Government 2.0 tools

Agencies should consider why they are engaging online, which audience they are targeting and what they want to achieve. The answers to these questions should then inform which online tools and approaches are chosen to engage internally within an organisation or externally with the public. Each of the sections below introduces classes of tools and provides examples of how they have been used in a government context.

It is often the case with Web 2.0 tools that one type of tool will exhibit aspects of other types. For example, both a blog and Facebook can be used for a conversation, but both are also different in many other aspects of their use. This is not necessarily a matter of great concern, since each of the tools discussed below can be useful in their own right. When a tool has additional functions or integrates usefully with another tool, there may be additional benefits.

It is also the case that not all of the tools discussed below will work well in every situation. The successful use of a particular tool or approach by one agency or program does not mean that replicating it will guarantee success.

It can be useful to learn from the lessons of other agencies about their Government 2.0 initiatives. The Government 2.0 Taskforce discussed their online engagement experiences in their final report. For an overseas example, see the National Library of New Zealand’s discussion of lessons learned from their first year of blogging. AGIMO has created a Government 2.0 govdex community open to Australian public servants from all levels of government to discuss and share knowledge about Government 2.0. Requests for membership can be sent to gov2@finance.gov.au.

Establishing Government 2.0 tools: legal and other best practice compliance issues

Agencies adopting new Web 2.0 tools need to comply with their legal and policy obligations in areas such as security, privacy, accessibility and branding, among others. These obligations are important as they involve making agency online engagement initiatives as safe, reliable, easily-understood and open to as many people as possible.

When establishing presences on Web 2.0 sites or services, whether they are hosted internally or externally, agencies should endeavour to follow best practice guidelines for web publishing as they would for any other agency website. Agencies should refer to Finance’s Web Guide for advice on how to manage their websites, identify their relevant legal and policy obligations and ensure that they comply with these obligations.

This can be particularly challenging when using third-party Web 2.0 services which may not comply with agency obligations – for example, by not providing the necessary level of security and privacy controls required under Australian law. It may also be the case that some Web 2.0 tools will not be accessible to people relying on assistive technologies to navigate online, meaning that agencies will need to consider providing other methods of participation. There may also be issues in terms of applying the required Australian Government branding to agency presences on third-party services.

Before establishing a presence on third-party Web 2.0 services, agencies should also carefully assess the service’s terms and conditions in regard to operational, probity and legal considerations. From an operational point of view, agencies should be aware of any potential issues such as planned service outages or modifications and embedded advertising. In terms of probity, agencies must still follow relevant procurement guidelines even when making use of free online services. Finally, it is important to assess the legal ramifications of a third party service’s terms and conditions, particularly where they require an agency to indemnify the service provider against any loss or damage arising from the agency’s use of the service. If these legal ramifications are insurmountable, it may be necessary to negotiate with the service provider to establish altered terms and conditions, or else find an alternative option to hold the initiative.

Assessing the cost-effectiveness of Government 2.0 tools

Using Web 2.0 tools can provide cost benefits compared to traditional communications channels in terms of reaching a broad range of stakeholders and creating new methods for people to participate in agency initiatives and consultation activities. There are also a broad range of cost considerations to be made in terms of selecting which tools are appropriate for an agency’s goals.

As mentioned above, agencies will need to go through the appropriate probity processes even when procuring free online tools. As also mentioned previously, it is important to note that even the use of free online tools will expend time and agency resources, and will need to be integrated with other agency communications channels and activities.

There are many other cost-effectiveness considerations to make when procuring online tools for official agency use. For example, as discussed in the social networking sites section below, agencies may wish to engage with stakeholders in established online communities – in this case developing an agency-hosted platform may not be an efficient use of resources. Agencies should also assess whether Finance’s whole-of-government services such as the govspace blogging platform or the govdex online collaboration workspace will be suitable for their needs. Finally, using a paid service (including a premium version of a free service) may be more appropriate than using a free service, if the former option includes additional functionality or features which will assist in fulfilling an agency’s business needs and obligations. Examples could include paid services which, compared to free services, offer more options to manage or export content, or to host data on agency infrastructure rather than externally.

Blogs

Blogs can be used to tell the public or stakeholder groups about agency activities and give readers the opportunity to provide comments. As well as allowing blog posts and comments from the public on those posts, blogs are able to deliver a wide range of benefits for agencies because they can have additional functions. For example, Finance’s govspace platform (discussed in more detail below) will eventually support additional features such as paragraph by paragraph commenting on blog posts (which is useful for getting feedback on documents) and rating systems for posts and comments.

