Why Government and public sector leaders should invite Tom Burton in for a cup of tea

Tom Burton Tea

Firstly, I’d like to declare a conflict of interest.

I’ve known Tom Burton since I was a kid and along with Louise Maher from the ABC, he was my inspiration to become a journalist. Tom was always thoughtful, curious, generous with advice and smart. Whip smart. Throw in the fact that he supports the same Rugby team (the mighty ACT Brumbies) and you can see that I am hopelessly biased in assessing his talents.

But I’m not the only one who thinks he has an idea or two. After a storied career in journalism, politics and government both in Australia and overseas, Tom founded The Mandarin, a media and events platform designed to encourage better conversations about public policy with a particular focus on digital transformation.

Recently Tom spoke at DrupalGov in Canberra about the challenges and opportunities of the digital transformation for government and public sector organisations.

Here is a summary of Tom’s keynote on the why the public sector will surely fade into oblivion, if they do not embrace digital.

Digital transformation is difficult for everyone working in Government and the public sector, Tom said, no matter where you are in the world. The self-organising/advocacy capability driven by mobile technology, the emergence of the mega platforms (Google, Apple, Facebook) and the popularity of the collaborative economy (Air BnB, Uber etc.), are shaking the foundations of traditional government and public sector structures and process. Tom’s view is that now is not the time for judgement, more an opportunity for considered debate and conversation about how to best capitalise on the gift of technology in order to strengthen communities and improve the well-being of citizens.

Tom rolled through some of the more arcane elements of the public sector digital transformation agenda including the idea of “government as a platform”, the common sense idea of joining up services across all tiers of government. This approach takes on, as a matter of priority, the siloed, hierarchical structures of government in pursuit of more efficient “systems based” approaches to solving problems and creating value.

But it was his views on content, design, distribution and evaluation that caught my attention.

Tom said that while the focus on platforms and their functionality is all well and good, what needs more consideration and effort is the content and experiences we deliver on our platforms.

How, as he put it, do we “drive the beast?”

In a “mobile first” world where user experience is paramount, there is a need to ensure our platforms are fit for purpose. We must work hard, he said, to understand the needs of citizens and stakeholders and move quickly to meet them.

His view of content is that the traditional government website does not have to be a place where you publish everything. Apply the 80/20 rule and focus on the 20% of the content that 80% of your audience is looking for.

To facilitate change, Tom’s radical idea is to combine the web services, communication, marketing and PR staff into a single team and locate them next to the CEO or Director-General’s office.

By elevating the status of the “digital team”, it will give the leadership the opportunity to “feel the pace and movement” of the digital transformation.

So with the platform built, design simplified and the chairs re-arranged, Tom turned his attention to process change.

Tom recommends a “heavyweight” strategy to direct the story of your department or agency. In the digital age, it’s all about reputation and the authority of your brand. Government is all about the long term, he says, so take the time to work out what you want to say and when you want to say it.

His next piece of advice was to “start thinking in campaigns”. Tom echoes the advice of the UK Government Director of Cabinet Communication, Alec Aitken, who says government must stop “sending stuff out”. In the age of abundant information, there is a need to think carefully about your audience and break your story down into “campaigns”. Once they are clear, you then plot the key dates, times, channels and themes of your content in a calendar.

Measurement is a fundamental. Tom’s advice is to measure everything within an inch of its life. Activate Google Analytics, share the numbers and learn. He says the data thrown off from your publishing efforts will reveal insights about how the different channels in your “universe” are performing, what topics are popular and where your traffic comes from. Tom says these insights are the best form of feedback and market research.

Another important insight is that content is now a distribution game. It is not simply about creating content and hoping that people will find it. In your planning, you have to consider who your audience is and where are they online. Depending on your audience, your own website might be a small part of your publishing priority.

Tom says content is hard. Good content has to have a narrative of the story you want to tell. He says this is often difficult for the public sector because they often don’t know what they want to say. Tom says the culture of the public sector is not really about making things simple and accessible nor writing in plain English without wrapping content in 1000 caveats. The challenge is to write 16 word sentences and make the content simple and sensible.

He concluded his remarks in emphasising the importance of governance and making sure that you bring everyone along for the ride.

You might have noticed that the approach Tom outlines is content marketing. He doesn’t use those words but that’s what it is.

The opportunity to create and distribute useful, relevant and consistent content over time and to build loyal and engaged audiences is the gift of technology. It is also the future of government and public sector communication. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Tom Burton.


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