Political Innovation Essays: Towards Interactive Government

A few months back Paul Evans asked me to write a short essay/blog post for the Political Innovation project – taking a series of posts about how politics could be done better – and cross-posting them on political blogs from different places on the political spectrum. I managed to escape dissertation writing long enough to draft the below, which has been posted today as the first post in the series and is featured on the Political Innovation site; Left Foot Forward and Local Democracy blog so far. Comments, if any, should all go to the main Political Innovation site…

Here’s the post:

The communication revolution that we’ve undergone in recent years has two big impacts:

  • It changes what’s possible. It makes creating networks between people across organisations easier; it opens new ways for communication between citizens and state; it gives everyone who wants it a platform for global communication; and it makes it possible to discover local online dialogue.
  • It changes citizen expectations of government. When I can follow news from my neighbour’s blog on my phone, why can’t I get updates on local services on the mobile-web? When I can e-mail someone across the world and be collaborating on a document in minutes, why is it so hard to have a conversation with the council down the road? And when brands and mainstream media are doing interactivity and engagement – why are government departments struggling with it so much?

Right now, government is missing out on significant cost saving and service-enhancing benefits from new forms of communication and collaboration. But the answers are not simply about introducing new technology – they are to be found in intentional culture change: in creating the will and the opportunity for interactive government.

There are three things we need to focus on:

  • Culture change. Although there are pockets of interactivity breaking out across the public sector, it’s often counter-cultural and ‘underground’. Most staff feel constrained to work with tools given to them by IT departments, and to focus on official lines more than open conversations. Creating a culture of interactivity needs leadership from the top, and values that everyone can sign up to.
  • Removing the barriers. There are literally hundreds of small daily frustrations and barriers that can get in the way of interactive government. It might be the inability of upload a photo to an online forum (interactive government has human faces…), or consent and moderation policies that cover everyone’s backs but don’t allow real voices to be heard. Instead of ignoring these barriers, we need to overcome them – to rethink them within an interactive culture that can make dialogue and change a top priority.
  • Solving tough problems. Public service is tough: it has to deal with political, democratic and social pressures that would make most social media start-ups struggle. We need to think hard about how interactive technology and interactive ways of working play out in the tough cases that the public sector deals in every day.

The Interactive Charter is a project to explore how exactly we go about making government into interactive government. It’s got three parts:

  • Creating a pledge – The ‘Interactive Charter’ will be a clear statement that any organization (or senior manager within an organization) can sign up to say something along the lines of “I want my organization to get interactivity; and I’ll commit to overcoming the barriers to interactive ways of working”. With a promise and commitment from the top removing the barriers should get a lot easierOf course to just hand down a pledge wouldn’t be very interactive, so we’re drafting it on Mixed Ink.
  • Naming the problems…and overcoming them – We’ve already made a start over on the Interactive Charter wiki, but we would love you to join in suggesting practical challenges, and practical solutions, to interactive and digital working in government.
  • Putting it into practice – We want to pilot the approach: getting top-level support, and removing the barriers to interactivity from the ground up. Could your organization be part of that?

So, if you’ve got a vision for more interactive government, you can share it by redrafting the current pledge. And if you’ve faced or solved problems around interactive government, help shape the body of knowledge around each of the barriers and their solutions on the wiki. Of course, you could also just drop in comments over on the Political Innovation blog…