The take up of blogs by the public sector in Australia is increasing following the Government 2.0 Taskforce and other successful examples of government blogging. Several public sector organisations are publishers of active blogs that see significant traffic and engagement from their audiences including AusTrade, the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

As well as engaging with the public, blogs are also useful for internal purposes. With a blogging platform in place, business units and projects within an agency can readily publish reports and progress about their work that is immediately available to an entire agency. There are a number of potential benefits to this, such as increased staff awareness of agency activities/business requirements and the potential to reduce duplication of work. Blogs (along with other tools such as wikis) can be used to supplement corporate intranets.

Blogs can be hosted within an agency or by one of the many providers available. These providers include government-run options such as the govspace service operated by Finance as well as commercial blog providers. In many cases basic blog services are free, but agencies need to note that increased functionality generally comes at a cost.

Case study – the AGIMO blog

In May 2010, following the work of the Taskforce, AGIMO launched its own blog, which has been used to host ministerial announcements, provide updates on projects, share departmental documents and consult with the public on AGIMO’s work in areas such as web accessibility and ICT procurement. Many of the staff involved in launching and running the AGIMO Blog also provided technical and secretariat support on the previous Taskforce blog.

During the planning stages of the AGIMO Blog, there was awareness that a range of different areas within AGIMO were interested in using blogging as a way to engage with the public. As such, the decision was made to establish one central blog for the organisation rather than a number of separate, possibly time-limited project-specific blogs. Accordingly, when the AGIMO Blog launched, AGIMO’s previous Web Guide blog was shut down, and its posts and comments transferred as a category on the new blog.

As discussed above, AGIMO has gained a range of useful feedback from comments on blog posts, and has benefitted from the experience of running the blog as an online engagement tool. One of the key lessons learned so far is the need to ensure posts are added regularly to the blog, and that responses to comments are provided as quickly as possible when needed.

Another important lesson learned from the AGIMO Blog is about the moderation of blog comments, which is discussed in more detail elsewhere in this document. One particular moderation issue involved how to appropriately manage blog comments during the caretaker period after an election has been called. During the caretaker period agencies follow the Guidance on Caretaker Conventions, which is prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC). Under this guidance, public service resources cannot be used to communicate any material which benefits any party in an election, meaning that the need for vigilant moderation of agency-run social media tools increases. In conjunction with DPMC, AGIMO was involved in creating advice for agencies on how to comply with the caretaker conventions when managing social media, and applied this advice when moderating the AGIMO Blog during the 2010 caretaker period.

govspace

Finance operates the govspace blogging and website hosting platform as a way to allow agencies to establish their own blogs and websites without needing to focus on technical and procurement issues involved; meaning they can, instead, concentrate on content and community engagement. govspace uses WordPress software, maintained by Finance, to allow agencies from all levels of government to manage their own “space”, which may be a blog, a website or a combination of both.

Finance has tailored the govspace service to cater for a range of agency needs and technical capabilities. For example, if agencies wish they can customise the look and feel of their space and establish it under their own domain name. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a space can be created using one of the default appearance templates provided by Finance under a govspace.gov.au domain, with very little additional technical work needed to launch the site.

Examples of govspace blogs and websites include the AGIMO Blog, the Innovation Blog and the Election Commitment Costings website.

Microblogs

Microblogs use short message technology that allows distribution of messages across the Internet. Microblogging tools, such as Twitter, can be used in a number of scenarios, including:

  • active customer contact and service
  • public alerts and messaging
  • announcements – including promoting content hosted elsewhere

In all likelihood, microblogging will supplement other Government 2.0 activities. While microblogging can be useful in and of itself, it is often better used as a quick message or response service backed up by other online assets. For example, the Taskforce used its Twitter account to promote new blog posts and Taskforce activities.

Twitter

Twitter is the most successful microblogging service in the world, with millions of users worldwide. A number of Australian Government agencies are using Twitter to engage with the public, including the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Agencies’ approaches to Twitter have differed. For example, the ABS runs separate accounts for different projects, such as their Betaworks and Census 2011  accounts. Another option is for departmental staff to tweet on behalf of their organisation. Department of Human Services general manager of communication Hank Jongen has a Twitter account which he uses to engage with the public about the work of his department. Similarly, while AGIMO does not operate a dedicated Twitter account, several AGIMO staff are active on Twitter in a professional sense, such as John Sheridan, First Assistant Secretary of Agency Services Division, which is responsible for AGIMO’s Government 2.0 work.

Wikis

Wikis are online tools which can be edited by their users, the idea being that the end result will benefit from a collaborative authoring process. Many users reading material on a wiki may never access the editing features built into the tool. Perhaps the best-known wiki is Wikipedia.

In a government context, wikis have many potential uses, including:

  • Public or internal-facing creation and editing of policy, program, legislative or other documents.
  • Providing a knowledge base for answers to common questions.
  • Internally, as repositories for staff information.

