Public engagement: more customer service than comms

I’ve been involved in online communities for many years. I’ve seen and been in projects that span every possible traditional barrier to collaboration (location, culture, language, politics, religion, gender, etc, etc). This experience combined with my time in government has given me some useful insights about the key elements that make for a constructive online community.

What I came to learn was the art and craft of community development and management. This skill is common in the technology world, particularly in large successful open source projects where projects either evolve to have good social infrastructure or they fail. There are of course a few exceptions to the rule where bad behaviour is part of the culture of a project, but by and large, a project that is socially inclusive and that empowers individuals to contribute meaningfully will do better than one that is not.

It turns out these skills are not as widespread as I expected. This is problematic as we are now seeing a horde of “social media experts” who often give shallow and unsustainable advice to government and companies alike, advice that is not rooted in the principles of community engagement.

The fact is that social media tools are part of a broader story. A story that sees “traditional” communications turned upside down. The skills to best navigate this space and have a meaningful outcome are not based in the outdated premise that a media office is the single source of communications due to the media being the primary mechanism to get information out to the general public. There will continue to be, I believe, a part for the media to play (we could all use professional analysis and unbiased news coverage, please). However, as governments in particular, we will have a far more meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship with citizens where we genuinely and directly engage with them on matters of policy, service delivery, democratic participation and ways that government can facilitate public and private innovation.

You might be lucky and have some media people who have adapted well to the new world order, but any social media strategy limited to the media office will have limitations in delivery that starts to chafe after a while.

It is when you get your customer service and policy people engaged online that you will start to see genuine engagement, genuine community building and the possibility to leverage crowdsourcing. It is when you start to get people skilled in community engagement involved to work alongside your media people and in collaboration with the broader organisation that you will be able to best identify sustainable and constructive ways your organisation can apply social media, or indeed, whatever comes next.

Below are some vital skills I would recommend you identify, hire or upskill in your organisation. Outsourcing can be useful but ideally, to do this stuff well, you need the skills within your organisation. Your own people who know the domain space and can engage with imprimatur on behalf of your organisation.

I’ll continue to build this post up as I have time, and would love your feedback 🙂

Herding Cats

In my time in online communities I came to understand the subtleties in what we in the geek world refer to as “herding cats”. That is, working with a large number of individuals who have each their own itch to scratch, skills, interests and indeed, vices. Individuals who have a lot to contribute and are motivated for myriad reasons to get involved.

I learnt how to get the best out of people by creating a compelling narrative, having a meaningful goal, uniting people over what we have in common rather than squabbling over what is different.

Herding cats is about genuinely wanting people to get involved, recognising you can’t “control” the conversation or outcomes, but you can encourage a constructive dialogue. Herding cats ends up being about leadership, building respect, being an active part of a live conversation, setting and encouraging a constructive tone, managing community expectations and being a constant presence that people can turn to and rely upon. Cat herding is about building community.

Finally, herding cats is about managing trolls in a constructive way. Sometimes trolls are just passionate people who have been burnt and feel frustrated. They can sometimes become your greatest contributors because they often care about the topic. If you always engage with trolls in a helpful and constructive way, you won’t miss the opportunities to connect with those who genuinely have something meaningful to contribute.

Community and Topic Research

You need to know the communities of interest. The thought leaders, where they are having their discussions, what one-to-many points (technical, social, events) can you tap into to encourage participation and to get your finger on the pulse of what the community really thinks. Community research is about knowing a little about the history and context of the communities involved, about the right (and wrong) language, about if and how they have engaged before and getting the information you need to build a community of interest.

Topic research means your community engagement person needs to know enough about the domain area to be able to engage intelligently with communities of interest. Your organisation is effectively represented by these people so you need them to be smart, informed, genuine, socially and emotionally intelligent, “customer service” oriented and able to say when they don’t know, but be able to follow it up.

Collaboration & Co-design

This skillset is about intuitively trying to include others in a process. Trying to connect the dots on communities, perspectives, skills and interests to draw people from industry, academia and any other relevant groups into the co-design of your project. By getting knowledgable, clever and connected people in the tent, you achieve both a better plan and a community of (possible influential) people who will hopefully want to see your initiative succeed. Co-design isn’t just about creating something and asking people’s opinion, but engaging them in the process of developing the idea in the first place.

A little thanks goes a long way. By publicly recognising the efforts of contributors you also encourage them to continue to contribute but whatever you are engaging on needs to be meaningful, and have tangible outcomes people can see and get behind.

Real outcomes of your online engagement are key in managing public expectations.

Monitoring, Analysis & Feedback Mechanisms

It is vital that you have internally the skills to monitor what is happening online, analyse both the content generated and the context around the content created (the community, individuals, location, related news, basically all the metadata that helps you understand what the data means).

By constantly monitoring and analysing, you should be able to identify iterative improvements to your online engagement strategy, your project, policy or “product”. Most people focus on one of these three (usually the latest toy with pretty but meaningless graphs spruiked by some slick salesperson), but it is by turning the data into knowledge and finally into actions or iterative improvements that you will be able to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to new opportunities and challenges.

UPDATE – quick shout out to the rather useful Online Engagement Guidance and Web 2.0 Toolkit for Australian Government Agencies. This was a funded outcome from the Gov 2.0 Taskforce.

4 thoughts on “Public engagement: more customer service than comms”

  1. This is an interesting comment on the skill-set that is needed in the future of community engagement – specifically, from my perspective, engaging the community for some sort of outcome; which is always the goal of change management practitioners.

    How do you propose that the skill-set needed is sourced or grown within? It would seem to me that this is a bit of a void, where everyone recognises that it is needed, but ‘engaging with the risk’ of getting and using this skillset is a challenge for our SES and senior leaders, where the path of ‘no risk’ (albeit, continually demonstrated to be lower in effectiveness) is to go with what we have gone with for so long.

    Who has these skills? Not only to apply to the issue, but also to grow these skills and capability internally? Do we find our best customer service officer and give them ‘all power’ and see what happens?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *