Francis Walsh April 03, 2012
Gutenberg's descendents have recast communications, and government needs to ensure it keeps up. Photo: Louise Kennerley
Public servants must move beyond 20th-century letter-writing and learn to engage informally
About 550 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg released the screw press on his wooden printing machine and peeled off the first ink-wet sheet of paper from the forme. He could not have realised the significance of what he held in his hands. He had pressed much more than alloyed letters against paper. He had squeezed language against technology and made a lasting impression on European society and the world.
In the years that followed, people with ideas were bound to write books, and the codex tome was bound to technology. The combined force of expression and impression helped to hurry change: information fertilised literacy; vernacular language seeded nationalism; new ideas uprooted old institutions.
Beforehand, society had lumbered down mediaeval tracks on groaning, wooden wheels. Tonsured monks scratched quills across vellum in candle-lit scriptoria. But then Guttenberg's hands released the screw press and unleashed more than any Middle Age mind could imagine. Simply put, the language changed to fit the new page and created a new age.
Eventually, all human activities were touched by the new communication: all people, all communities; all institutions. And those same forces press against each other today: the rub of language against technology imprints the new character of a changing society. Everyone is touched: individuals, communities and institutions.
Some of the most important institutions that we create are for our governance. They sit at the heart of our society; in some ways they are robust, in others fragile. They rely on the endorsement of the society they serve: the community of the people.
The force that Gutenberg let loose has surged again. But this spring is different. The technology is electronic and the language not just vernacular but social and spectacular. There are many forms of this new communication but most of their names are familiar: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Second Life, MySpace and Google+.
For some people, these electronic venues are incomprehensible: nothing but empty flip-flap. Twitter tweets make little sense, if you don't understand the context in which they are written. They are, in part, snippets of captured conversation. They make no sense until you follow; until you engage. Facebook makes no sense, until you are part of a social group that interacts and attends to its own concerns, styles, hierarchies and humour. Sharing photographs on Flickr or Instagram is pointless, unless you have a point. Second Life is a virtual vacuum, until you develop a virtual life.
None of it makes any sense, if you correspond from your own, silent scriptorium.
But many now understand that, as the venue and style of communication has changed, so too must government organisations change. They must engage with those on whose endorsement they rely: the people. To ignore or to misstep now will weaken our institutions. It will loosen the link between government and people. In a democracy, that can be a grave mistake.
There is one, crucial pivot point between government and people that will bear the load of this change. To some, it seems insignificant but its ordinariness disguises its importance.
Ministerial correspondence is a load-bearing axel that now creaks and groans under the new pressures. The old wooden wheel is now turning into a social hub.
So what is ministerial correspondence about? People from all areas of Australia write letters of complaint (many) and praise (few) to government ministers. Staff in departments and agencies draft responses. They email that draft to their supervisor who redrafts it and emails them to their supervisor, and so on (with some rather irritating back-and-forth for quibbles and scribbles). Sometimes, the process works well; sometimes, it's confusing and confused; sometimes, no one's in the know.
A departmental reply to the citizen's letter is signed by a senior executive service officer and sent. A ministerial reply is signed by a minister or one of their staff in Parliament House and sent. Almost everyone involved hopes there will be no response: no further engagement. It's the last thing they want.
The checking by executives and managers is designed to ensure the reply is accurate and correct: it must be politically safe and policy consistent. The redrafts sometimes involve correcting spelling and punctuation. And the facts and meaning of the message is closely scrutinised. You wouldn't want multiple versions of a policy put before the public. Nor would you want misspelt words or mangled punctuation to expose a weakness and invite ridicule.
The letter to the minister, no matter how poorly written or conceived, receives a reply that is considered and stoutly argued. Plenty of facts pepper a professionally assertive tone. Generally, the letter has sound sentences, neatly aligned grammar and standardised spelling.
The formal language forms the foundation of the correspondents' relationship. Its implicit message is: ''Government has got this right. We know what we are doing. Thank you so much for your interest.''
But only those who bother to write letters would be wedged by this ploy. They wrote correspondence and they got a correspondence response that may have cost over $1000 (in staff time) to produce. No wonder only the very dull or very game bother to write back.
Now, technology spins the clock faster. Society is transforming. People on social networks can be dramatically democratic and lasciviously loose with their language. The language differences between the two, old and new, are a symptom of the split. Some government organisations in Canberra deal with just a handful of citizen's letters a year; others receive thousands. Some use standardised, ''authorised'' words in their replies. Others create individualised responses.
There are hundreds of people in Canberra who will spend professional time today at this type of task. The process creaks and groans against the new technology and the burgeoning virtual society. Of course, ministerial correspondence must serve those who write letters and the minister to whom they are sent, but the process must not fail those who use Facebook and all the rest.
Taken overall, writing ministerial correspondence is, in fact, an industry in Canberra; bigger than many businesses you may find in Fyshwick. In some organisations, it is too time-consuming and too costly for too little benefit. But, it is part of the job of the public service: servicing its ministers' needs. Hard to change; mad to try.
The traditionalists point to the silliness of the new. The radicals point to the meaninglessness of the old. But government organisations must tread a careful, positive path between the contending forces.
Government is not a game. People's lives are at stake. There are issues of security, safety and privacy that are not easy to explain over the clamour of the crowd. Thankfully, some excellent thinking and reporting has already been done in these areas for Australian government institutions. Good strategies are being developed. But tactics, on the office floor, often remain confused.
There is no gain in blaming or finger-pointing. There are difficult issues to disentangle. How do you explain a complex policy or political precedent in a 140-character tweet? How do you argue a subtle and sensitive matter in a Facebook posting? These are not the places where you write essays, develop long discussions or lapse into labyrinthine explanations. These are not gift opportunities to prevail over and silence citizens.
