Croissant, check. Coffee, check. I’m writing this in a Paris coffee shop while in Europe for a 10-day trip to do a presentation on GovLoop at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference on online collaboration. So far, I have met more than a dozen federal and local public servants in the UK and France.
Whenever I meet public servants abroad, I’m reminded of the similarities between our public policy problems. And the ideas and success stories that I see in Europe can be applied in the United States.
This year is no different. The prevailing mood is change, whether it’s due to budget cuts, layoffs, Generation Y or new technology — change is happening.
Here are some common themes:
1. Layoffs. The British central government is facing up to 40 percent layoffs, with individuals reapplying for their own jobs often at lower pay. The real issue I’m finding in the UK is the talent leaving in droves. Low morale and imminent pay cuts have many successful leaders fleeing to the private sector.
2. Eliminating Duplication. There’s a strong focus to eliminate duplication. In the UK, all procurements of more than 25,000 pounds must be approved by a senior administrative official. Yes, laborsome, but it may be good short-term strategy for reducing duplication. One senior official said once they started oversight, they united dozens of similar outreach and marketing programs across government.
3. Cutting 20th-Century Programs. We often roll over programs and budgets that have been on the books for 30-plus years. Do we need three media/press people focusing on local newspapers if they outnumber the reporters? Do we really need to put public notices in local print publications with limited readership, or is there a cheaper alternative? Vincent Ducrey, a senior new media official in France, recently wrote The Guide of Influence, which looks at restructuring the staffing and skill needs of the 21st-century communication division in a radically different media landscape.
4. Open Source and Cloud. As contracts expire, there’s a big push into open source as many agencies are switching to open source content management systems like WordPress to host major sites and Drupal, which is gaining in popularity.
The cloud seems to be everywhere in London and Paris. The London Borough Market is surrounded by a large Microsoft cloud advertisement and the UK government just launched the government cloud, called G-Cloud. In Paris, senior officials consistently asked me about the state of cloud computing in government. The country faces similar concerns to the U.S. — public versus private clouds as well as security and privacy risks. They were most optimistic about the use of cloud computing in local government and specific software-as-a-service applications.
5. Facebook and Social Media. French and British prime ministers have mature new-media teams. Many government agencies have Facebook and Twitter profiles to engage citizens, plus there are numerous government social networks, such as the UK’s Civil Pages and France’s Canal Public. Interestingly a UK agency, called Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly the IDeA), is funded by the federal government to help share and replicate best practices across local government — this organization runs an online community where thousands can collaborate and share best practices.
Despite this progress, agencies still struggle with key issues, such as staffing, privacy and how to drive large audiences and engagement. There is a wide range of events, consultants and internal agencies working to improve the implementations of social media across government.
In the end, it’s a great time to be in government. In the U.S. and across the globe, it’s a time of change and thus, great opportunity to reinvent how we serve the public. The beauty of 2011 versus 1994, when e-government first became popular, is that we can quickly share best practices globally in minutes. Instead of requiring an international conference in Brussels, you can connect directly with international officials on places like Twitter and GovLoop to read blogs and online magazines.
Just don’t tell everyone yet as I’m glad to be sitting here in a coffee shop, as there is nothing better than April in Paris.
Steve Ressler is the founder and president of GovLoop, a social networking site for government officials to connect and exchange information.