Ross Gittins asked me if I’d fill in for him during his summer break, which gives me a chance to get a few things off my chest. So here’s the first of four weekly columns.
In 2009, I chaired the federal government’s Government 2.0 Taskforce. We sketched out how government might be transformed by the open zeitgeist and tools of Web 2.0 – like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Web 2.0 massively scales up our capacity to communicate – with possibilities both trivial and earth-shaking. And it scales up simple improvisation. Whether you’re organising a party or a working bee, just hop on to Facebook or Twitter and Bob’s your uncle.
Two hours after the Christchurch earthquake, work commenced on a map on the net on which could be plotted emerging developments on the ground. The information, such as the address of pharmacies that still had insulin, was parsed from 300,000 tweets bearing hashtags like #eqnz.
If you think this was a job for official emergency services on the ground, think again. Tim McNamara wasn’t with the government, but spearheaded the initiative from the North Island capital Wellington. The people who parsed the tweets were further away still, a band of humanitarian ”Crisis Commons” volunteers spanning every continent.
Many government agencies did their best. Others ticked boxes. One complained that the information on Tim’s site wasn’t ”official”. Another used his data, but refused his requests to meet to improve their co-operation.
As the Taskforce knew, it takes time for large organisations, both public and private, to understand the potential of the new openness.
In March last year, I received an email from James Kliemt’s private email address. An enthusiastic public servant within the Queensland Police Service, he had spent months assembling a social media website for the police. There were huge potential benefits. “But,” he explained “the challenge is getting them to really understand that.”
Though there were excellent police websites around the world ”not one of them really fully gets the concept as a whole. Incredibly inspiring because I can see the enormous untapped potential, deeply frustrating because I know how difficult it will be to achieve even a small part of it.”
Strange and sad, isn’t it, how doing something new ends up cloaked in dark secrecy for fear that your colleagues think you’re not a ”team player”? But James persevered. By May that year, the Queensland Police had trial Facebook, Twitter and YouTube sites.
They were following our Taskforce’s recommendation: learning by doing from umpteen small failures and successes, rather than getting bogged down in endless planning and permission seeking up the line.
So when the deluge came to Queensland last summer, the police were ready. They have shown me two pictures of a field in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. One shows sodden ground with puddles. The next a four-metre torrent of biblical proportions sweeping away everything in its path. The time between the two snaps? Twenty-two minutes.
The hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Nelson, had a mind to circumstances not dissimilar when he said: “I am of the opinion that the boldest measures are the safest.” The Queensland Police clearance processes were streamlined so that staff were trusted to use their judgment and publish whatever they thought appropriate on Facebook – instantly.
Using the Twitter hashtag #mythbuster, the police killed untrue rumours before they metastasised into factoids. The day after the 22 minutes in the Lockyer Valley saw 39 million hits on their Facebook page from around the world and the Queensland Police went from having 20,000 to 100,000 ”fans”, with another 70,000 the next day. A normal public service website would have crashed at the first whiff of this kind of interest. For Facebook and Twitter, it was all in a day’s work.
With each new ”fan” we got a new pair of eyes, a new potential ”reporter on the ground” who might report some vital fact so others can act on it, or someone from outside the disaster zone who might offer to help.
I nominated the Queensland Police for the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management. They were unsuccessful. The police, which has received lots of other awards for its social media efforts, accepts this. And I have no knowledge that, and am not suggesting, it was hard done by.
However, the way the awards work stacked things against the kind of innovation the Taskforce recommended. As the awards correspondence puts it, entrants were assessed against “both the awards selection criteria and the ADRI assessment methodology featured in the Australian Business Excellence Framework”.
It’s understandable that the judges favoured projects which could straightforwardly measure their beneficial outcomes. But as the awards correspondence conceded, this methodology “benefits the more mature programs”.
There were also 14 pages of elaboration with a column for ”strengths” about which the judges were generous and another column marked ”opportunities”. (The accompanying correspondence stressed this meant “opportunities for improvement” and were not criticisms – I wonder where the weaknesses were recorded?) This column was likewise liberally populated. Here’s one ”opportunity”.
Documentation demonstrating the planning and governance arrangements would have provided evidence of the planning undertaken to develop the trial and formal implementation of the social media package. Such documentation could have included, for example, a business case, project plan, risk assessment, budget or meeting minutes recording relevant decisions.
I once had the privilege of a long talk with two of Google’s top brass. This is the company that does great things, but builds many of them upon the improvisations of the Tim McNamaras and James Kliemts of the world.
Rather than requiring their enthusiasms to run the gauntlet of approvals up the line, it encourages them, allowing Google staff to work one day in five on projects entirely of their choosing or initiation. As one said to me: “How come crowds can be so wise and committees can be so dumb?”
For all I know, the judges chose the most meritorious public sector projects of this year. But the box ticking pedantry of their appraisal of the ”opportunities” for Queensland Police to lift their game makes me glad a different spirit animated the police in those days when things suddenly got serious in our lucky land; when the heavens opened and lives were lost or saved depending on what could be done in the space of 22 minutes.