public service

This says it all.

Awhile back on PA System there was a discussion of mental health service in New Zealand generally, and my main impression was that the mental health system here in Wellington, our capital, is in a word, woeful.

It angers me that a young man like Finn can “slip through the cracks” in a system that is supposed prevent the unnecessary deaths of bright young men. My own experience of Wellington’s system is that woeful is almost too weak a word, with it taking an expert outside the country to provide me with something like a diagnosis on the basis of reading this blog.

That makes me extraordinarily lucky.

Finn wasn’t anywhere near as lucky. He was new to a city with a useless, third-rate health system with poor communication, second-rate medical professionals, and a half-arsd approach to medical care.

It is nothing less than a disgrace that our Capital City continually fails people. It angers me, and it should anger you too. If any one of you reading this lives here in the Wellington region then you too could fall prey to the buffoons supposed to be taking care of us. And don’t give me the “but I had great treatment” line. If you had, think yourself lucky. Having sat in *a lot* of medical rooms and spoken to *a lot* of other people waiting for treatment, then clumsy mistakes and poor treatment is something of the norm here.

And in Finn’s case, it was fatal.

And what’s worse? There is absolutely nothing that you and I can do about. These fckers publish a report, slap each other on the wrist with a wet bus ticket, issue a weak, meaningless apology, and move on to their fat, fcking salaries… And I’m ANGRY. I’m sick of the excuses and I’m sick of hearing tales like this. I’m sick of waiting for someone to tell me something someone on the other side of the world could work out from 600 words on the internet.

Capital and Coast DHB you are FCKING USELESS. If there is ANYTHING that I’m thankful for, it is that I’m not as vulnerable as Finn was…

Well, I’m finally back from almost two weeks of jaunting about the place learning about Knowledge Management.

And I’m freaking exhausted. I’ve been in hospital, been in conference, been in hotels and been in dives. Have eaten a range of terrific food and spoken to literally dozens of all kinds of people.

Next is to digest it all, and get up it up here on Dart. Believe me, I have a lot to tell you. The last two weeks have both affirmed and expanded both my confidence in my abilities, and my range of working knowledge. I’m looking forward to unpacking it all slowly and getting it down “on paper” as it were.

I got a request from someone who’s moving into a public service role to outline some dos and don’ts in respect of social media and the government job, so thought that I’d put up some of the best references I’ve seen around the place. I also thought that I’d generally repeat a few things I learned when first moving into the public service (the only real game in town if you’re a Wellingtonian, other than Wellywood or Silicon Welly).

The first thing to note is that there are good resources. I’ve found Jason Ryan’s postings at  the NPSC blog to be invaluable. If you’re really keen on the use of social media, and you think your new agency could use some, or could use some guidance, then get yourself over to the SSC (State Services Commission) and hunt about for the guidelines. They have a community of practice that you could refer to as well. Finally, there are sites like So Said the Organisation that talk about the experiences of other jurisdictions, and the British government seems to have published a Guide really recently, which I can’t find just now (and would appreciate someone linking to.)

If you’re not predisposed to doing a bit of research before you get into the blogging, podcasting, twittering, wiki editing, or other things I’d been doing, then the GOLDEN RULE when using social media is:

DO NOT, under any circumstances, BE A DICK.

It’s pretty much that simple. The wonderful thing about social media is that it allows you to express yourself freely, and to engage with people all over the world, online. The very real risk this poses is that anything and everything you do or say is permanently recorded by Google Cache. Consequently, if you find yourself having a bit too much coffee in the morning, and you’re the type to blow your stack about things like, for example, trolls saying outrageous things about people you might know, then if your response to that troll will be visible to the whole world.

Why this is a problem is the complicating factor of the Public Service Code of Conduct. Basically the Code can be interpreted to say that you are a representative of the government when speaking in public. You should recognise yourself that the internet is a very public space. Likewise, the Code says that you should maintain the confidence of both Government and Opposition. This obviously means that you’ll need to make sure that your opinions, assuming that you’re putting your opinions online, which is not always a good idea, are politically neutral.

You should be able to get the idea from this short run-down. What it all boils down to is the application of common sense. Just don’t go doing things that could embarrass you, and the boss you’ve disclosed your social media activities to, i.e. operate a “no surprises” policy.


