Creating porous government: social platforms, build it yourself or KnowledgeHub?

A short discussion Steve and I had on the Forums about the use of social media platforms for building internal and external communities was picked up and developed further in the Hangout we had with Liz and Michael (see the relevant section of the edited transcript), but I think it deserves more attention. How can these platforms contribute to porous government?

So you want an online community?

In one corner you have those who believe all roads lead to Facebook. Now that's wrong from just a communicators' perspective, as anyone who's seen their organic reach plummet whenever Facebook decides to tweak their algorithm (and some more cash out of your wallet) will probably agree. But from the point of view of someone who wants to set up an internal community, choosing a Facebook Group looks like a compelling argument. After all, "everyone's on Facebook", and Groups don't appear to be throttling reach. So far (but see below).

There are two responses to this. On the one hand, adopting - for example - Facebook Groups for your community means forcing everyone to use their Facebook account for work matters. As Michael pointed out in the hangout, a lot of research shows that for many people - particularly in the public sector - this is too much of a private/professional mix. 

This issue for LinkedIn, however, is probably less serious.

Your community in their hands

But there's a second problem for either platform - just because a FB or LinkedIn Group works for you today doesn't mean it will do the same tomorrow, and if they decide to make changes there is precisely nothing you can do about it.

When I wrote about this last year (see Blogging on LinkedIn, or Paying on Facebook?) I didn't mention my own professional nightmare from back in 2009, when I made Linked Q&As a central part of the social media strategy for a European business support website. Then LinkedIn just closed Q&As down. It didn't fit their strategy anymore.

Tough luck for me, and the 1000s of people who'd invested massive amounts of time into answering Questions in order to build up their Knowledge Profile.

The bottom line is this: adopting one of these platforms does give you a shot at their audience, but

"they decide how you will publish, and who will see it, on the basis of their commercial strategy, not on the basis of what you want to say, or how you want to say it"
- me again (sorry!) from October 2013


In both cases, moreover, there's a massive problem with analytics. This is vital - one of the community facilitation Best Practices mentioned by Michael in the Hangout, for example, is analytically-driven iteration - i.e., "try stuff out, measure the results, and do more of what worked best".

Both platforms are not as good on this front as you might assume. Many people, for example, think that the 'view' statistic they see for their LinkedIn blog posts are 'page views'. 'Fraid not - these are 'stream views': LinkedIn is telling you how often your post appeared in someone's stream. They do NOT tell you how many people clicked the link and actually read your post!

And as Steve pointed out in the Hangout, once your Facebook Group gets to a certain size (~100 Members) they no longer give you metrics - from that point on you have little idea of what actually works, so you can no longer improve your Group.

Finally, of course, there's no way out - with these Groups:

"there’s no export button or detailed membership lists – the things which are really important for group organisers – so you’re trapped"
- Steve, speaking in our Hangout

Build it yourself?

Of course if you take this to its logical conclusion, the only way you can have Total Control of your community's destiny is to build it yourself.

The good news is that you will be able to have exactly what you want, and change it as you learn more about your community.

The bad news is that you'll be building it from scratch in both senses - actually technically building the site, and then also building an audience from scratch. And that's expensive.

Knowledge Hub, niche platform

And this is why I personally find Knowledge Hub so interesting for my purposes (public communication, participation & engagement).

On the one hand it is a platform, so:

  • Pro: you can access the inbuilt audience and don't need to build your own site;
  • Con: you are limited to the K-Hub toolkit (which is, however, designed specifically for its niche audience),

On the other hand, it is not trying to take over the world and sell it to advertisers. Instead, it's aimed at a niche: providing public sector workers with a safe environment for both internal and 'mixed' (internal and external) communities.

Hence the architecture (Personal Profiles joining community Groups); the three levels of Group privacy plus the ability to make specific Group subsections (forum, wiuki, etc.) public; the sponsorship-based business model; etc.

Taken together, this allows online collaboration to be tailored to needs of newcomer users, and then allows those users to grow.

Take the ladder

To explain that, I think the ‘ladder’ model of community member recruitment might prove useful.

Instead of asking a new user to join the site, create a profile and start blogging from their first visit, I generally view the User Recruitment Journey as a sort of ladder, composed of many small steps, each encouraging you to take the next one. For example:

  • I visit the site as an anornymous user ...
  • and subscribe to the enewlsetter / social media because the feed looks useful ...
  • which encourages me to fully register to the site, via rewards such as newsletter customisation and visibility.
  • Now I'm a Member, the online facilitator might encourage me to introduce myself.
  • People respond, so now I'm getting more comfortable contributing.
  • Hey, my first post is in the newsletter, and it's getting Likes and Comments!
  • Three months in and I'm now a fully fledged, high-profile Contributor, engaging frequently.

