Supporting authentic digital engagement

Screenshot of Twitter account of Kevin McGurgan, UK Consul-General Toronto & Head @UKTI_Canada.

Since September, my role as product lead for Helpful Technology’s Digitial Action Plan has involved working closely with with senior civil servants to help them become more confident around digital engagement. I’d like to share with you what I have observed to be the main barriers to civil servants becoming authentic digital engagers and how we can overcome them.

Mastering the basics

At its heart, the Digital Action Plan is about giving people the confidence to use digital tools at work to listen, explain and talk with their audiences. Before people can can do that, however, they need to feel at ease with the basics of technology.

One of the great things about being from an external organisation is that civil servants, particularly those in senior roles, feel able to ask me for help where they might otherwise avoid doing so out of fear of looking foolish. For example, one person mentioned to me the common problem of struggling to remember passwords for different online services. Recognising this was likely to discourage them doing more with digital, I introduced them to the LastPass password manager, which will take the headache away from accessing digitial services.

While I am pleased to be able to help participants with any basic issues they have, I’d like to see organisations provide regular opportunities for staff to learn the basics in a non-judgemental environment. From my time as a Social Media Surgery volunteer, I know informal sessions can be a good way for people with skills to help others. Meetups could be held on a partcular theme, such as protecting your privacy and security online, or be of a more free form nature.

Making time for learning

I’ve found time, or more precisely the lack of it, to be a major barrier to civil servants becoming more effective at digital engagement. Not surprisingly, it can be a struggle to carve out time to learn new skills whilst managing a demanding workload.

For example, it’s pretty obvious writing and presenting a paper to the board is going to loom large in somebody’s to-do list and have the potential to put a limit on learning time. With the Digital Action Plan, I try to bridge the traditional divide between training and the day job by encouraging participants to connect their learning goals with real-life project and tasks. For instance, could a participant use Twitter to inform stakeholders about the forthcoming report, what its implications are and how they can get involved?

While most participants find they are able to connect their learning goals to forthcoming projects, I believe there is still more we can do. I would like to see closer working between line managers and participants so that there is clear agreement on how digital engagement learning will be built into participants’ workloads in a way that directly supports a team or department’s core objectives.

Valuing boldness

As a trainer, one of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing people you’ve supported take offf and really run with something you’ve introduced them to. Conversely, it’s easy to feel disapppointed when people for whatever reason seem to fail to respond to your support or choose not to put what they’ve learned into practice.

In my experience, the people who get the most from the Digital Action Plan are those who are willing to be bold and seize the opportunities available to them. Earlier this month I was impressed when a participant published their first blog post on LinkedIn after previously expressing quite significant reservations over developing their own professional profile online.

At Helpful, I try to encourage participants to be ambitious about what they can achieve and to believe that they have it within themselves to learn new things and to do things differently. I do this by sharing examples of interesting things their peers are doing, such as the Foreign Office’s engaging use of Shorthand Social and showing them that they aren’t the first person to be nervous about blending the personal and the professional in their digital engagement.

The FSA’s Christina Hammond-Aziz’ recent blog post why faceless civil servant is never a good look, makes clear the significant progress the civil servicehas made on digital engagement but, as with any organisation or sector, there is always room for improvement.

This week, Janet Hughes from the Government Digital Service asked: what if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service? Janet describes boldness as bringing your whole to the situation and demonstrating the values of opennesss of optimism and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. In doing so Janet could just as easily have been describing the qualities of authentic digital engagement. Ultimately, if we want civil servants to be authentic digitial engagers, we must go further in supporting an organisatonal culture which values and rewards authetic engagement.

What Shami Chakrabarti can teach us about valuing civil liberties and human rights

Photo Credit: oliver lamford via Compfight cc

As a member of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, it was with sadness that I read earlier this week week that

Chakrabarti has written a thoughtful piece for The Guardian to coincide with the announcment of her depature from Liberty. In it, she notes: “When fear stalks the land, blank cheques become all too easy and ever more dangerous.” This defintiely rings true of my recent experience campaigning against the Investigatory Powers Bill as part of the Open Rights Group. For me, the lowest point of the campaign (so far – it’s not over yet!) was when David Cameron sought to use the Paris Attacks to justify an attack on encryption, despite the fact that the terrorists had in fact coordinated the attacks using regular unencrypted text messages.

I was also struck by another of Chakrabarti’s observations:  “We all love our own rights and those of friends, family and people like us. Other people’s freedoms seem cheaper until it’s almost too late.” Again, I have encountered this in my campaigning for the Open Rights Group. The common response of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” when privacy concerns are raised in relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill reflects many people’s belief that they (and by extension, their friends and family) will never be adversely affected by expanded online and so we need not worry ourselves about the balance of power between citizen and state.

While I will be sad to see her go I can understand her reasons for stepping down, given the pressure and responsibility she must have felt over the past 12 years. I would like to thank Shami Chakrabarti for everything she has done to defend civil liberties and human rights.

My Highs and Lows of 2015

I’ve missed the boat. As I sit down to write this post, the fourth day of 2016 is already drawing to a close.

If I were a better blogger/person, I would have already have written my 2015 round-up and published it in the sweet spot between Christmas and New Year when there’s a flurry of such posts.

Instead, I was caught up in a flurry of holiday hosting and socialising which has only just come to an end. As John Lennon might have said, life is what happens when you’re not busy making other plans.

While I was experiencing 2015, it often felt like the lows were getting the better of the highs but looking back I can see there were a few ‘champagne moments’ along the way.   So, without further ado, here’s a brief round-up of the key events from possibly the most eventful  year in my life.

The Highs

  1. Going freelance as a digital communications specialist and working with the lovely team at Helpful Technology  to deliver their digital confidence and skills programme across Whitehall.
  2. Launching Open Rights Group Birmingham and working with passionate and principled people to protect and promote human rights in the digital age and oppose the Government’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill.
  3. Getting involved with my local Labour Party in Bournville, helping my local MP Steve McCabe more than double his majority at the General Election in May and creating the Cats of the Campaign Trail blog.
  4.  Photographing Birmingham Beer Bash for the third year in a row and having my photograph of Dismaland picked up by media outlets both here in the UK and abroad.
  5. Getting some much-needed good news towards the ends of the year about health issues which have affected my family throughout 2015.

The Lows

  1. Being made redundant from my role as Communications Manager for ARK Kings Academy in Birmingham, due to a funding shortfall.
  2. Worries over family health issues, which thankfully improved as 2015 drew to a close.
  3. The stomach-churning feeling so many of us got at 10.01 pm on 7 May, when the exit polls announced the Conservatives would get the seats they needed to form a government and I would have to retire my Hell Yeah, I’m Voting Labour T-shirt.
  4. Watching Labour’s Andy Burnham put up virtually no opposition to the Government’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, even when  Amnesty International (along with many other respected individuals and groups) have said the bill would effectively legalise mass surveillance put the UK government’s compliance with international law in disarray.
  5. Watching David Cameron use the fear, uncertainty and anger generated by the awful Paris attacks to secure parliamentary approval for bombing Syria and stooping to a new personal low by labelling opponents of bombing ‘terrorist sympathisers‘.