Unconferring on social media

29 September 2008

Steph Gray has written up the unconference on UK Youth Online held on Saturday, including his own contribution:

I presented some analysis we commissioned from Forrester on how young people are using the internet, social media and social networking services – it led to an interesting discussion about issues of gender, and how we design for the social aspect of using the internet with friends (as opposed to a solitary experience) and recognise the challenge of media fragmentation and continuous partial attention.

Steph has put his slides online, and they make very interesting reading.  To some extent they confirm what you might have guessed – younger people are more likely to use social media, and their use of the internet is itself more likely to be social – but confirmation is better than speculation, and some of the detail is well worth reflecting on. 

What this material doesn’t show – and can’t show, given the nature of the sample from which the data was drawn – is much about the variation either within this group or between users and non-users (and there are a couple of points where the wording of the slides tempts you to forget that this is a sample of users).  And because this is an analysis of a much bigger survey, the numbers involved for the teenage groups are pretty small.  The precision of the numbers isn’t really the issue, though:  this is important insight into the next generation of people needing to influence and interact with government.

Looking them in the eye

27 September 2008

In a discussion about service delivery yesterday, a colleague urged caution about the promotion of self-service transactions on the grounds that people will be less inhibited about lying to a faceless computer than they would to a contact centre agent (and still less so, presumably, to somebody in a face to face conversation).   It’s tempting to dismiss that as an excuse for luddism, but that’s a temptation which should probably be resisted, not least because there’s a possibility that the intuition of heavy net users is different from more tentative and less experienced users.  We know, for example, that some of our customers have greater confidence that a transaction will be acted on if they have spoken to somebody on the phone than if they complete it online.  That seems perverse to me – but I am not my own target market.  But I wasn’t aware of any evidence one way or another on the question of online honesty.  Before I had a chance to look for any, I came across a reference to a new academic study showing that research subjects lie more when emailing than when using pen and paper:

In one study, Belkin and her colleagues handed 48 full-time MBA students $89 to divide between themselves and another fictional party, who only knew the dollar amount fell somewhere between $5 and $100. There was one pre-condition: the other party had to accept whatever offer was made to them.

Using either e-mail or pen-and-paper communications, the MBA students reported the size of the pot—truthful or not—and how much the other party would get.

The results were staggering. Students using e-mail lied more than 92 percent of the time, while those using pen-and-paper lied slightly less than 64 percent. The rate of lying was almost 50 percent greater among those using e-mail than with those using pen-and-paper.

E-mailers also said they felt more justified in awarding the other party just $29 out of what they claimed was a total pot of about $56.

Although deceptive in their own right, pen-and-paper students were a little friendlier. On average, they passed along almost $34 out of a misrepresented pot of about $67.

That’s the language of a press release rather than sober academic enquiry – the paper on which it is based doesn’t seem to have been published yet – and it’s a bit hard to know how to interpret it.  What is being measured is a very stylised game being played with no consequences.  That suggests to me that this can tell us little, if anything, about real-world absolute levels of dishonesty, though it might tell us something about the relative levels of dishonesty between channels. 

There is nothing in this which tells me anything about the question I started with – though there is just enough to suggest that it’s not a completely unreasonable question.  On the assumption that more relevant research is unlikely to fall into my lap quite as easily as this did, I would be interested to hear of any studies of transactional compliance across channels.

Different answers come from different questions

24 September 2008

Paul Johnston has written a thought provoking post on consultation and citizen engagement.  Some of what he says is a version of the ‘how can we use technology to make it better question’ which is important but, to my mind (and I think to his) secondary.  Where he gets really interesting is when he makes the point that:

It’s easy to complain about governments that don’t listen, but actually governments spend most of their time listening – it’s just everyone is telling them different things and for different reasons. Conversation is not something new for governments. Just think of all the conversations governments are already involved – politicians’ conversations with their constituents (letters, meetings), ministers’ conversations with all sorts of delegations or with journalists, civil servants’ conversations with trade associations, think tanks etc. Of course, governments could be more open and more transparent (including being more transparent about all these conversations!), but it’s not fair to suggest they live in a world of self-imposed exclusion. And part of the problem with some of the web-based solutions is that they seek to trump this world of conversations rather than add to it.

The point that governments listen but are hearing different things is a very important one.  Many of the complaints about governments being unhearing or unresponsive stem from not distinguishing between absolute questions and relative questions.  Those who want to influence government with a particular point of view on a particular issue are largely seeing absolute questions.  But from inside government, almost all the hard questions look relative.  Improving the quality of consultations on absolute questions is a good thing, but won’t necessarily help much with the relative questions.

That’s a bit abstract, so let me offer an example.  The most immediate government decision facing me at the moment is the one I am being consulted on by my local council:  should they put a different kind of traffic hump in my road to slow traffic down.  That’s an absolute question.  In its simplest form, the answer is either yes or no. Even if, as I am inclined to, I challenge the question and say that a different solution would be better because they have framed the problem wrongly, it’s still an absolute question in my sense.

