You can do better: Lessons Learned from Government Meets Social Networks


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Keynote I gave on October 16, 2009 at the Berlin in October 2009 E-Democracy Unconference on stuff I learned as project lead of the social networking site how to introduce e-participation and web 2.0 culture in a government context.

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You can do better: Lessons Learned from Government Meets Social Networks

  1. ❦ can You do better Lessons Learned from Government meets SNS Sebastian Deterding Berlin in October Unconference Berlin, October 16, 2009 ★ ★★ ★ cbn
  2. Yesterday, we heard a lot about technology that enables social and political change. Today, I‘d like to shift perspective on the social changes necessary within the political system to enable us to build this technology in the first place. Specifically, I‘ll talk about at the German social networking site «» – literally, hence the title of the presentation.
  3. »A Project Platform for Youth Engagement« What »Du machst« aspired to become The site was run by the German Federal Ministry of Youth, Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Federal Youth Council. The idea was to create a space where young people who want to do stuff (say, builld a half pipe) in their city – but have no interest in the bureaucracy of traditonal youth organisations and NGOs – could find each other.
  4. (In early 2007, that was crowded The market wasn‘t a market niche.) Please remember that in late 2006/early 2007, that still was still a real unmet need in Germany. Most of the platforms one would think of today offering similar services had not yet launched on the German market. So we were on to something.
  5. We had user profiles ... And generally, we got the basic social networking site formula right: People could set up profiles, add each other as friends, send messages, ...
  6. … and projects …. … and create projects with a blog, image gallery, forum, general information and an intranet part where they could manage project schedules and finances. Other users could join your projects and vote on them.
  7. … community management ... Also, we had some community management that facilitated communication on the platform and helped users to set up projects in the physical world: how to do public relations, planning and budgeting, things like that.
  8. … real money ... The ministry set apart a large sum to seed fund projects. Projects could apply for funds, and the idea was that users would also vote on projects, and a senior advisory board would look at the top-voted projects and decide to fund them based on that.
  9. … young journalists ... combined the social network with news and features on civic engagement all around the world, covered by youth journalists that would - in theory - be recruited from the community of the platform, be trained by professional journalists and take that knowledge to other community members in a peer-to-peer fashion.
  10. … a huge festival ... The website was part of a much larger campaign for youth engagement that culminated in a huge festival in Berlin in late spring 2008, «Berlin’08», with popular bands, hundreds of workshops by NGOs and other prosocial organisations, and thousands of participants.
  11. … AND CC licenses. Last not least, all our news and how-to guides on journalism, project management etc. were put under a Creative Commons license.
  12. So?
  13. ov ov bu er er dg tim et e no bu up gg ta y k e Yet Another Cyber Ghost Town When the social network finally launched, it was over time, over budget, buggy – and had no user uptake whatsoever: maybe a couple of hundred youngsters creating a profile.
  14. In fact... As a testament to this, the site was taken down Mid-October 2009. Which leads me to the main question of today‘s talk:
  15. Why?
  16. Lektion II Offene Online-Kommunikation ist ein Kulturschock für Behörden. Plane Zeit und Energie für Überzeugungsarbeit und Angstabbau. Every drop is a progress. Where did we go wrong? In the spirit of the old juggler saying that every drop is a progress, I don‘t want to wallow in pain. Rather, I see this as basically the best and most expensive public education I ever enjoyed – and share its benefits with you. Especially since government culture is generally not very conducive to such learning from its failures.
  17. 4 Lessons So all in all, there are four key lessons I‘d like to share that might help you if you ever happen to do something web-2.0- participation-social-media-thingy with a government agency, ministry – or in fact, any large bureaucratized organisation.
  18. (But first, some homework) ★ Procurement regulations ★ IT policies ★ Accessibility ★ Privacy ★ Harmful content, protection of minors, parental consent ★ Freedom of information ★ Trolling & content policing (Apart from the obvious homework stuff you have to get right, naturally.) So on to lesson number one:
  19. LESSON #1 Your most important task will not appear on your brief, budget, or schedule: Change management.
  20. Basically, web x.x and government is and will be for some time to come a culture clash (all the while the web is remaking the world order of media and publics). That is why your most important task is to support the necessary shift in mindset, habitsand structure within the government agency that allow your web…-thingy to fly in the first place.