A decision I made shortly after leaving Public Address was to not make the mistake of starting to blog under a pseudonym. The problem was that as newly-minted public servant in 2005, and it also being election year, it had been extremely difficult not to make extensive comment about subjects one does not broach when in the employ of the Crown. In plain English, I had to learn to keep my mouth shut.

And it wasn’t easy, and I failed sometimes.

When I kicked off Object Dart here my first thought was that it would be easy to assume a non-de-plume and get to blogging, and saying whatever the heck I wanted. The main hurdle to this idea was that “Che Tibby” had become something of a brand (for better or worse) over at PA, so losing the title would mean losing some potential readers who might want to migrate. Ego is, after all, a powerful motive.

But more importantly, I knew that using the pseudonym would doubtless get me in to a little bit of grief. Something I had been aware of for a while (mostly because I was guilty of doing it) was the inappropriate pressing of the “hot send” button. The crew at Sir Humphries were on the receiving end of it a number of times. There were quite a few issues I used to feel a lot more excited about, and if I was hopped up on coffee I would happily give out a broadside. Nazis used to drive me over the edge… I really hate the damn nazis…

As my intended brief stint in the public service has dragged out to a couple of years I’m finding that the anger about issues is abating, and the abatement seems to be doing good things for my general levels of stress. So I think it’s with actual online experience I can now dish out advice to other members of the public service who might like to get themselves into the Web2.0.

Tip #1. Using phrases like “Web2.0″ is sooooo 2007. What was Web2.0 is now OEM and not a big deal.

Tip #2. Blog, twitter, edit Wikipedia and comment places under your real name. If you’ve genuinely got the time to be engaging and/or relationship building online, then the pseudonym will or could get you into hot water.

I’ve covered this ground before, but Poneke’s recent experience with some of the seamier side of the blogosphere clearly demonstrates that there are people out there who will likely try to “get you” simply because you’re a public servant. We’re not the most popular occupation at the best of times, so the public finding out that we’re “wasting time/money” by putting our private lives online is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Using a non-de-plume, which is inevitably found out, can only add suspicion to the minds of non-interweb people who probably don’t know what the hell you do on a good day, let alone one where your hangover or mood doesn’t let you reach that exalted stage of “most productive”.

It was better therefore to go under my on name (which a surprising number of people thought was a pseudonym anyhow!) Firstly this allows me to own whatever I do online. There can be no cases of mistaken identity, and no getting my workmates under the same IP address in any trouble (Wikipedia editing anyone…). Secondly, it actively prevents me from straying into to ‘hot send’ territory. This is especially the case if I’m commenting from a work computer.

Thing is, the day is almost here where interaction online is no longer frowned upon in the workplace. All indications are that professional people should be able to self-regulate their internet usage, and that general levels of web interaction and use of applications will increase accordingly.

The risk is that public servants are tempted to say things online they might happily say in the pub, and that this is recorded permanently. My own view is that using a pseudonym will only increase the likelihood that an individual will take that risk. You only have to look at the behaviour of public servants around key or interest-specific issues (such as the seabed and foreshore), to see that people do occasionally step across the line.

But Google doesn’t cache a bit of protest. It does almost everything else. So keeping it all above board means your future self might not find a sudden rush of cold-water poured on an otherwise spotless career.

Oh, and Tip #3. Don’t write about, hint about, or blurt about work. Ever.

Some days at work are just, like this…

But then on the other hand, this is Ian Svenonius reading from The Psychic Soviet.

There you go. Feeling normal by comparison.

As part of my mission to bring social media into the public service (although I can’t claim this one for myself, the State Service Commission seems be all over it), I’ve been making myself establish and work with clear concepts.

So, why clear conceptualisation? When you’re trying to sell a social media product or idea within your agency, you’re likely to run into a lot of people who don’t necessarily ‘get’ what “the Web2.0 stuff” is all about. The internet tolls are just the internet, you know, lovely and all that, but not really all that useful unless you’re wanting naked people or banking.

