Helping people online where they seek help


Public servants taking part in online peer support forums

‘A small group of mums can reach an audience of hundreds of thousands. They do not need a large organisation with an expensive IT support system or technological expertise. If 30,000 parents were meeting in a park or football stadium to share information and tips about parenting, government would take notice. Citizens are helping each other in online communities, and working towards the same goals as government on a range of issues, from parenting to health and financial management.’

Hilary Armstrong MP, Government response to Power of Information Review

Online peer support forums are going from strength to strength.  Millions more people are engaging in online peer support forums than at the time of the original Power of Information Report in 2007.  One major support network, The Student Room, now has 1.4m unique visitors a month, run by a small business and its own user community with 60 volunteer moderators. Netmums, represented on the Taskforce is growing by up to 20,000 new members a month. In the offline world we cannot think of any UK membership organisations growing this fast.

The Taskforce has encountered a remarkable range of mutual support forums of all sizes for all audiences.  These range from: Money Saving Expert (reporting 6.4 million visitors in December alone with 3 million people receiving a weekly email) to the Army Rumour Service (reporting over 340 million page views since 2004 and over 42,000 registered users) the targeted The Poultry Keeper (which has over 70,000 posts), to the specialist Noise Abatement Society forum helping people with noise problems (over 3,000 posts), the Sheffield Forum (over 2 million posts about a City with a population of 0.5m).  The forums supporting the IDEA Communities of Practice and Rightsnet also show how public sector professionals work together online, in public, on challenging day to day issues.  We tend to use the word ‘forum’ to describe generic types of activity that could be enabled by a bulletin board, a blog, web chat, or an email group amongst others.

The Taskforce has assembled a list of sites for reference.  This is simply a representative list compiled from our experience.  We believe that a comprehensive search for relevant sites by different government departments and agencies would discover many more examples of potentially useful forums and so should be undertaken as a matter of urgency.  Sites should also be given the opportunity to put themselves forward and for people to suggest them. Any list should include a basic audience segmentation for each site.

In the USA Pew Research reports that:

‘The internet…has now surpassed all other media except television as an outlet for national and international news….For the first time in a Pew survey, more people say they rely mostly on the internet for news than cite newspapers.’

There is now a compelling case for government to follow their citizen customers and give advice in the places citizens seek it.  Peer support forums have now entered the mainstream and should be treated as an important place in which to help citizens.

COI identified a lack of guidance for civil servants as an important barrier to participation in social media. The Taskforce worked with Ministers and officials to produce guidance for civil servants to take part in social media. This has been supplemented with a manual by the Cabinet Office Government Communications Group.  However, an interview with an Online Community Manager, whose job it was to help officials take part in online policy discussions suggested that there are many cultural barriers to be overcome at a personal level for civil servants.

Steinberg and Mayo recommended that

To improve service delivery and communication with the public, the Central Office of Information (COI), in partnership with the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI), should coordinate the development of experimental partnerships between major departments and user-generated sites in key policy areas, including parenting advice (Department for Education and Skills), services for young people, and healthcare (Department of Health).’

In pursuit of this recommendation, COI did some useful strategy work to advise public sector managers on how to take decisions about engaging in social media.  This is published for the first time here COI strategy report.  COI did not find it easy to engage Departments in such experimental partnerships but unearthed some examples in the report.

Steinberg and Mayo also recommended that

‘To reduce unnecessary duplication of pre-existing user-generated sites, COI should update the guidelines for minimum website standards by December 2007; departments should be strongly advised to consult the operators and users of pre-existing user-generated sites before they build their own versions.’

This analysis still stands – that in general government should not set up its own support forums. Rather it should go to where the customers are seeking help and provide it there, if customers would welcome it in the context of that forum.

There are a wide range of interventions that could be made. observed that the nature of intervention needed to be carefully thought through.  In the student room case, people go to peer forums to seek advice initially from their peers, rather than from government.  But government advisors from a service such as NHS Direct could add real value if a person requiring specific help was referred to them by a forum moderator.

Another site owner felt that in the case of health advice, a specific clinic might work best for their property, and another site owner that call centre advisor experts should simply take part in the discussion online where people were asking for help on technical aspects of benefits.  However, some sites clearly would not welcome such intervention.

There is therefore no simple one-size-fits-all model for what would constitute effective intervention in online forums. Rather, it should be for each public service organisation to draw up their own strategy in consultation with the administrators of forums which they have identified as significant for them.

We do also recognise that the landscape of online activity changes rapidly requiring such strategies to be regularly-updated living documents rather than being set in stone at infrequent intervals.  Many successful forums are small third sector or entirely volunteer efforts, which cannot be expected to go through an onerous procurement process – the COI should examine how to make it easier for the public sector and informal sites to work together without a stifling procurement overhead .

The Taskforce judges that the moment is right for a firmer push for public servants to engage in peer support forums, with public measurement and reporting and so makes the following recommendation.

Recommendation 1

Public servants should take part in online peer support forums as a matter of course. Public bodies should investigate and publish lists of the major forums in their areas of responsibility and engage with these following a published plan.  A cross-governmental list and set of Departmental plans should be published by the Cabinet Office by Q3 2009 with a follow up report on progress in Q1 2010.  This builds on the enabling work advised by the Taskforce on the publication of social media guidance for civil servants.