  21. Web Government Peer-to-peer Hierarchy Fail early and often Culture of Fear If it doesn‘t spread, Control the message it‘s dead Human sounds Public images Don‘t Feed the Trolls OMG, Nazi Spam! While the web is all about authentic, colloquial conversations at eye level (remember the Cluetrain Manifesto: «Conversations among human beings sound human»), learning through (publically visible) failures and enabling the viral spread of your content, government is driven by a hierarchical culture of fear that leads to tight control of messages and public image.
  22. If your are able to read German, please do treat yourself to this rant from an anonymous member of the 2009 online election campaign of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. It provides attentive, heart-felt insight into how the internal organisational culture prevented the online campaign from taking off «Obama-style», as was intended.
  23. »Real engagement is when people do things for you that you didn‘t ask them to. Learn to lose control – in return for greater reach.« Ed Hart Social Media and Your Business To me, the cultural difference between the web and government is best summarized in these two quotes – on social media on the one hand ...
  24. »No comment goes online without our explicit approval.« … and on the other, this quote from an offical in our project. (In the end, user comments went online without premoderation, but that took quite some arguing.) So. Given this culture clash and the resulting need for change management: How do you do it?
  25. How to do it Brace yourself First of all: Brace yourself. This is going to be a long, tough, arduous, often frustrating process. Just be aware that everyone in your position faces the same difficulties. You‘re not alone. It‘s not your fault. We share your pain.
  26. Plan time for it Secondly, as you know that a slow process of organisational understanding and change needs to happen, be sure to include it in your project schedule. Allow time for it.
  27. Sit down with everyone & do a stakeholder analysis What to allow time for? Well, begin with really sitting down with *all* stakeholders of the project within the government and understand their needs, fears and agendas, and what they think of the other stakeholders. Gain their trust. Draw up a map of possible conflicts, and how you might manage them.
  28. i Find & nurture your insider champion It‘s of crucial importance to have an administrative as well as political champion within the government who is able to defend your project against internal resistance and be your eyes and ears. Do everything to help him/her help you, and never do anything that would threat his/her trust in you. bpb | Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung | Sebastian Deterding | 6.12.2007
  29. Get the mandate, budget & person for it Also, get the mandate, budget and the right (communicative, empathetic, inspiring …) person to work full time as the communicator/evangelist/whatever on your side with the governement. Your regular project manager will not have the time to both manage the project and the organisational change communication at the same time.
  30. Collect & tell war stories – from gvt. projects Your most important tool are graspable, emotional stories from real other government projects. Tell what worked and didn‘t work, and why. «This ministry didn‘t immediately publish the user comments online – as a consequence, they had only three comments in a 500.000 EU project.» Things like that.
  31. Forestall fears by addressing them In doing so, prove trustworthiness and empathy by directly addressing the fears of the officials (bad media coverage, extremist spamming), relating stories how you will take care of those perceived threats and why your way of dealing with them worked in the past.
  32. Create organisational distance If you are able to affect this, create as much organisational distance between the project and the government – set up a scientific advisory board that acts as a cushion, make your site a foundation funded by the government – everything that keeps them from micromanaging you and gives them the media breathing room not to be directly identified with you.
  33. Have bargains – or token decisions Know that you will have to do some hard bargaining – so figure what you are willing to give away in terms of openness, participation etc. and still make your project work. If everything fails, offer token decisions like «Which hue of blue would you like?», foreclosing the question whether the site should be yellow or green.
  34. Befriend the Press Another strategy is to befriend the media. Generally, government does not pay close attention to their users – but very much cares about bad media attention. You have some leverage if you can convey convincingly that a certain path taken in the project will lead to bad press.
  35. Build trust with success stories Finally, if you succeeded in setting up a working project, that is really just the first – but the single most important – step in the longer process of building trust in you and the web via success stories within the government agency in question – and their larger network, hopefully scaffolding the size and openness of projects with each step.