In the new electronic venues, forms of language are informal, arguments are readily engaged and messages are brief. Interaction is imperative. We see brave steps into this unknown taken by Australian Public Service agencies that are confident enough to give it a go. They deserve praise and encouragement. They have understood that social networks are venues where people connect with each other. There is rough and tumble; there is puff and grumble. That's life. That's how a community works. Normal social engagement is not easily controlled nor is it justifiably controllable. Not in Australian society, at least.
So do government organisations accede to the chat or continue to counteract the people's conversation? Already, some agencies connect with their communities. But some are forbidden to do so. Some are isolated from their ministers, barred from the virtual venues that their own ministers frequent.
In some organisations, even email responses to email correspondence are seen as poor form. In other places, it is standard operating procedure. In some, public servants might not watch a video at work. In others, it is not only standard but essential.
In some places, the staff (high or low) express themselves eloquently and competently through social networks. In others, no one is sure what to say or how to say it. Typically, they lamely broadcast their authorised message, but avoid familial conversation. They peer out nervously into an electronic abyss. Some departments forbid public servants to download PDF files; others encourage downloads of anything that is appropriate for their professional work.
In partitioned offices across Canberra, uncertainty may encourage both timidity and rashness.
There are currently more than 100 Australian government Twitter venues. Some are good, with strong interaction and good numbers of followers. Others don't seem to get it. They have few tweets, fewer followers and most of their messages are simply links to media releases. Some are clearly moribund: fading facades in a sparkling, virtual city.
Some will say that, in time, this will be corrected. In time, the problems will be patched. But there is a problem. There is precious little time because the old village clock is now synced to GPS and linked to the Network Time Protocol. And the new village chat is creating communities of interest who relate at the speed of integrated circuits.
Government organisations cannot dawdle behind the people whose endorsement they rely upon. They can't be late adopters in the viral, virtual age. We need to understand where this matter is headed, then take sensible and reasonable steps towards accommodation and amelioration.
In Australia (and in the rest of the world), every individual is becoming a source of information and engagement. Everyone can express and engage on any of the social networks. Each person will be increasingly competent as their familiarity with the various networks increases and as they grow through life's stages with these social networks forming a part of their experience and expression.
This, too, will be the experience of public servants themselves.
The decisions relating to communication with clients and stakeholders must now be about managing the process into the new world without (heaven forbid) bringing the whole structure down. Soon, the walls of departments and agencies will become semi-permeable membranes. Public servants will be open to questions, discussions and debates with their policy community. They will use Twitter, Facebook and all the other social venues to engage. They will use the forms and the norms of each style of communication. They will also be using Skype to broadcast a recordable audio and video of their messages to one or many people.
So public servants will need to know much more about the policies and programs they are driving. They will need to be able to explain, defend, engage, listen and accept. They will need to be more responsible and more accountable. No longer the anonymity of the past, they will be the discussion leaders of the future.
This change could be chaotic and destructive to agencies if managed poorly. It will create a more powerful, modern and responsive government, if managed carefully and swiftly.
You see, ministerial correspondence is the pivotal point. It may seem insignificant but it embodies much of the old and most of the new. Its transformation will be the sign of the next: the measure of its progress.
Some organisations have little idea who writes correspondence to the minister other than their name and address. Most have no idea of their interests, their community-relations or their other concerns.
On the other hand, engagement through digital social networks offers a mountain of readily available information about the community with whom you interact: the issues of concern, the trends, the locations and much more.
Of course, privacy concerns should guide the gathering of such information, but should not be used as an excuse to avoid facing the obvious. Through Facebook, Twitter and the rest, organisations can measure and analyse citizens' reactions to policy issues. They can help citizens understand policies and practices on a more subtle and detailed level. Government organisations can demonstrate the quality of their customer service to people who care the most. They can personalise and professionalise their agency's interaction to a new, higher standard.
Social networks operate directly and specifically. They avoid the sometimes muddying influence of the mainstream media. It may be that, in future, the bombast and hyperbole of print and free-to-air will be dulled by the real-time chatter of those whose professional, political and personal interests coincide. The first moves have already been made by some agencies whose leaders have show foresight and courage.
So where will this momentum move us in the near future? Increasingly, senior officers will begin explaining and engaging with citizens on policy issues through social media. Knowledge, responsibility and accountability for social media interaction will be further devolved to middle management. They will become a prime source of knowledge about citizens' reactions to policies and programs.
Public service organisations will increasingly need to support their staff, even at junior levels, in this change. Staff at all levels will have access to prepared videos, documents and other downloadables that answer questions and explain issues of concern to citizens, rather like electronic versions of the briefs provided to ministers to use during question time.
To provide further support, every minister will make available video responses that can be downloaded, YouTube style, or a text response as a PDF file to issues raised by citizens. APS agencies will provide apps for citizens who want to engage directly with them over their mobile devices.
There are dangers and opportunities for organisations if they take on these challenges or avoid them. The APS will take stronger steps to define the role of social media interaction through further development of communication protocols. These protocols will establish the tenor of more open communication so that the public and the traditional media will be discouraged from using government messages in an abusive, destructive or partisan manner.
The APS is developing strategic understandings of the social media. Now, it must apply those strategies at the level of tactical responses that can be deployed: more coherently, more consistently, more bravely, more sensitively. In the real world, caution is wise, but stasis defies.
The future relationship between the public service and the public will pivot on the moves made now. The highest standards of modern communication will help us continue to offer the best governance for the nation, with our institutions at its hub.
Gutenberg's descendants have recast our communication and, with it, created a new form of our society. Our government agencies must move quickly to meet the unyielding press of our times.
Francis Walsh is a writing consultant who specialises in government communication.
This writer is on Twitter: @franciswalsh