OpenGov: One big challenge? Or a thousand small hurdles

Update – July 2009: This list of 50 Hurdles has evolved into the ‘Interactive Charter‘ (an attempt to create a clear statement of intent for open government) and ‘Social Strategy‘ (a toolkit of practical resources for sorting it out). Keep an eye on posts tagged ‘interactivecharter‘ on this blog for the latest updates.

The original post:

What’s the big challenge to using new technology for mobilisation / communication around social issues, where government or large existing organisations are to be players in creating change?

Working with front-line professionals in local government over the last couple of months, I’ve been coming to see that:

  • The big challenges are not about technology – they are about the content and the process of mobilisation and communication.
  • When it comes to technology we’ve not got one big challenge we’ve got 100s of small challenges – and we’ve got no systematic way of dealing with them.

When all these small challenges stack up – the chance of staff members or teams in local or national government organisations and agencies being able to effectively engage with online-enabled policy making shrinks and shrinks.

Of course – as small challenges – I’m sure they can all be overcome. And one of the first steps to overcoming a challenge is knowing it is there – so below are 50 of the challenges I’ve encountered since the start of this year.

50 Small Hurdles to Online Engagement in Government

(Update 4th May 2009: There is now a wiki set-up with all these hurdles listed, and space for you to read/add shared learning about overcoming them…)


  1. Access to Web 2.0 sites is blocked or filtered;
  2. Requesting that a website is unblocked requires a form to be filled in and the request may not be actioned for 24 hours or more;
  3. A site that has previously been unblocked is suddenly blocked again;
  4. A site is only unblocked for the computer a staff member usually sits at – and they are unable to access Web 2.0 Sites from another part of the office, or another desk;
  5. Web 2.0 Sites can only be accessed during lunch hours;
  6. Managers see abuse of ICT resources as an ICT issue rather than a management issue;
  7. ICT staff see access to Web 2.0 sites as an issue for ICT decision making, rather than for team leaders and managers;
  8. There is no capacity to provide staff with internet-enabled mobile phones, even if a business case can be made;
  9. Staff are not aware of the ICT, internet access and mobile phone/internet access resources they can legitimately ask for;
  10. Permission to use Web 2.0 is granted ad-hoc but not enshrined in policy, so a change in ICT manager could make access more difficult;


  1. Computer only have out-of-date Internet Browsers (E.g. IE6);
  2. Staff cannot change their browsers home-page;
  3. Staff cannot install browser plug-ins or add-ons, and key plug-ins like Flash are out-of-date versions;
  4. E-mail sign-up confirmations from Web 2.0 sites regularly get caught in spam filters;
  5. Staff cannot install desktop widgets and utility software (e.g. Twitter clients, RSS readers etc.)
  6. Office computers have no ability to play sound;
  7. There is no easy way to get a photo onto an office computer. For example, a personal photo to use as a profile picture online;
  8. Any customisations staff add to their computer log-in are regularly lost;
  9. There is no WiFi in meeting rooms, and guests cannot get access to the internet in the building;
  10. There is a one-size fits all IT policy;


  1. There are no finance procedures or company credit cards to pay for low-cost online subscription services;
  2. There are no systems in place for backing up content from Web 2.0 tools;
  3. There is no secure password vault that can be used to keep track of ‘corporate’ memberships of Web 2.0 sites;
  4. There is no agreed way of notifying other staff members of plans for using Web 2.0 tools;
  5. There are no policies or procedures for responding to positive or negative online comments;
  6. There is no processes for carrying out CRB or Independent Safeguarding Authority checks on staff or sub-contractors involved in the use of Social Media to engage with young people or vulnerable adults;


  1. There are no policies on personal use of Social Networks and Social Media sites;
  2. There is no accessible guidance available to staff on personal use of Social Networks and Social Media sites;
  3. There is no policy on Safeguarding and Child Protection in digital environments;
  4. There is no policy on Data Protection in digital environments – and no guidance on items of data which should not be shared in digital environments;
  5. There are no policies on appropriate levels for official staff engagement with Web 2.0
  6. Consent forms and model release forms make no mention of possibly sharing photos or videos from events and activities online;