So to combat the problem of confusion about the medium and it’s potential I’ve found it useful to break people down into three separate types. It’s a pretty simple distinction, and goes like this:

  1. Content Users – These are people who really only use the internet to breeze over sites. To read newspapers, maybe do their banking. Their engagement with the internet, or their respective intranet, is entirely superficial. They will likely more about what’s under the bonnet of their car or where the biscuits are in the kitchen that what makes the internet hum.
  2. Content Interactors – These are people who are ‘kind-of’ Web2.0. They might have a blog from when they went on their OE, or might use Flickr. They’re aware of the potential of internet, but for any given reason just don’t exploit it. They will most probably leave a comment on a blog of news-outlet story, but that’s about it.
  3. Content Generators – These are the people who really get a kick out of user-oriented, Web2.0 applications. They will blog or have their own websites. They’ll be addicted to Wikipedia. And they know how to push information or content out via the web, and probably consume much of their input from electronic sources.

Simple. There are hundreds of other models out there, but this one works nicely for me in my role as a public servant.

Why it’s useful is firstly because the three types can easily be found in any workplace. Second, they decrease in population as you proceed from Users to Generators. All Generators started out as Users, but not all Users develop into Generators. This means that in any workplace you’ll only ever get a few people who are able or willing to fully engage with whatever social media application you’re trying to establish or sell, but lots who will want to read or look at something useful.

Knowing that your full audience is limited to only a few people is actually powerful, because you can design your service or tool, a wiki for instance, to meet the needs of the colleagues who will generate content for it. You don’t need to try to sell it to everyone, because you know for a fact that not everyone can exploit the tools you build.

However, everyone does need to be able to use it. The trick it seems is to run a happy middle ground between traditional ‘push’ media, i.e. the old-fashioned intraweb, and also needing to ‘pull’ people onto the application where they can interact and/or generate content. If you can design a business model for your social media that exploits the difference in types, and optimises these differences, your nifty social media project might just end up coming along swimmingly.

PS. Here’s a diagram, draw by Hadyn Green!

I can see that I should have been a little faster on this one.

But hey, someone finally explained what zeitgeist means the other day… I always thought it meant being a little too happy about others misfortune. Except I think they confused zeitgeist with ‘avant-garde’. Which is pretty funny, because if you work in the public sector it’s often a little like, “garded-zeitgeist”.

The Germans will have an actual word for it though.

The idea of push-pull interaction between public and public-sector via social media is something a lot of people have been mulling over recently, and there are new examples of agencies putting all the theory into practice.

And what does this push-pull distinction mean? “Push” media is the traditional, sit on the couch, eat chips, be fed entertainment interspersed with advertising type. You tune in when you have to, because that’s when your favourite show is on. But “pull” media is something new and different. When you go to YouTube it’s to find something. You go when you want to, and you go on your own terms.

The marketing/advertising types are currently working hard to figure out how get their products in the faces of internet users, and the threat is that public service agencies will start to use the same types of methods to engage with the public at large. This is of course the kinds of stuff that people like the NPSC blog are asking that we avoid.

The nubbin of the problem, to my thinking, is ensuring that we transform our approach to public engagement via social media, and not just medium-jump with the same old ways.

I first encountered the transformation concept when working in a previous agency and was trying to argue that a particular process solution fell within the parameters of the Electronic Transactions Act 2002. A problem had arisen where a ‘standards’ team within the agency was convinced that the solution my team was proposing was not allowed by the Act.

The details are unimportant, but what had occurred was a bit of limited thinking. In the minds of the ‘standards’ team a paper transaction could only be moved to a text transaction, and they were unwilling to consider the transaction to have occurred if any other format was used. We, on the other hand, were arguing that was important was the function the transaction served, not the format of the transaction.

As I say, details -> unimportant. But the ‘standards’ team were behaving the same way as many of the old ‘push’ media cohorts, you know, take whatever you’ve got and dump it into the new format. Both seem to be missing the point entirely…

With the advent if social media applications, and our want to use them (note: not “need”), we need to transform the way we think about engagement. And the first port of call should always be, is there a business need for this application? The second is, are we just using it because it’s “so hot right now?” There’s plenty of that thinking going on as well.

Once you get used to the idea that there are clear, and acceptable, boundaries to using social media in e-government, then you need to think about what kind of product you’re intending to use. What is the function you’re trying to achieve? Are you just pushing something out to the public? Or are you trying to pull people into an engagement?