  36. LESSON #2 (Government) projects are crash courses in software development.
  37. We just communicated that we launch here – is that a problem? ⅓ UX Design ⅓ Testing ⅓ Development We know what we want (& are already Testing? Didn‘t you behind schedule, bt w) do your dev. job? We software developers hold this «rule of thirds» self-evident, that for every hour of coding, you have to add one hour of design and planning and one hour of testing and refinement. It can be waterfall or agile or anything, but you need all three. Still, government clients usually don‘t understand, thus don‘t allow budget and time for design and testing – failure ensures.
  38. Print magazine vs. printing press Why this lack of understanding? I have found that non-developers usually think of web sites as print magazines – a small set of single, static content pieces. Change that mental model into that of a printing press – some complex, dynamic machine that churns out 400.000 copies of ever-new editions per day & needs careful blueprinting and testing before running it.
  39. Red button vs. Roadmap Likewise, you have to change the prevalent print thinking of «fire and forget» into understanding that sites are services that have to constantly evolve, progress and be maintained.
  40. How to do it ★ Plan time and resources for it ★ Communicate. A lot ★ Be visual, visual, visual ★ Again, build, collect and tell stories from gvt. projects ★ Agile is no panacea, but itʻs a start How to do all that? Again, take time to communicate. Be *visual* and narrative in your communication. More agile development processes are no catch-all solutions, but again, the fact that they provide small, graspable things that officials can see, touch and sign off helps.
  41. LESSON #3 Your community is always already out there. Be a hub, not a destination.  Government agencies tend to a «pull» mentality – building destination sites in the belief that people will find them and stay if they‘re interested. This is one of the most important changes of «web 2.0»: You have to be a hub that people pass through, that collects everything going on in regard to your mission, and aggregates and pushes it out again into all available channels.
  42. »Do good – and talk about it« Step one is to actually do traditional (offline) PR and marketing. To govt. officials, the notion that public services need active promotion to be known often appears alien, so it doesn‘t find its way into budgets and schedules. See to it that it does – and that someone other than the governmental press office does it.
  43. How to do it ★ Find your community and talk with it ★ Find their most unmet need and build around it ★ Do traditional and online PR ★ Get the mandate, budget, schedule and people for community management ★ Get »native speakers« to do it ★ Make your reach into other networks measurable To build a working hub, go find your community (it‘s already somewhere out there) and figure out their most unmet need (if they‘re perfectly content with things as they are, they won‘t have any motivation to come to you). Start small and build just that which covers said unmet need. Then: Get the word out that you did! Spread RSS, APIs, widgets, whatever across the existing platforms where your community already gathers. Get the mandate, budget and right people to continually engage with your community – ideally, digital natives & members of the community you‘re talking to. Finally, to be able to convince the government agency that your hub strategy is successful, you need to come up with some metric that makes your activities in all the different platforms graspable to them.
  44. LESSON #4 Know when to leave.
  45. Know your goals. Know theirs. On to my last lesson: Before you engage in a project, be certain to really know your motivation and theirs. If they say they want a twitter account/social network/whatever, do they *really*?
  46. »A Project Platform for Civic Youth Engagement« What »Du machst« aspired to become For instance, «we» (the project team) *really* wanted to build a project platform for civic youth engagement.
  47. What They *Really* Wanted But what «they» were *really* interested in was just a digital business card with a press section and downloadable pictures that would appear in the mainstream press. That was the real job. Nothing more.
  48. Beware the stench of mortal fear. Sometimes, there are silent, even unconscious resistances to your project because organisations get the sense that it essentially puts them out of business. «If the kids organise themselves bottom up, what‘s a top down youth organisation for?» Make those fears explicit and try to talk with people through them.
  49. But in the end, certain projects were not meant to be. That is ok. You have the right (and as a professional, the obligation) to say «no» if you know for sure that the project you are about to embark upon in its specific shape would mean nothing but twelve months of misery for everyone involved. Do something fun and productive with your time instead. Seriously.
  50. Thank You. @dingstweets License: Creative Commons by-nc/3.0