  1. Senior managers see Web 2.0 and the Social Web as something to be scared of;
  2. Senior managers see Web 2.0 as a passing fad, or at best a persistent distraction and minority interest;
  3. Staff see Web 2.0 as an extra burden to add to already busy and pressured days;
  4. Ideas from outside the organisations are treated with suspicion;
  5. The organisation wants to be in control of any discussions that take place about it online;
  6. The organisation wants to moderate every discussion that it is any way responsible to convening or starting;
  7. The organisation wants to put it’s brand front-and-centre in every online engagement;
  8. Service-user engagement is not valued;


  1. Staff have never received basic training in how a web browser, web addresses and search engines work;
  2. Staff are not aware of tabbed web-browsing;
  3. Staff do not make use of search tools;
  4. Staff find it difficult to adapt to and remember new ways of working digitally;
  5. Staff are not able to download, edit and upload images in web formats;
  6. Staff do not know how to install new utility software or browser plug-ins;
  7. Staff have no opportunities to share skills and develop their understanding of digital environments;


  1. Managers do not support staff exploration and experimentation with Web 2.0;
  2. Managers take no ownership over exploration and experimentation with Web 2.0 and provide no support to their staff;
  3. Managers react to initial teething problems with Web 2.0 engagement by shutting it all down and banning further exploration of the potential;

Your Challenges & Your Solutions?
I know that not only can all these challenges be overcome – but they have been. Somewhere.

If you’ve overcome one of the challenges here – could you write 50 words on how you did it? Add it as a comment here or your own blog post including the tag ‘smallchallenges’.

Or perhaps you can add to the challenges list? Naming the challenges is the first step to overcoming them!

Digital engagement & organisational change

Next week I’ll be helping out David Wilcox, Dave Briggs and team with a bit of social reporting from the National Digital Inclusion Conference 2009.

We’ll be bringing together content on the Digital Engagement Blog and Network, a new project described by Helen Milner from UK Online Centres as

a collaborative space for all those interested in digital engagement to share ideas and agree priorities for action around digital engagement. Our first focus is developing a Manifesto for Digital Engagement, which you can read about here.

So – to join in that discussion before I’m in a social reporter role next week I jotted down a few reflections about Digital Engagement and Organisational Change posted originally on the Digital Engagement blog, and re-posted below.

Digital Engagement and Organisational Change

There are an amazing amount of elements that go into successful and sustainable engagement with social media – and there tend to be even more elements needed when we’re talking about engagement by public sector organisations.

Just to set up a fairly simple project using a blog, or a social network site profile, to engage service users might, in the long run, need:

  • up-to-date computer hardware & software;
  • internet access free of filters and blocks on social media sites;
  • sign-off from managers and support from senior management for experimentation with social media;
  • a clear policy sanctioning use of social media;
  • guidance to staff on how to use social media tools in line with the policy;
  • updates to related policies and strategies;
  • a procedure for responding to any problems that arise;
  • skills development within a whole team so the project can be sustained even if staff change;
  • research into potential approaches to using the blog / social network site;
  • copy written to clearly explain the project;
  • backup strategies in case anything goes wrong with the social media platforms being used;
  • an evaluation plan;
  • and a whole lot more.

When it comes to social media engagement with young people, then public sector organisations (and others) will need to add a whole host of further key elements around safeguarding policies and youth participation.

All these elements are important – and some are essential pre-requisites before any engagement can get underway. But if all these elements are seen as part of a big list of separate hurdles and barriers for each individual public sector project wanting to engage with social media to overcome we’re going to be waiting a long time for widespread digital engagement to become a reality.

Learning from youth participation
Embedding effective youth participation into the way an organisation works also involves many elements: from getting a clear commitment to participation in organisational values, through to developing staff skills and even making sure finance structures are set up able to cover the petty cash for young people’s travel expenses.