If you’re genuinely desiring the latter (or required to by your superiors…), then you need to re-imagine how a ‘pull’ relationship works. You can’t just “build it and they will come”. You need to conceptualise your little slice of the e-government arcade, and build the kind of space people will feel comfortable engaging with both you, and other citizens. You know, bring them in, sit them down with a cuppa and a good read.

As opposed to just adding to all the noise out there by building a sophisticated “yelling machine”, i.e. the TV or the stereo.

I haven’t heard if there are any repercussions to the DomPost story, broken by The Standard and picked up Russell B, about the extensive editing of wikipedia by someone behind the parliamentary IP address. I know that there are some questions about the censoring of explicitly political (or more accurately, politically sensitive information), but I won’t be broaching them here.

What I’m interested in is the use of social media by public servants.

While some might of the opinion that public servants should not use social media, this opinion is usually held by persons who don’t like the idea of having public servants at all. The old, “cut the public service to the quick” types. And frankly, if you’re of this opinion then stop reading in a little bit, because you’ll never be convinced. I think all I can say is that I don’t hear you people complaining about the guys at the bank, or at the insurance company using the net. And, they’re employed by your dollar as well…

However, I am of the type that prefers to see people around him actually working. There’s nothing like a couple of decades in service and manufacturing to get you used to putting in hours of hard labour. When I first started in white-collar work I thought that every single person I saw was basically… lazy. I soon came round when I saw people putting the 12-hour days, and understood better when I did a few myself.

The thing about the internet is, not being a smoker, it’s hard to get away from the desk and stretch the legs without bothering my colleagues. If there’s anything I hate it’s some numnut walking up for a chat when I’m concentrating hard on trying to get some wording right. So, instead I browse the web when I need to “micropause”. That or go get another cup of tea/coffee.

This is probably the right time to introduce you to a story. After I’d been a former employer about 9 months I was hauled into my manager’s office . There was also an HR person. They both looked a little serious. I, naturally, became wary.

During this meeting I was told that there were some concerns about my internet usage. I was shocked! What the hell! How much internet had I been using? Did that one page on some English daily featuring Shane Warne and two topless young ladies someone get reported? (I had closed the window as soon as I realised it was NSFW).

Well, it turns out that my internet usage had topped the allowable limit for my unit in the Department. Again, shocked. How much had I been using to warrant a meeting with manager and HR?!

An average of twenty minutes a day.

Yup, you read that right, twenty minutes.

What this meant is that if I got up and walked away from my computer for an hour and left open, it counted against my usage. In management’s defence, a lot of employees would go over the limit, but I guessed that I was probably one of the worst, so got brought in for a chat.

And during that chat I was told to find something to do to distract myself when I needed a break… something that couldn’t be measured by the second. Maybe take up smoking?

So, how does this relate to social media? A man’s got to have something to look at on the net during that twenty minutes!

But seriously. If you’re plonked in front of a computer all day you will, inevitably, use the internet. The proviso is that you use it responsibly, as warrants your occupation as professional. Moreover, there are voices that encourage the appropriate use of the internet and social media as tools for the public service.

To balance the expectation that you use the resource reasonably, you need to maintain transparency at all times. To do that, you need to use your own name when you’re using social media like blogs or wikis. Never, ever hide behind an “anonymous” (or worse, anonymouse) IP address or pseudonym. Some people have good reasons for using them, but I can’t imagine a single situation in which a public servant would need to. If you’re up to something dodgy at work, and trying to be sneaky, you will get caught, and spanked.

Doubtless the ICT department up at parliament has already trawled their records, and the exact persons who resulted in the DomPost article have been spoken to already, if not only for bringing their workplace into (minor) disrepute.

And would using real names have prevented this? Probably not. But then, if you’re thinking of editing a wiki about tanks and your favourite band on work time? You should think again. If you still think it’s a good idea, then using your real name is better for your workmates…

I’m putting up this post even though it’s a rehash of an idea I ran here on Dart a few months back.

The “E-Government Arcade” idea is actually a very simple one, is an effort to characterise how public servants can view their online engagement with the public.

A fairly common concern expressed by public servants when discussing how and why they would engage with the public is the fear that the internet is a completely unregulated medium. If you’re putting ideas out for discussion, or attempting to gather feedback on a project or idea, there’s the chance that you’ll end up with crazy responses and hijacking of discussion by trolls (people who deliberately obfuscate, or who deliberately make trouble online).

