Earlier this week I attended a videoconference with the CIO and a few professors from a leading European university, to discuss social media strategies for higher education. I am not an expert in higher ed, but they wanted to have a sense of what is happening in the broader public sector when it comes to customer and citizen engagement.
No surprise they get the basics of “engagement” better than an average government clients. They deal with digital natives, they have been challenged by different ways to approach channels, content and collaboration by their consistently young customer base. Further, they have the advantage of providing compelling content that people pay for. Still, they understand very clearly how creating the university Facebook page is useless and that they need to complement social tools that they own and control with participation in groups that their constituents (students, researchers, alumni) choose and control.
However I find that there is a challenge that they have in common with pretty much anybody else, and that goes at the heart of what open government initiatives are trying to do: how do they make their content compelling enough to be consumed through new channels like social media, and yet effective enough to achieve its educational purpose?
Young people (but also people who routinely use social tools) suffer from mild to serious forms of attention deficit disorder. The amount of content they get is such that their attention span is much shorter than it used to be in the past. Therefore something that may look cool, like streaming, webcasting or podcasting a 45 min lesson on quantum mechanics or geometry to allow students to take it where and when they like it, does not really work in an environment where anything longer than 5 min looks like an eternity.
My wife teaches English and literature in high school and tells me how much she struggles in keeping her students’ attention alive. Something like showing a movie during class, which we loved when we were students, is simply too boring. MTV, YouTube and cellphone cameras have redefined what the acceptable duration of a video is.
The same applies to books as well as on-line courses. Content needs to be fragmented, mashed up with other content that keeps the attention up, delivered in chunks and not in streams, giving students an unprecedented ability to configure teaching material, while ensuring that they actually learn.
As I said, I am no expert in education, besides having married a teacher and having two kids in school. But I can see how this same challenge affects government.
Keeping citizens engaged is more difficult than keeping students engaged. In fact, while the latter choose which courses they want to take, and live in an environment (family, friends) which is supportive to their consumption of educational content, citizens have fewer reasons to engage. Besides activists and lobbyists, citizens just want public services to be good and laws and norms to be fairly applied to everybody. From time to time there will be issues for which they feel more strongly (labor laws, changes in social security, health care bills), but they are unlikely to be constantly engaged.
Many years of e-government have also shown that government content is far from being compelling. Long and incomprehensible texts in legal jargon, descriptions of government structures, processes and operations that are meant for the initiated, interaction styles that are cumbersome and rarely citizen-centric. Things have certainly improved over the last decade, but there is still a considerable gap between what people consider “compelling” and what governments can provide.
Open government, in its multiple national and regional flavors, seem to be going in the right direction, by focusing on providing raw data rather than aggregated one, for people and intermediaries to use that the way they see fit. This is an important move from monolithic content (e.g.a statistical report) to atomic content (e.g. data used to build the report). On the other hand, open government is also about streaming parliamentary or city council sessions, or sharing draft policy text for public comment.
In both cases, the key question to ask is: is this the right content granularity to really engage people?
I would argue that a webcasted parliamentary session could be very boring, and that raw open data could be very confusing. Rightsizing content to maximize engagement should be a key concern for government folks who really want to walk the engagement talk. It is all about accepting that, while government content is very valuable in principle, it needs to be fragmented in chunks of different size depending on the purpose and target for engagement.
Unfortunately today it looks like governments have only two sizes of blade for their content grinders: the one that generates raw data on data.gov.wherever,and the one that takes existing content and places it on new channels (the Facebook version of the agency web site, webcasts and podcasts). But there are many other possible sizes: partially aggregated data, government predefined mashups, soundbytes and short videos packaged in a simulation videogame, and so forth
My contention is that those who will venture experimenting with the multiple blades of food processors will crack the engagement challenge earlier than those who hold on to their two-blade content grinders, just because somebody else already used them.