop number and look it up, it will automatically find the nearest stop and give you the information you need.

Such an application wouldn’t have been possible if the PTA didn’t make it publicly and freely available, and by doing so it has created an environment where innovation can prosper and enable consumer-driven service improvements to be delivered. It showed that consumers who love a specific brand are prepared and will often show their devotion and loyalty to it by enhancing what it does or embracing its value in their own special way – a concept called Lovemarks, which was first put to paper by Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of the global marketing and communications giant Saatchi & Saatchi. Lovemarks has taken on a life of it’s own that the company now refers to itself as ‘the lovemarks company’.

Just the way I’m referring to Lovemarks and Saatchi & Saatchi should give you an idea of just how much I respect that brand and what Lovemarks is all about.

Failing to allow your users to participate and utilise your data can have pretty negative consequences. The most recent and highest publicity failure in this area centered around New South Wales rail provider CityRail threatening legal action against the man who developed the Transit Sydney application. CityRail’s stance was totally against innovation and invention in this field, and it promoted the direct and personal intervention of Premier Nathan Rees to resolve the issue – and it wasn’t any surprise that Rees sides with the application’s developer.

Where could it all go wrong if not done properly?

So those are the positives of innovation, but you might ask where are the negatives of which I referred to.

My role is within an agency who’s primary source of funding comes from it’s day to day business, selling and managing timber assets for profit. Our sole shareholder, the People of Western Australia through the Government of the day. We don’t receive funds from consolidated revenue or taxation, our business and quality of product determines if we survive or fold, and in turn deliver a profit or loss for the people. Thankfully, we’ve returned a profit in nearly every year of operation since establishment, and thankfully our profit goes beyond dollars, but also returns and benefits in social and environmental outcomes – the triple bottom line.

As part of doing business, we have to constantly innovate and and find ways of delivering a better product for both now and in the future. While our innovation is managed and takes place in the public interest, any such changes to FOI legislation must protect both my employer and similar agencies/instrumentalities across Australia who’s innovation takes place in the public interest.

If the changes to these laws are not handled correctly, there is a risk that the work being done for the benefit of all could fall into the hands of some, taking away what benefits could be derrived for everyone and not just a small group of shareholders who’s core focus is on returning a nice dividend check at the end of the year to pay for a summer house and nanny.

How do your customers feel about dealing with government?

29 Mar

Leave it to The Onion to make something this good:

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport

Is this how your customers feel about dealing with government?

Company 2.0?

28 Mar

1. Creating value by valuing people. Alan Mulally is fiercely realistic about the steep challenge Ford faces, but he’s infectiously upbeat about their ability to meet it and he makes the people around him feel good, including about themselves. He truly understands that only positive emotions fuel sustainable high performance and that the more valued people feel, the more they’re freed and inspired to create more value.

2. Transparency rules. My colleague Annie Perrin and I began our day at Ford at 8:00 a.m. by attending Ford’s weekly Business Plan Review, which includes all of its senior executives around the world. Outsiders are regularly invited to observe the meeting. Every executive reports in on any new information that might influence Ford’s overall revenue projections, or any other part of its plan. Mulally operates on the assumption that the truth will set you free, even when it hurts.

3. Personal responsibility. The day we were there, one Ford executive described a significant shortfall on a particular projection. It was the sort of acknowledgement that might have prompted high drama in many boardrooms. In this case, the executive simply went on to list the ways he intended to address the shortfall over the coming days, and invited other suggestions. No energy was wasted in wringing hands or avoiding responsibility or assigning blame. The focus was entirely on solutions.

4. A mission worth believing in. Mulally believes that “to serve is to live” and he has rallied the notoriously factionalized and siloed Ford’s around a shared mission that is simple and compelling: make Ford the leader in quality, safety and fuel efficiency.

He reports that while public opinion hasn’t yet caught up, Ford has made significant progress on all of these goals with US consumer advocate and testing organisation Consumers Union last month recommended 70 per cent of Ford’s vehicles in their magazine Consumer Reports.

In the midst of a perfect storm, Mulally has created a culture in which his team is working together closely to create a new kind of company. When the economic clouds finally do part, these executives have a shared conviction that they’ll emerge, along with Toyota and Volkswagen, as one of the three truly global automobile companies.

It’s a great place to be, and it leaves me wondering how their corporate webmasters and intranet managers/editors have bought into this goal, and how what they are doing is helping to deliver on this major shift in corporate vision. How can we and should we as corporate webmasters, intranet managers and editors use the tools and technologies at our disposal to influence the target consumer to our vision, mission, purpose and goals?.

Key recommendations for e-Government

28 Mar

David Osimo, Managing partner at Tech4i2 ltd and author of the Benchmarking e-government in web 2.0 blog recently posted on his presentation at the Lisbon iGov workshop on web2.0 in public administration.