Over the past four or five years I’ve worked with the Hear by Right tool – a standards framework designed to support the organisational change needed for effective youth participation. This collection of 49 different indicators under 7 key standards has been instrumental in many organisations moving towards better and more sustainable youth engagement. Hear by Right divides it’s indicators into ‘Emerging’, ‘Established’ and ‘Advanced’ levels. <any of the organisations I’ve watched using Hear by Right over the last four years are still working at the ‘Emerging’ level (embedding participation is a long journey!) – but, the presence of the standards framework – turning a list of potential hurdles into a clear and achievable plan of action – means that they are able to move forward with their youth engagement rather than to get stuck in inaction.

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time working with organisations interested in taking their youth participation practice online and into social media spaces. However, in the absence of a framework like Hear by Right for digital engagement we’ve spent at least some of the time going round in circles – unable to develop staff skills until policies are in place, and unable to get policies without providing the benefit of engagement, and unable to do that without skilled staff able to engage etc.

An organisational change framework for digital engagement?
I’ve already started work on sketching out an organisational change tool for youth-sector organisations seeking to explore their engagement with social media (and I hope to be able to share an early version for others to contribute to in the next few months) – but the challenges exist not only in the worlds of youth work and youth participation.

Perhaps the digital engagement manifesto give rise to a widely applicable framework for digital engagement organisational change?

(Comments turned off here – to leave a comment please visit the original post…)

Quick links: Participation Works & OpenGov

OpenGov Event – 22nd April
On the 22nd April I’m going to be speaking and taking part in a panel at OpenGov which describes itself as:

A practical one-day conference to discuss the challenges and opportunities of social technologies to enable engagement, collaboration, and transparency in government.

I’ll be drawing on learning from our work with new technologies and youth engagement what engagement, collaboration and transparency look like when you include young people in the picture.

Registration is now open – and if you sneakily use one of the links below you can get yourself a specially discounted ticket (just say Tim’s Blog sent you…)

For Government employees £115 (normal price £150)
For Start-ups, Sole traders & Independents – £55 (normal price £75)

New Participation Works Website
Participation Works have just launched their new website
– with a much clearer layout – and new features for members of the Participation Works Network for England (PWNE). In particular, if you’re a PWNE member (it’s free to join…), make sure you log-in to take a look at the new Participation Works blog, currently running as a trial project just for PWNE members – but, if all goes well, to be opened to the wider world soon…

Plus – if you’ve struggled to find information in the Participation Works resource library in the past – the new resource library makes it a lot easier to dig into a great knowledge base around participation – including lots of new video content.

(And, I have to say, having interim managed the launch of the last Participation Works site which I inherited running the horrible DotNetNuke CMS, it’s great to see the new version is made up of Drupal goodness)

Political theory 2.0

[Summary: Yes, it’s time for another 2.0 titled workshop idea. Political theory at BarCampUKGovWeb09 this time]

In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading along to BarCampUKGovWeb09 (you can find my blogging from 08 here) and amongst lots of talking about young people, the web, social network sites and positive activity information I’m hoping to host a session that take’s a step back, strokes it’s beard and get’s a bit philosophical.

But of course, in true social media style, the title includes the ever-used 2.0 designation. Here’s the pitch from the BarCampUKGovWeb09 Ning:

Political Theory 2.0

People have been thinking about government and democracy for thousands of years. But what does all the theorizing from Plato through to Hobbes, Rousseau and Rawls mean when we’re living in a digital world?

Can political theory offer us a framework for better understanding e-democracy and engagement initiatives? What sort of democracy are we building?