Encouraging porous government

I see that ladder operating both at the level of the individual K-Hub Group and in terms of the adoption of the platform as a whole.

For example, imagine someone in a public sector organisation first creates an internal group to - for example - work on a project within a department. It is entirely Private, known only to the Members invited into it, all working inside the same government organisation. This safe and tightly controlled environment is a perfect 'first step' for newcomers to work together online for the first time. 

But as Members become comfortable, a platform like Knowledge Hub allows them to expand their online work in several dimensions. At the risk of pushing the 'ladder' metaphor too far, it could be drawn like this:

For some, the next obvious step may be to extend their Private Group to people working in other government departments in their own country, slowly enlarging the circle of trust by inviting them to join, one person at a time. This is more of less K-Hub's original use case - after all, there will almost certainly be other civil servants facing the same issues in the same country.

Or maybe they'll create a second Group to host that wider, national-level discussion, and keep their first group for more 'private' discussions. K-Hub makes that easy too: your Profile is independent of the Groups you're in, and you can even import blog posts into the new Group, as I discovered when I joined.

Others may go further and change their Group's privacy setting from 'Private' to 'Restricted'. Everyone can now see that the Group exists and get a hint as to the activity within it. Morever, other K-Hub Members can apply to join spontaneously. Given that there are already over 110k active members, this could open the Group up to:

  • people outside government entirely, creating 'mixed communities' of public servants, civil society, industry and citizens working on common problems, and/or participation platforms to improve policymaking 
  • public servants in other governments joining in, allowing public servants in different countries to trade ideas, best practices, etc - obviously useful within the EU
  • both - i.e., creating a Group where public servants, civil society, industry and citizens from many countries can work together on common problems, trade ideas and insights, etc.

As a restricted Group, however, is still remains a 'safe garden', with membership controlled by the admins.

Unless they decide to Open up the Group entirely, as we have in the Public Sector Communications Group, where only some sections are not visible to anonymous visitors.

So I'm starting to see how K-Hub's architecture creates a good compromise, tailored to the public sector's needs, for "porous government", where each civil servant can:

  • work with their colleagues in their own government unit, other units and civil servants in other countries
  • create participation projects with people outside government, and indeed even bring in citizens and stakeholders from other countries if they wish
  • in a highly controlled and safe way, without having to rely on American social media platforms for whom they (the public servants) are the product being sold.


But no platform is perfect for everything. To paraphrase Liz and Steve from our Hangout:

"This is totally about the right tool for the right job. Facebook? Fine, of you’re an elected councillor or politician and you need to engage with your local community. They’re probably on Facebook, so it’s the right tool for that job. LinkedIn is where you go to get a job. And maybe Knowledge Hub is where you go to do your job."