But for the council, it is always a relative question:  should we put road humps in this street or that one, should we put more money into traffic calming or better street lighting, should we put more money into a better environment or into more social care, should we put more money into this area or that one?  And that’s just the expenditure side.  What is the optimal balance between expenditure and revenue raising?  And as we move further from the immediate and local to the broader and national (and for some of us, supra-national), the questions get more relative still:  not just how much revenue, but what is the balance between this tax and that one, not just how much expenditure, but what is the balance between defence and health?

The reason why governments find ideas of direct democracy frustrating is that all of us as individuals find the absolute questions easier to recognise and engage with, often in ways which in aggregation are contradictory, and then get frustrated with politicians who are unavoidably grappling with relative questions.  Citizen juries are an attempt to square this circle by getting a group of people to move an issue a bit more towards the relative end of the scale.  They are not anything close to a perfect solution, but they do make clear that there is a cost to informed decision making, which is the cost of becoming sufficiently informed to make well-grounded decisions.

That’s not an argument for some form of corporatist decision making.  Paul’s suggestions for improving the transparency of engagement are good ones.  But I don’t think that in themselves they will remove the frustration felt by people with absolute answers when trying to engage with governments wrestling with relative questions.

How to be positively subversive

23 September 2008

Tom Steinberg offers six tips on how to set up organisations like his own mySociety.  I find the last two the most immediately appealing:

5. If you aren’t pissing off at least some people all the time, you’ve probably been captured by the establishment.

6. Take whatever your first website plan is and remove 90% of the features you want. Then build it and launch it and your users will tell you which features they actually wanted instead. Build them and bask in the warm glow of appreciation.

Tom’s genius is to stand outside government and subvert it.  Those of us on the inside should set ourselves the tougher version of number 6:  to strip out 90% of the underlying process complexity and then build back in only those parts which improve service and efficiency, before encouraging others to develop its presentation while abstracting from 90% of the complexity which is left.

I don’t think we are anywhere close to doing that yet.  But then it’s not long ago that Tom was pissing off quite a lot of people quite a lot of the time.  Now he has been captured by a new establishment, which he played no small part in creating, so radical decrementalism may be closer than we think.

Widely shared secrets

19 September 2008

Following remarkably quickly from the general point, here is a very particular example:

A person claiming to be the hacker who obtained access to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo e-mail on Tuesday has posted a supposed first-person account of the hack, revealing the relatively simple steps he says he took to crack the private e-mail of the Republican vice-presidential candidate.… As detailed in the postings, the Palin hack didn’t require any real skill. Instead, the hacker simply reset Palin’s password using her birthdate, ZIP code and information about where she met her spouse — the security question on her Yahoo account, which was answered (Wasilla High) by a simple Google search.

Being clear about what really counts as a secret is hard now.  It’s clearly going to get ever harder.

Betting on channel shift

18 September 2008


This is new – at least in the UK, as far as I know.

DVLA are entering people who renew their tax disc online or by phone into a draw to win a car – and moreover a car so efficient that it is not liable to car tax.

If I understand it right, they cannot make purchase of their service a condition of entry as that would fall foul of gambling law, so they have to offer a way of entering which is separate from the process of actually renewing a tax disc.  Having to do that gives them a way of heading off criticism that they are discriminating against people who still want to use the Post Office – which allows them to have their cake and eat it to an impressive degree.

I remember hearing accounts in the early days of e-government of something similar being run by the Victoria state government in Australia – with those who paid their property tax online being entered in a draw to have the whole lot paid back, but google can find little trace of how and when it worked.  In the UK, there have been incentives to switch channels, both directly through cash payments and less directly through later payment deadlines and so a cashflow advantage, but for central government at least, that’s as far as I am aware of its having gone.

The slightly defensive tone of the leaflet suggests that there was some concern that a lottery would be seen as unfair, but although DVLA issued a press release early in August, I can find no trace of any mainstream media coverage as a result.  The cost to DVLA must be minimal, since they are not even paying for the prizes, so on the face of it, this is a pretty low risk experiment.

In some ways what is most interesting about it is the timing.  This is not a move driven by weakness.  The online tax disc service is deservedly popular, and it’s the only government service I know which people enthusiastically recommend to their friends.

So how far might this approach be extensible?  More importantly, perhaps, for services which are less slick than tax disc renewal, how sustainable is it?  There is not much point in enticing people to try a service which just makes them think they don’t want to try it again.  And the way DVLA has done it also has some deadweight cost – my name goes in the draw despite the fact that I would have no hesitation in using the online service for another year anyway.  So it’s probably not quite time to start thinking of what I would do with a refund of a year’s income tax quite yet.

Travelling hopefully

17 September 2008

DG1Having just discovered Directgov’s mobile internet site, I had a look around.  Very sensibly they don’t attempt to replicate the range of content on their main site and have tried to focus on a limited set of content that might be particularly useful to people on the move.

But in going down that route, Directgov risks becoming just another gateway site – and worse still, risks offering services which are better done elsewhere.  As is clear from the screenshot of the mobile home page, the most immediately dynamic looking service is the journey planner.