His presentation is quite interesting and can be found at his post, but one thing which really stuck out for me are his recommendations for e-Government:

1: DO NO HARM

  • don’t hyper-protect public data from re-use
  • don’t launch large scale “facade” web2.0 project
  • don’t forbid web 2.0 in the workplace
  • let bottom-up initiatives flourish as barriers to entry are very low

2: ENABLE OTHERS TO DO

  • publish reusable and machine readable data (XML, RSS, RDFa) > see W3C work
  • adopt web-oriented architecture
  • create a public data catalogue > see Washington DC

3: ACTIVELY PROMOTE

  • ensure pervasive broadband
  • create e-skills in and outside government: digital literacy, media literacy, web2.0 literacy, programming skills
  • fund bottom-up initiatives through public procurement, awards
  • reach out trough key intermediaries trusted by the community
  • listen, experiment and learn-by-doing

These are some pretty good guiding rules when it comes to e-Government, and some of these themes are closely alligned with some of the issues i’m intending to write about in the coming weeks and months.

Also, David’s rules also prompted an interesting suggestion from another of his readers, Alberto Cottica:

4. MINIMISE CODE

  • don’t duplicate
  • deploy, then customise
  • let the community steer development

Those suggestions like up pretty well with some of the points I raised in my article on using Twitter within Government yesterday.

An expeirment in Twitter

27 Mar

One of the easiest things an agency can do is communicate using the tools and sites their customers and target audiences are already using. So it was a no-brainer for me eariler this week, when at midnight and still awake under the influence of cold and flu medication I decided it was time for my agency to ‘tweet’.

Why tweet you ask?

It wasn’t exactly a question I asked myself when I made the decision to go for it. Looking back on it, there are a few good reasons to do it.

1. How long before the twitter username your agency might want is already taken?

At the rate things are going, not very long. The name I wanted when setting up an account for our agency was already taken by the Florida Progressive Coalition. I had to think for a few minutes before I finally came up with something short, suitable and memorable.

Already there’s cases where imposters are taking people’s names on twitter, famous for being famous Kim Kardashian being one, Australian Security Intellegance Organisation being another, a fake account for federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy – the operator recently being outed as an employee of communications company Telstra and contends he lost his job as a result of the harmless fun.

And while fakes may be the order of the day with the username you already want, there are some which are useful. An example of this is the Transperth Bot, which collates all the posts on twitter relating to Transperth, the brand for metropolitan public transportation operated by the Public Transport Authority. Granted it’s not Transperth and it is doing something useful – but what if the Public Transport Authority wants an official twitter service to quickly communicate with its customers?

While writing this post, I came across an article from The Next Web, which is a brief how-to for recovering the twitter username you wanted. But the question is when your Agency CEO/CTO or Marketing/Communications Manager comes to you asking to setup an official twitter service – would you rather have something ready to go for them and keep up the reputation of being an miricle worker, or spend a few days in the muck and mire because you’re trying to get that username you really want. It’s exactly what I advised a counterpart earlier this week when in the process of researching what other agencies are up to in this space, and he’s prepared for when his agency wants to go down that path.

2. Your customers are already using it

This requires no further explanation. If you customers are already using the service, why not communicate with them using these channels, reducing your cost of interaction and getting information to them quicker instead of them having to hunt it down and find it.

A good example of this is Tourism Western Australia, who’s twitter account I found while searching for agencies in my area who were already using it. They are the only once I’ve found thus far, and on a one-way communications method they are using it well to notify people of travel deals and offers available from their tourist portal, westernaustralia.net.

Sure, information regarding the discounts, offers and events of interest is already available from the website – but your customers will only find it if they are specifically visiting the website or looking for that information. Twitter is allowing them to push this information out to interested people, and the results are showing having acheived 562 followers in a space of two months.

3. Highlight hidden web content

Most agencies have pretty large websites, and information regarding updates or new content doesn’t always make it to the main page. Sure, you can have a RSS feed or list of recent changes – but why not write something short about the content and push a link to it out on a twitter feed. Takes about 15 seconds to do, and using a hash tag allows you to mark the content so people searching for that information on twitter can find it quickly.

4. Additional communications channel

One of the features of twitter is being able to send @replies and direct messages to communicate amongst twitter users. Once your twittering becomes well established, users will use these to engage with you and get responses to issues and questions.

If your users start to use with them, make sure you engage and engage quickly. Its a good idea to use a toolkit such as Tweetdeck to monitor these and ensure you reply promptly.

Just remember, be careful when it comes to privacy and confidentiality issues. While you can use the service to give basic information or refer people to the right area, don’t provide services, details or support which is normally reserved for once someone’s identity has been confirmed. If it looks like the users problem is diverting into that area, send them a direct message asking for their contact details so you can refer their enquiry onto a specialist for a direct response.

There are some good examples of how companies have used twitter to augment their service, support and enquiry channels to their advantage and benefit, a great example being much derided US internet service provider Comcast. Used smartly and wisely, twitter can become a powerful tool to respond to the needs of unhappy customers, or just demonstrating that their are real people who care working for your agency.

5. It’s easy

It doesn’t take much to get setup and start using twitter – as long as your agencies’ IT group doesn’t block access to it. If they do, it shouldn’t be hard to get them to remove the block citing your social media strategy, or at the very least get a privilege escalation so you can access and use the site to communicate for your agency.

Anyway, that’s a quick summary of the reasons of why I’ve gone down the twitter road. I’ll be seeing how this little expeirment goes over the next few months and I’ll keep you posted on the results.