This is of course a completely legitimate concern. Trolls are a very real problem online. But they will only become a problem in an e-government space if you let them. 

And that’s where the arcade analogy comes in. The internet itself is almost complete anarchy. You can liken this to an open park. If you’re a band on MySpace you’re effectively a busker in a park. Anyone can walk up and abuse you, sing with you, or cheer. The rules are limited, and this makes it slightly edgy and fun.

Government bureaucracy doesn’t like this kind of space though. Bureaucracy needs order, and is naturally risk averse. You can’t have random things happening. And you can’t have people firing off in all directions. that’s where the arcade idea has application.

An arcade, or a mall, is a private space that pretends to be a public space. Everyone is welcome, but there are clear rules about what you can and can’t do. Likewise in the shops in the arcade. You’re welcome in, but everyone knows that you behave according to the rules set down by the owners.

Any public interaction set up by a government agency is in effect a “shop” within the overall ‘arcade’ of the government e-space. It is a controlled space that a member of the public needs to accept is not a place where free-for-all behaviour will be tolerated. It is also there to serve a specific purpose, and will have the same limitations as other types of channels.

If you liken the public space that is “e-government” to an arcade it makes it much more comfortable for practioners to provide clear rules and parameters for the tools they construct, and therefore makes them a lot less jumpy…

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about how damn boring the interweb has become. Not all the interweb mind you, just the bits that I used to like to play in. And being the inquisitive, questioning type I’ve also been wondering why it’s this way. It’s not like all the interesting stuff that used to preoccupy me has disappeared, right? There’s still some funny as hell conversation, videos and music to entertain.

No, the problem is that my ability to fully indulge in my favourite stuff, the questioning and inquisiting, has largely been taken away by my work.

Now I’m not attempting to criticise my employer. My employer is extremely tolerant and fair. The problem is the public service code of conduct. Or more specifically, the ability of others to use the code of conduct against me.

I’ll put my hand up and say that I’m in favour of a code of conduct. The absolute last thing we’d like to see is a politicised public sector. Any action that attempts to do so, or gives the perception of attempting to do so, should be viewed with extreme suspicion. I’ve heard for example that Kevin Rudd will have a difficult time with many of his policies, because the Australian public service has been stacked with Howardite lackeys for nearly a decade. A good code of conduct is a good way to ensure that we don’t end up as politicised as over the ditch. The last thing the public needs is a lot of yes-men running the bureaucracy.

By way of explanation, a key part of the code is that you don’t publicly criticise the government of the day, and neither do you criticise the opposition, who are in effect a government waiting to form. No point losing their confidence because you can’t keep your yap shut about some issue that might be trivial and meaningless in 6 months.

But, as a public servant it’s useful in your job to keep yourself up to date about developments in the policy sphere, and about developments within the “Thorndon bubble” (the Parliamentary precinct). The problem is that it’s impossible to have conversations about these developments in public. You can have them at the pub, and you can have them at home. But you can’t have them in any recordable format. Why? Because some numnut can use them against you, or attempt to misrepresent you.

Example? Let’s say I’m interested in the youth policies announced respectively by Clark and Key. I can go to the interweb and read all about them. I can discuss them with anyone at work standing by the water cooler. I can discuss them at home and in the street. But I can’t discuss them on PA System, and neither can I think them through here on Object Dart.

Why? Firstly because every time I spend more than 2 minutes putting up a comment on System some arsehole is sending me email reminding me I’m a public servant, and my time is paid for by their dollar. Of course this assumes they actually have a job and pay their taxes… Second, it would be easy to characterise my seeking clarity and greater understanding, for instance by talking through the spin and looking for the real issues, as criticism of either position.

My response to these two acts is to try and couch my words carefully when out in public. But, they end up being so carefully worded they’re rendered meaningless. Which defeats the purpose.

End result? I’m completely unable to use these wonderful social media to increase my understanding of current events. And as a result I’m less informed than I was a member of the public!

Worse, I’m rapidly losing interest in social media and its application to public policy. What’s the point of seeking to use this type of medium (which is a great way to access opinions and thought from outside my circle of friends and work colleagues), if it will only be used against you either personally or professionally?

It’s a nasty little catch-22.

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