The train departures element of that is pretty directly comparable with the National Rail WAP site (not a direct link since WAP sites don’t work on normal browsers).  That is simpler, older, and much less pretty technology – but that turns out not to be very important.  What feels much more important to me is that the National Rail site is much more sensitive to the limitations of data input on a mobile, while Directgov demands much more precise (and so extensive) input, and generates unhelpful error messages when it fails to get it.  There is a full side by side comparison in the extended post below which shows pretty clearly why I am not taking the National Rail link off my phone quite yet.

That’s not intended as a cheap dig at Directgov.  They deserve credit for recognising that mobile services need to be taken seriously and for doing something about it.  The more interesting question is whether when and how it is sensible for a government service to start competing in a wider market for information provision – and that question is equally relevant whichever of the two versions is the better.  One could argue that Directgov’s own logic for aggregating and organising information around citizens’ needs rather than service provider structures carries the seeds for its own destruction.  If what matters is bringing information and services together around customers, there may not be a particular reason to stop at the boundaries of government – and it may be more compelling for government content to appear in other contexts than for Directgov to take on everything which is not government.  In lots of ways the web is becoming modular.  Where will we expect to look for train times when those developments have matured a little further?

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s the government for?

16 September 2008

A curious bit of emergent classification from the Directgov main site about its mobile site.  There is a URL you can put in (though not, from my experience, any smart detection which serves the mobile version to a mobile device).  But you can also reach it through each provider’s menu structure – and there’s a handy page on Directgov to tell you how:

Connecting to Directgov Mobile through portals

T Mobile

You can reach Directgov using the ‘web ‘n’ walk’ service. Click on the ‘See all our links’ tab and then find Directgov under ‘Social and Chat‘.


Go to the Vodafone Live homepage, choose the ‘Personal finance’ section and Directgov is under ‘Money matters’.

O2  i-mode

If you have an O2 i-mode phone, press the ‘i’ button on your handset and select the i–menu. Go to the ‘Information & Directories‘ section and you’ll see Directgov in the list of sites.

O2 Active
If you are an O2 Active user, access Directgov via the ‘Info and Travel‘ section.


For ‘3’ customers, go to the ‘3’ homepage, then select ‘Top sites’ followed by ‘More top sites’.


Go to the Orange World portal and choose ‘Internet‘ from the browser menu. Scroll down to find Directgov.

The contrast between ‘social and chat’ and ‘money matters’ as the defining characteristic is fascinating – the more so since the four main headings on the mobile home page are

  • Local services
  • Journey planner
  • Information
  • Forms and leaflets

Let’s just hope that all those mobile internet users just google instead.

Bringing understanding to incomprehensibility

15 September 2008

For many government services, the rules and regulations are horribly complicated.  Working out which conditions need to be applied to which people in which circumstances is hard enough.  Explaining that in a way in which normal people can understand can be harder still.

There has been years of sustained effort to make explanations more comprehensible by expressing them in simpler language (to say nothing of the efforts to make things genuinely simpler in the first place).  There are now entire racks of leaflets adorned with the imprimatur of the Plain English Campaign.  That’s no bad thing – although it is one of the reasons why some documents have become physically larger and potentially even more daunting than before – but it is at best a necessary approach, rather than one which can be sufficient.  As the Leitch report on skills reported at the end of 2006, 5 million working age people then lacked functional literacy and 7 million lacked functional numeracy (para 2.11).

Agonising over minor changes of wording (or even wholesale re-writing) as a way of addressing the problem seems to be largely missing the point.  Taking those same words off the printed page and putting them on a web page may make them more helpful for some, but again doesn’t change the nature of the basic problem.  Something more radical is called for.  So let us turn to the world of particle physics.

That’s another area of human endeavour where complicated and unlikely thoughts are expressed in  language which is completely precise, but as completely incomprehensible to those who are not in the know.  The launch of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN this week has brought vast interest not matched by great understanding of what it’s all for.  The BBC had a great documentary which made me think that I might begin to understand this stuff.  But better still, in the wonderful world of YouTube, there is a 4½ minute rap video

I am not sure that the rap explanation of how to complete a tax return would rocket to three million viewings quite as quickly as this one has done, but the principle is the same.  The importance of new media is not that it is new, but that it allows us to change some fundamental things about how service providers communicate with customers and about how governments communicate with citizens – and of course the provision of basic information is only one small part of that.  We can carry on tweaking our leaflets if we must, but the paradigm shift is waiting for us.

Thinking about thinking about the future

11 September 2008

We weave our memories together on demand, filling in any empty spaces with the present, which is lying around in great abundance. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psych prof Daniel Gilbert describes an experiment in which people with delicious lunches in front of them are asked to remember their breakfast: overwhelmingly, the people with good lunches have more positive memories of breakfast than those who have bad lunches. We don’t remember breakfast — we look at lunch and superimpose it on breakfast.

We make the future in the same way: we extrapolate as much as we can, and whenever we run out of imagination, we just shovel the present into the holes. That’s why our pictures of the future always seem to resemble the present, only more so.

Cory Doctorow,  Content:  Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future, p40. My emphasis.