This would be a session to workshop an e-democracy/engagement/government initiative with a bit of political philosophy – so either bring your favorite e-project ideas along, or your favorite political theorist and we’ll explore what they have to say to each other…

I’ve already had some great conversations with Paul Evans in working up the session idea – and he has kicked of the discussion with some ideas of what major political theorists might think of today’s e-democracy world:

– Machiavelli would probably have advised his Prince against blogging (but would have told him to lurk and listen)

– Hobbes would probably have said that Machiavelli had a point

– John Stuart Mill would have wanted to see your qualifications before he read your comments

– Tom Paine would have wanted you to be elected before you had any influence

– Edmund Burke would have wanted to be assured that pressure groups had no ability to do anything apart from provide evidence that the elected representatives could sort through

– Schumpeter would have annoyed absolutely everyone in the e-democracy sphere

I’m inclined to think many political theorists might be able to offer us constructive as well as critical points – and I’m really looking forward to taking this exploration further.

If you’re interesting in this exploration too, and you are going to be at BarCampUKGovWeb09 (and even if you’re not…) then join us in planning for the session on the BarCamp network.

A veritable festival of youth and social media

The 26th and 27th September should see a veritable festival of events linked to youth participation, youth work and social media down in London. In fact, I wish I'd seen all the connections earlier to brand the whole lot as a festival.
Here's what is coming up:

  • Research launch of the Youth Work and Social Networking report (26th Sept, 2.45pm till 4.45pm) – the work that seems to have taken over a large chunk of the last six months of my time. Along with Pete Cranston, I'll be sharing what we've discovered, providing both a theoretical and practical account of how youth workers and other professionals working with young people can support young people to navigate the risks and make the most of the opportunities of online social networking, and opening up a discussion of different uses of social network sites in youth work.
    The research launch is free to attend, and if you want more details or to reserve your place, get in touch with

  • UK Youth Online open space event (27th Sept, 10am till 5pm, followed by a trip to a local pub) – on Saturday 27th we'll be opening up the agenda even more to explore all things linked to young people and social media. Thanks to the kind support of DIUS this free event will provide space for practitioners, academics, innovators, funders, managers and others interested in the impact of new technology on work with young people to gather together and explore a wide range of issues through short presentations, discussions and demonstrations.
    For more details about UK Youth Online check out the network website, where you can also register to take part.

Please do pass details of all these events on to anyone who you think might be interested.


And what if you can't make the 26th and 27th September, or if London is a bit of a trek for you? Well, get in touch and let's get planning for some more local festivals exploring youth, technology and social media…

Building democracy: feedback and engagement on track

One of the biggest complaints about engaging in local democracy is that things never change.

Which isn't true. Things do change – but public institutions are notoriously bad at telling people what has changed – and at keeping the people who first raise an issue or who are interested in an issue engaged throughout the (often necessarily) long process of policy making and taking action.

And that is why I've long been musing about the possibility of an issue tracker for local democracy. And why I've floated the idea over on Building Democracy.
If you're interested in how we can improve engagement right along the policy making process in local democracy – then do pop over and take a few minutes to read the idea and let me know what you think.

Building Democracy is another call for ideas along the lines of Show Us a Better Way – this time focussed on developing stronger democracy and with £150k to invest in some of the best ideas.

I would also encourage anyone else with ideas about improving the democratic process to head over and float their ideas. In particular, I've found that the link between youth participation and developing deeper forms of democracy that empower all citizens regardless of age is often underplayed – so it would be great to see both young people, and youth participation practitioners pitching in with their ideas.

Online forums and hacks (of the journalist variety)

In a presentation about a local Finnish youth website:

In research conversations with journalists in the local area where the website is based – it was found that all the journalists interviewed used the site as a source for stories. In the case of young people calling for a skating hall in the town – it sounds like journalists were taking young peoples discussions and views from the online forum and putting them to decision makers to get answers on their behalf – and to keep the campaign going in a way that led to a skating hall being built… (!)

That raises some interesting questions:

How many local journalists are picking up positive stories from your local youth website? Is there anything for them to pick up? How can a local youth discussion forum provide positive space for young peoples' voice to cross over into the mainstream media? Or are we going to need some Finnish journalists before we can see the same happening here?