February 2010

Managed to see a whole range of different people during my week in Washington – thankyou again to all who gave me their time. I think the snow probably meant I got more than I would have on a normal working day – so a small compensation for missing the conference.

Lots of ideas from speaking to two people from the State Department: the team leading the eDiplomacy initiative. They have an active internal wiki and something I think they called ‘deskipedia” – an attempt to weave together articles around best practice and experience, to try and combat the knowledge lost when diplomats rotate their posts every two years. They use media wiki with a rich text editor on top – the aim is to make it as easy as possible for all to contribute.

They are also doing a lot to support ‘self-forming’ commuities. Using a movable type blog (the free version) they have a good number of networks active – one of the most successful being for locally engaged staff. A neat idea I heard about was the ‘Secretary’s Sounding Board’ another movable type installation, which aims to give staff the opportunity to make their ideas and suggestions for change publi. Again, it has received enthusiastic participation from around the department – thousands of contributions and comments. There is more on their website.

A meeting with colleagues from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) led to some very interesting material. A launch last year of the book Millions Fed, was supported by a range of social media, and they have reviewed which worked best. Interesting, their video Рmade mostly of still images, reminded me very much of a recent DFID one:  Boiling point Рabout rooibos tea farmers. I was very intrigued to hear about Agchat and Foodchat Рregular facilitated discussions held via twitter.

Colleagues from the Environmental Protection Agency gave me loads of food for thought, and web links to follow up. They are very active in using social media to go out and engage with a broad spectrum of people who are interested in their issues. They have had recent success with video contests, inviting people to create 30 second public service announcements which illustrate ways of solving environmental problems. They have run public consultations and have an active blog – this is along similar lines to the one we have at DFID, which aims to encourage staff to write about what they are doing and show the human face of government work.

I had a very interesting discussion with a colleague at USAID – perhaps the organisation most similar to my own, and with extremely similar challenges and activities. Think I might do a more detailed post on the things I learned there.

Meetings at the World Bank were most disrupted by the weather unfortunately, but I have contacts to follow up, and did still manage to meet one member of the web team. The Bank is a huge institution, so it is unsurprising their change programme is happening very slowly, but from a position of having a huge (dare I say fairly anarchic?- well, at the very least: independent) number of inconsistent web presences, they are now on a good path, having established a web governance board with Bank-wide mandate and an agreed web programme. Just a quick look at their website offers a glimpse of the challenges facing them: multilingual content, vast amounts of data – and just look at the organisation chart – 186 member countries, 24 executive directors – any organisational change must be like steering an oil tanker. Current situation is that they are looking for a new platform to replace the one that has been in use since 2000. They have created a series of prototypes to identify requirements and I look forward to following up with colleagues in that team as they decide on a new product and embark on the next stage of their programme.

Last but by no means least I met with Matt Reynolds, communications director at the Library of Congress. This was preceeded by a tour of the amazing Jefferson library – the oldest of the 3 buildings which makes up the Library in Washington. It is spectacularly decorated, and the public spaces are filled with fascinating exhibitions of their treasures. They have an equally impressive programme of making these treasures available online, which I found out more about from Matt. Again, lots learned from him, so I shall do a separate post on that meeting.

Overall, a visit which by no means went according to the original plan, but one which nevertheless was extremely memorable – both for the professional contacts made and interesting initiatives discovered, and for the chance to see a capital city in a very different light!

Although the snow prevented people attending the conference that was the main reason for me travelling to Washington, it wasn’t able to stop everything. In fact, thanks to a combination of skype, gotomeeting, wi-fi and someone with good contacts, I was able to give my presentation today to a group of people. They may have been close geographically, but all were unable to actually be in the same room.

It wasn’t the smoothest of technical set ups, and while the audience assured me that they could hear me, I couldn’t hear them, so all interaction was via them typing questions, and me speaking, but contact was made, and I hope some interesting experiences shared. Questions raised reassured me that we are facing similar challenges both sides of the Atlantic.

I’ll post later on some of the actual subjects covered, but I just wanted to share the situation – laptop plus the right tools, plus a connection to the web – we laugh at the worst snow in years!

I had hoped to be able to blog my experiences at the ‘Social Media for Government’ conference, due to be held in Washington DC this week. Unfortunately the worst bizzard to hit this region in 90 years happened just before the weekend, so while I was able to make it into the city – they made huge efforts to get the main routes open – I can understand why actually it was the local delegates who couldn’t make it in.

Words like snowpocalypse, snowmageddon and snowsaster have been peppering the newsheadlines and twitter streams – and for once I think the news isn’t exaggerating, this region nearly is paralysed. I mentioned that main routes are open – just about, and that is taking an army of snow ploughs, salt lorries, and men with shovels. Even landing at Dulles international, it took 4 hours from touch down to me actually being able to leave the airport – due to frozen airbridges, sliding airplanes, huge queues to find out any information, let alone find transport to the city.¬† Many roads are still untouched, so people living outside the centre are stuck at home. Government offices remain closed for a second day – although I think this is partly in anticipation of new snow which is forecast for this afternoon. Apparently over 200,000 people are without power – so at least I am lucky in being in a warm hotel, able to walk to local meetings and share snow stories!

Interesting that the very subject of the conference should be something that comes into its own in this sort of situation. The twitter stream was alive last night with locals trying to find out what might happen today. Apparently the main website used for communicating updates had crashed, so many were suggesting those in control should use a range of channels to get the news out to people….. Of course that is little use of you rely on a computer, which has run out of charge, but mobile batteries¬† tend to have a fairly good life these days.

On a lighter note, social media can also be used to plan fun things – it even made the BBC news that people used twitter to plan a snowball fight about 4 blocks from where I am staying (before I arrived unfortunately!) They thought about 100 people might turn up, but several thousand did – who says no one uses twitter?

I’m here for the week, so am hoping to be able to catch up with people once offices re-open. I hope soon to be able to share some social media experiences and ideas from Washington.

Meanwhile, out again to enjoy the snow

Reflecting pool, Washington DC

Reflecting pool - transformed to ice rink