Has the government digital comms community sold out, or just become more mature?

There was as time when those working in digital comms in government liked to think of themselves as pioneers, do gooders, renegades, jeans wearing, pizza eating innovators; disruptors with a start up mentality.

Is this still the case? Here are some reflections…

What is the evidence?

Govcamp the annual get together was initially a very low key event and the first couple held at the Ministry of Justice had a very last minute, free flowing atmosphere. Contrast that with this year when it was held in the shiny headquarters of the Greater London Authority with all the paraphernalia that this entailed. Queues for security checks, lots of corporate sponsors and a large organising team. (I was one of them). There was an article in a IT journal which said the event had ‘come of age’ – it was meant as a compliment.

Teacamp another freewheeling event has to some extent become more regular and organised by someone from the Government Digital Service – who, by the way, does a great job.

Government Twitter accounts are becoming more ‘regulated’. There are more messages circulating across government asking for x or y message to be retweeted. One in particular used the same wording that I spotted later in the evening on the news ticker on TV. I noticed a department talking about one of their campaigns and calling it ‘exciting’. I even saw that GDS (the Government Digital Service) getting in on the act and retweeted an NHS Choices message. How long before there is only one government Twitter account? After all who cares about Departments – surely it is the topic or campaign?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) clearly had a start up mentality. When I went to visit the first time the team were seated in the corner of a small room and I recognised many of them from earlier hack events. Now GDS has several hundred staff and a number of the original ‘pioneers’ have now moved on. There are a number of aspects where GDS is now mirroring some of the functions carried out by the old COI (Central Office of Information) such as the recent guidance on domain name registration. Dare one say that it has ‘gone corporate’?

What else?

Well there is another aspect to this as with the gov.uk site taking over all government publishing everything is starting to look very similar in a standard format. Topics are being coordinated across government and clear messages are being given out. This also relates to the renamed Government Communications Service (GCS) which is starting to regulate and standardise training and steer more things centrally.

So we have Govcamp; the Government Digital Service; the Government Communications Service.

What next?

Has everything over time just become more mature and organised or is innovation being squeezed out? Will staff become interchangeable commodities as GCS starts to build on the idea of a pool of staff (as the old GICS did). Will the innovators or renegades move out to the private sector? There was a time when social media in government had an aspect of being a ‘force for good’ – has it now become a force for corporate messages…?

Have hack events also been tamed with them being a standard ‘to do’ on a tick list for which one chooses the usual candidates to organise them? Will the next step be a Government Hack Service?

Will government digital become unrecognisable from the private sector with staff moving freely between the two working on Government Campaigns? Will there be a logical progression to outsource some campaigns to benchmark what government does?

Overall is this good or bad?

What do you think?







Filed under Communications

6 responses to “Has the government digital comms community sold out, or just become more mature?

  1. juliac2

    Heart sinks at the thought of a single government twitter account – although you might be onto something with the thought of topical channels. Still prefer to follow real people though.

  2. agree with last comment – disruption is key to success, nobody will follow a totally corporate twitter stream – on a more parochial theme, my NHS trust has a (very hard to read) twitter feed on our intranet, but this is not replicated on the public internet site, and majority of staff (I mean >99%) cannot access either twitter or facebook from their desktop

    • Nick M Halliday

      Yes some kind of personality is key. We are trying to apply same ‘rules’ internally and externally. So one accessibility policy, blogging acceptable internally and externally etc.

  3. I think there are real dangers and risks for governments taking digital technologies and using them as just another broadcast channel. When governments do this, they miss the point of the social nature of these technologies. What makes digital technologies disruptive and provided opportunities for government is they allow governments to connect and engage the public in ways that are not possible with a press release or a website.

    Transitioning to a more operational and broadcast use of digital technologies means governments are in danger of losing real engagement with the public they are trying to serve. With all of the media stimuli out there if governments aren’t interesting or providing value then they run the risk of being ignored. The public may assume the government doesn’t have anything interesting to say, doesn’t care about what the public wants to talk about, and that once again the government is back to blasting out messages on topics the government thinks is important. As we have seen countless times in the recent past, ignoring the needs of citizens can have a significant impact on a country’s future. And now those conversations and opportunities for engagement are increasing occurring online. If governments aren’t there then they miss those opportunities. These are all things governments should have learned by using digital technologies.

    The beauty of digital technologies is governments can easily customize content for language, culture, and the needs of the communities. Through customized content and active engagement with the public governments can build relationships. The opportunity is here for governments to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect. But it is the government’s opportunity to lose. Governments must be willing to listen, accept feedback, and provide for the needs of the community if they want to build these relationships. Using digital technologies in broadcast mode, isn’t going to get us there. With the increase in global threats, both political and humanitarian, I would think these are opportunities governments cannot afford to miss.

    Part of why you are seeing governments use digital technologies as another broadcast channel is because governments, culturally, are not comfortable working like a startup. Governments are great at creating processes and running operations. Many governments who are in a mature state of using digital technologies are starting to treat digital technologies in an operational way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it means governments are becoming more efficient and are better at managing the work they do. Good management of assets and resources will always be encouraged especially in these lean financial times and extreme budget cuts.

    Another danger is not only could governments eventually consolidate digital communities into more centralized and standardized communities, but governments will also be moving back to a culture and environment that does not support experimentation and innovation. As technologies continue to evolve at lightning speed, governments run the risk of falling further behind and more out of touch with the publics they are supposed to serve. As the world moves toward a model of digital first communications, if the government doesn’t keep up with these changes then they run the risk of becoming irrelevant and perhaps obsolete.

    I think governments who are aware of these dangers can establish strategies that will allow them to balance the need for broadcasting government information with the engagement that comes from digital technologies. I think you can operationalize the use of digital technologies without losing the opportunities digital provides, but it won’t be easy. It goes against the very nature and culture of most governments.

    These comments are my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

  4. ‘Digital’ gov has become marginalised to techno-hype. GDS operates at a transaction level with policy the other side of a firewall. Technology as an enabler of business change has been killed so far as the citizen is concerned. Internal procurement aspect might be better but probably plagued with all the well-documented problems of shared services.

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