Engaging your audiences through digital participation (Alex Butler, COI)

Alex starts the session asking: how many of you do something digital in your day job? (quite a lot of hands are raised). Who feels reasonably proficient? (a reasonable amount).

Coming from a background of marketing, Alex says how much the world has changed in terms of ‘getting your message across’, and she gives us a general picture of the UK: Traditional media IS alive and kicking; 2/3 of the adult population have access to the internet; Higher earning, better educated, urban people use the web the most; Younger people use the net more and for greater range of purposes; Use amongst ethnic minorities is as comparable on average; 1/3 of people with disabilities use the web; 70% of adults are online; 89% have broadband; We spend 23 hours a week online on average.

Alex explains what social media means:  sharing, promoting discussion, building relationships. ‘Create, Connect, Share’.

Alex talks about ‘understanding the connected citizen’: Social media is a global phenomenon; Asian markets are leading in terms of participation; all social media platforms have grown significantly; the widget economy is real; blogs are mainstream media now.

So who is using social media? Enthusiasts, ambassadors, advocates and critics – all are using it. People want to talk about agendas (theirs and yours), and they want peer reviews. They will be having conversations between themselves – so how do we as civil servants, get involved? We go in to their spaces.

Only 14% of people trust the recommendations of government and constitutions compared to more than 70% who would trust recommendations from friends and family. Alex Butler asks, what is it about the British psyche that makes us love social media (2nd only to Canada)? Because it’s a good way of augmenting the channels that we already use. We can increase and accessibility. We can reflect communication preferences, we can improve reputation and influence, we can promote transparency, we can enhance qualitative and quantitative data, we can enable staff (comms, policy and delivery). We can empower users, stakeholders and partners. Just imagine, what role could this type of social media play in bringing people back in to trust when it come to Constitutional Reform?

Alex outlines the risks to be aware of: stakeholders may not be familiar with the format; we may lack buy-in from proprietors; there is an absence of ‘standards’. We may face IT limitations. As civil servants we need to be weary of time and place, as what we say can go a long way. The essentials: Be credible, be consistent, be responsive, be integrated, be a civil servant (remember you are an ambassador!). Disclose your position wherever possible, as it’s an important part of building trust.

We should buy in to an existing community to encourage debate. She lists some examples already going on;

Stimulating debate about Iraq: a soldier was given equipment to record what he sees in Iraq and loads it on to YouTube.

Encouraging young people to wear condoms through ‘sure start’. Innovation Nation was put up to elicit commentary for the white paper (DIUS).

DirectGov set up a widget called ‘money speak’ to demystify the recession.

Alex says, ‘imagine if we did all policy like this?’.

COI’s twitter account is @digigov. Alex says she has one Twitter account, as she has a responsibility to be open (she apologises that she may sometimes talk about her garden!).

When it comes to engaging with your audience, the principles have not changed. Civil servants still need to start with the strategy – what are you trying to achieve? Who is your audience? Alex says ‘go over their place’. Build – Buy in – Be Part of.

When creating policy: Have you got an idea that’s worth talking about? Where are your audience talking online? Keep the dialogue going.

Alex outlines some resources available to civil servants: Use civil pages ‘Beta’ – sign up to wiki.gsi.gov. Use Civil pages – the facebook of the civil service. Try the  blog is a great way of practicing your blogging skills internally first! Look at Digital People communities (a twitter like resource).

Someone asks, what work are you doing with senior leaders and Ministers? Training and development opportunities are available for everyone. Alex says we need to reinforce that this is not something just young people do. We can do this by getting senior people to participate.

We need a policy across the board as no single department has a consistent approach to opening up access to services such as Twitter. She believes it is business critical – and it is a work in process but we’re getting there!

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