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simon fenton-jones 4 Years Ago
Thanks for the thinking out loud Mathew. So we're back to the usual problem of designing platforms with a good balance between outside = everyone. Then, Inside = public servants from, firstly, one gov and secondly all govs. So that will mean (say) having the same platform but with three levels of security. We build all platforms from the outside in, primarily because otherwise it's impossible for a potential user to know a group exists unless they are already insiders. One of the primary factors here, when building a platform for insiders (out), is having at least two platforms. One for everyone (make your choice between FB, LI, etc) and then, from there to an online space for people who have "higher" credentials, and where any changes to the (khub type) platform can be co-designed depending on need, and the content/archive can be assured (by a gov department) not to disappear. e.g. here is a wonderful online attempt at open policy making by a(n ex-) Aussie senator. The link which illustrates how they worked should be kept here. (Analysing the public sphere) Poof! It's gone. That's the way most records for a gov's social media attempts disappear. Have you noticed that there's no (open) khub user's group? except the scots. So there's nowhere for khubs users, as a group, to have these kind of general conversations, and consider how the khub should be redesigned, and can (be) complement(ed by) other "social media" platforms. So there's two probs when going down this path, if we are thinking globally. Firstly we have no common ID) (with levels of security) which users can use. So we can't help user's in different gov departments to "restrict" their inter-departmental groups easily, if they want. This is changing in, as they are starting to issue personal data stores/accounts to each civil servant. So we have the beginnings of inter-departmental users beginning to see the need for their own khub. (and if I were Khub's management, I'd be registering to provide CSL services and platform) The question then is, "is khub fit for purpose?" I've never seen a spec, or found a khub user's group where improvements are suggested and prioritized. And that's it role isn't it? Khub is the place where one comes to do their learning.
Michael Norton 4 Years Ago
Hi Simon I agree we should make the feedback and suggestions a bit more prominent. We merged a range of groups a while back into KHub Connects, where we have a dedicated category for feedback and suggestions. If I remember correctly you provided some great feedback in the previous group before we merged them. A large number of suggestions from that group were implemented when we upgraded to the most recent version of the Knowledge Hub. We also pick up feedback via a range of channels including the Support desk and the Online Facilitators Community which we then prioritise in terms of resources and impact and feed into the development roadmap. We also have a Knowledge Hub Advisory Board comprising partner organisations such as Socitm, Solace, the Improvement Service for Scotland and SSAT who also provide advice and strategic direction on developments. Regarding the specification, you can find details on the Government Digital Marketplace. An updated version will be available soon. I know it’s not easy to build a platform for everyone to do everything. And trying to get the balance right is a challenge with the new technology and different expectations of different users. As you know this area of work is constantly evolving not just on the technical site but also regarding the skills to facilitate, persuade, influence and maintain the relationships and activity to make the groups successful. If you could provide your ideas and suggestions that would be great and we will try and do what we can. We will shortly be running a user experience and interface review too, so look out for details of how you can feed into that. Cheers Michael
Mathew Lowry 4 Years ago in reply to Michael Norton .
Thanks to both Simon for his thoughts and Michael for his answers! Also, @Simon: I'm not sure we need "at least two platforms. One for everyone (make your choice between FB, LI, etc) and then, from there to an online space for people who have "higher" credentials". The fact is that while multiple platforms exist, a few already predominate. Each space is a winner-take-all environment, so we're seeing FB conquering most 'consumer social', LinkedIn taking the 'professional social' space, and other platforms (Ning, Xing, etc.) fading. Note that FB & LI are not necessarily technically better - network effects (Metcalfe's law) means bigger = best, so once you get a little bigger you automatically keep getting bigger. However: Myspace. Anyway, the question is (a) whether it's a Good Thing that one or two consumer-oriented, advertising-driven platforms inevitably become the only options out there, and (b) how specialist platforms can still serve specific niches better. What really surprises me is how readily most gov't communicators in the EU just accept this and reinforce these US behemoths using taxpayers' funds, simply because it's easier.
simon fenton-jones 4 Years Ago
Thanks Mike, Mathew, Can I try and answer both your replies together. It took me a bit of time to realize that "We merged a range of groups a while back into KHub Connects." It's the advisory board (and who they represent) where these discussions have their natural hub. And you know i think you guys are THE nicest/wonderful writers. 1. Thanks for the spec Michael. I'll keep track of your (tech) priorities. I have preferred to stay in the background most of the time. Now, after 20 years, the convergence between broadcast and online media is starting to reach the integration point. So I'm just trying to figure out how a Video Conferencing/streaming network can be integrated into khub. (like what Mathew is doing with Hangouts) i.e. There are programmes like this one on TV in most countries. In the space you can see the seeds. NHS citizen was another nice attempt. Trouble is we have yet to see the idea that there will always be an (subject specific) online space for TV programmes, where the Q&A can be answered by knowledgeable people and an audience built/community gathered, in order to prepare for the next programme in a series. 2. I'm only pointing out the "two platform" (or three) policy as that's what I've seen as the successful approach for decades. Every Community Manager (CM) is a butterfly trying to pollinate (between) remote flowers. And the main flower species like LI have the bees already self-classified. ( LI? I'm a "professional" bee). Trouble is we have trainee CMs trying to pull together a spec for their perfect hive, with their audience, in the wild , while never pulling a technical audience who can understand the two means of construction. i.e. Network managers will be looking at the (inter-networking) IDA, and who issues it, while Webbies will be focusing on web sites, and who manages its access. I hate to make a nuisance of myself for flogging the IDA as a primary focus for Local gov. But it IS the natural point of focus for pulling Phil's ideas about a Pipeline together. (and helping the GDS guys out of their "Private company" only mindset). Just ask Ian Litton. In the UK, we've still got this great division between whether a web site is or just For all the talk about "user-centric" neither level of gov considers that they are building for the same audience/citizen. Ever wondered where the GOV.UK user's group might hide? It's quite plain to see where their suggestions/questions start. Every page has a "Is there anything wrong with this page?" at the bottom, or where their ideas and questions are posted into the ether. 3. Anyone arriving at the Khub (or a flock of Moodles) will always have a prob getting orientated, even if it is known about. That "navigation" prob has been going on, on every platform. Just try and find you cop or coi on Google groups, etc. (and the khub). That's who there's usually a Lounge for newbies to get orientated. Enough for now. My best regards.