Some wikis include editing tools similar to common word processing software, while others rely on a form of mark-up language which can be difficult to learn. As such, training may be required to familiarise staff with wikis, and agency-run wikis should ideally include documentation to assist users in mastering the tool. DBCDE recently ran a wiki to elicit public comment on the National Broadband Network Implementation Plan – an example of using Web 2.0 technology to supplement traditional policy consultation approaches.

govdex

govdex, the official Australian Government collaborative online workspace, includes a wiki functionality. govdex provides communities built for any agency for internal or inter-agency use. Developed and run by Finance, govdex communities are free for agencies including regular training and user support.

govdex can be used for agencies to share and collaborate on documents, track issues and operate online forums within a community. govdex is security classified to the IN-CONFIDENCE level – which allows agencies to share and collaborate on classified documents. As at the time of writing, govdex has over 900 communities and 20,000 registered users.

Social networking sites

For government, the temptation can be strong to attempt to conduct online engagement activities from their own websites, including their own blogs. While this is a legitimate and reasonable approach, it may also be beneficial to engage with communities in the online spaces they already gather in, such as social networking sites. Agencies can engage with these communities as a Government 2.0 exercise in its own right or to complement existing initiatives such as agency blogs or forums.

Social networking sites come in many different forms, but basically allow their users to share content and build relationships with one another. A social media strategy should include aspects of both building and generating spaces and engagement with the users of social networking sites where relevant. For example, the Taskforce operated its own self-hosted blog in conjunction with its Twitter account and other social media presences, using different channels to compliment and promote the others.

This strategy should include aspects of drawing people to agency spaces through third-party networks as well as direct engagement in the third-party networks themselves. An example of this strategy is the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ (FaHCSIA) The Line, a campaign website which is tightly integrated with several other social media platforms including Facebook.

Facebook

While not the only social networking site in existence, Facebook is by far the most popular and well known Web 2.0 tool in Australia. A Government 2.0 strategy should consider whether engagement by an agency, or one of its programs, is appropriate for Facebook. Several Australian government agencies have deployed successful activities on Facebook, including the Department of Health and Ageing and FaHCSIA.

Other agencies have had less success using Facebook. While the Taskforce blog was regarded as very successful, its Facebook presence was far less successful and basically only consisted of reposted Taskforce blog posts with no additional engagement.

A strategy should not just focus on an agency presence on Facebook; as discussed below, it should also include the monitoring of Facebook and other tools with respect to your agency, its programs, services and staff.

Ideas markets

Idea-gathering tools allow users to submit and rate/vote on ideas. Ideas markets can be used in a wide range of ways during consultation processes where input from a potentially wide range of stakeholders is needed to canvas new ideas or to provide feedback on a piece of work. Agencies can use these tools to expose ideas to a broad range of stakeholders and allow their input to be a valid aspect of the considerations.

These tools are particularly useful for allowing a community of stakeholders to select one or a few ideas from many. The Taskforce used the third-party tool IdeaScale to gather and receive feedback on ideas from its community. Finance is also currently investigating options to provide similar functionality through its govspace service.

Internal agency communities

As a method to experiment and build capability with Web 2.0 tools in a low-risk environment, the implementation of small test communities within an agency can be a worthwhile strategy. Successes can be built upon, eventually extending to the entire organisation and beyond to external stakeholders.

This approach may involve internal blogs, wikis, instant messaging services or other tools, or the use of closed services such as govdex.

Media distribution

Public sector agencies produce a vast range of media in the process of their work – video, audio and still photography are a valuable resource that can be shared and reused for many reasons. Media of different types can be used for:

  • Distributing agency policy information, as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship does via its No to People Smuggling channel on YouTube.
  • Opening up existing agency media assets, such as collections of images, for public access and reuse.
  • Providing information on organisation activities and benefits as is done with AusTrade podcasts.
  • Learning and development, both internal and external, for example instructional videos.

YouTube

Video, of any length, can be a useful tool in spreading a policy or program message, sharing information about the work of an agency or providing a widely distributed platform for educational videos, among other examples.

YouTube is the dominant video sharing site on the Internet. There are several agencies already using YouTube to share video content, including:

Flickr

Flickr is the largest image-specific photo sharing site in the world, and offers a range of licensing options, from restrictive to very open, and provides features to assist in retaining the appropriate metadata with all images.

Some government agencies already use Flickr, including for basic distribution of images taken at events linked to the agency. Several Australian cultural institutions including the Powerhouse Museum (which has documented their image sharing strategy), the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Maritime Museum, the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Queensland all share part or all of their collections through Flickr Commons, which is designed to permit easy access to visual archives under open licences.

Social media monitoring

While not strictly a Government 2.0 activity, monitoring subjects related to the work of an agency is an important part of engaging online. In many cases, social media monitoring is an extension of traditional media monitoring, which many agencies already do. As discussed below, social media monitoring can also be undertaken by individual public servants using a range of online tools. Compared to traditional media monitoring, social media monitoring has the advantage that it can give more direct access to community sentiment and the opportunity to respond in real time.

Even before beginning to use Web 2.0 tools, monitoring the online world for discussion and content related to an agency, program or area of interest can be beneficial. It may even prove that social media monitoring can provide the impetus for building a more comprehensive organisational Government 2.0 strategy. For example, if an agency can see that a wide ranging conversation is happening on Twitter regarding its work or area of interest, it may assist in motivating the agency to become involved in that conversation.

There is a broad range of tools available for monitoring online traffic about an organisation. In many cases these tools will be able to supplement traditional media monitoring, particularly when they pick up on online versions of articles in mainstream media. When beginning to monitor activities, it is not necessary to spend large amounts of money. A basic social media monitoring toolkit could consist entirely of free tools.

Social media monitoring will quite possibly discover activity and comment with respect to an agency, its Minister, staff and executive in many places. Once such activity has been discovered, questions arise about how to respond, including:

  • How to decide to respond to any activity, whether negative, neutral or positive.
  • Who is responsible for responding officially, as opposed to more general responses by staff which may also be permitted in some cases.
  • The nature of any response.
  • The platform on which any response should occur, for example, if and how to respond directly to a negative Facebook comment or group, versus responding from the agency site and linking to the Facebook page.

A useful example of this kind of strategy was released in the form of a simple chart by the United States Air Force. This strategy needs to be integrated with an agency’s social media policy.

Syndication

Syndication is about getting information out. It involves replicating content from one site to another (or many). The use of syndication to distribute news and information from an agency places the ability to read and consume that information in the hands of clients and other interested parties where they want to, when they want to, using their own tools and devices. This increases the likelihood that appropriate information will get to users, an approach which supports and enhances the notions of openness inherent in Government 2.0 activities.

The Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research has successfully operated its business.gov.au website for several years and has stated that nearly double the number of people access its information and services through syndication rather than through the website.

The value in syndication of information is its ability to disseminate widely and rapidly. Few people have time to trawl the vast range of online resources for the information they need each day. Syndication removes that need, allowing them to gather the information they need in a single place and keep up to date far more easily.

RSS for announcements and news

Most Web 2.0 tools include syndication capability via RSS (a term which refers most commonly to the Really Simple Syndication web feed format). RSS is built in to most platforms including blogs, wikis, photo sharing and others. The australia.gov.au website provides a listing of government RSS feeds currently in operation.

RSS may have benefits from an internal agency perspective. Agency staff may be able to read syndicated information from various sources as well as other government and non-government sources via RSS in a range of tools including their email client, a web browser or a specialised tool.

Automated tools and techniques for evaluating online submissions

Some Government online consultations and other engagement initiatives may receive a large volume of submissions. For example, the 2009 National Human Rights Consultation, which included an online element, received over 35,000 submissions (including both online and offline sources). In cases such as these, analysing a large number of submissions could be extremely intensive in terms of time and resources.

Agencies may find that the task of analysing and making further use of submissions can be assisted by automated processes such as text mining tools. Text mining generally refers to the automated processing of large amounts of text to extract meaning and patterns. Another option could be to design the online submission mechanisms in such a way that there is already some level of meaning attached to content at the point of submission, for example by asking contributors to tag or categorise their submissions based on the topic/s of the consultation.

data.gov.au

Data.gov.au is the central access and discovery point for Australian Government data, and provides agencies with a useful tool for publishing data.  The site, released in March 2011, currently hosts datasets from multiple agencies and jurisdictions, and links to other government data catalogues containing thousands of datasets.

Data.gov.au offers a data hosting and publishing service for agencies, or agencies can create entries linking to existing datasets published on their own websites or data catalogues.

One of the key goals of data.gov.au is to publish data in useful formats and open licences, as discussed in the Publishing Public Sector Information section of the Government 2.0 Primer. Other features include commenting and voting capabilities on each dataset.

The original beta version of the site was launched in late 2009 as part of the Government 2.0 Taskforce’s MashupAustralia contest. Like its overseas equivalents, data.gov, data.gov.uk and data.govt.nz, data.gov.au has the potential to realise social and economic benefits by facilitating discovery of and access to openly released Australian Government data. If agencies are releasing data, they should ensure that it is discoverable through data.gov.au.

Last Reviewed: 2012-1-4