Helping people online where they seek help (draft)


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 targetted 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 poulation of 0.5m)

The Taskforce has assembled a list of sites for reference here 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.

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 to 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 published at this link. This has been supplemented with a manual by the Cabinet Office Government Communications Group here.  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, but 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 govenrment.  But government advisors from say 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 fora 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.

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


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 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.

RSS feed of comments 20 Responses to “Public servants taking part in online peer support forums”

  1. Tony Hirst says:

    Re: Pew research reports – is it worth mentioning how the web is used by, and engaged with, across different demographic groups? Might it be that there different strategies in the online space are required to engage with these segments? Indeed, how does government segment audiences when planning engagement strategies?

  2. Tony Hirst says:

    As well as consultation forums with the public, would it be worth mentioning forums that span local government, e.g. across similar roles in separate local authority areas, like the communities of practice site:

  3. David Brake says:

    The missing component here and in the guidance for civil servants mentioned in this text (as far as I could see) is a strategy to formally integrate participation in relevant social media sites as part of the normal activity of (selected) civil servants. On the one hand, many might see such outreach activity as an optional extra they can easily forego given their already busy workloads dealing with phone calls, emails and the post. On the other hand, it may be necessary to provide rules outlining how to judge how much engagement with social media is “sufficient” and which social media is strategic, since it would be possible for an enthusiastic civil servant to spend all of his or her time intervening in this way at the expense of other work.

    PS Some text still needs finishing eg “COI did some useful strategy work to advise public sector managers…” lacks the actual link.

  4. poit3 says:

    re your PS – thanks David, well spotted have inserted report now (as word doc) and sorted the text out. William Perrin

  5. David Brake says:

    Ah now that I’ve seen the missing social media guidance document it allays many of my concerns. Perhaps you could provide (and publish as part of this report) a space for online organizations who would like to partner with relevant government bodies to put themselves forward and indicate their suitability according to the relevant criteria? That would help the list-building process…

  6. Is there a danger here that public servants simply choose the ‘forums’ that they are comfortable with?

    Or that they only stick to those spaces that they first encounter, thereby exluding important voices?

    Maybe there needs to be a better way of listening and engaging with online activity than expecting civil servants to keep track of specific forums?

    Also: David, I agree with the need to integrate participation formally, but ‘relevant social media sites’ sounds a bit alarming: how would ‘relevant’ be defined?

  7. Nick Jones says:

    TO Michael Grimes point on which forums and the need to avoid camping out in the first forums a civil servant comes across. The lesson is from traditional marketing and ‘old’ media. The use of proper communications planning and media ‘buying’ to correctly identify the target group of users with appropriate engagement is still necessary. Call it social media planning or social media optimisation. There will be a continuing need to listen and understand the audience and to assemble a landscape of the conversation.

  8. “Targetted” – one T?

    “Comprehensive search” for online communities of interest. I’d like to see this done or at least co-ordinated and community-managed on a wiki or other editable platform centrally (by COI?)

    Missing link to the manual that supplements the participation guidelines.

    ‘To reduce unnecessary duplication of pre-existing user-generated sites… consult the operators and users of pre-existing user-generated sites before they build their own versions.’ – I don’t think it goes far enough to recommend copying best practice and joining conversations on external sites. What about a centralised platform – for instance a multi-user Worpdress platform that all govt can share – to sidestep the inconsistent resourcing of govt web activity and procurement tie-ins. There will still be need to host discussions ourselves and the barriers are many.

  9. Paul Walk says:

    “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.”

    While a snapshot of the current landscape of peer-support fora is a good place to start, it could be made clearer that this will need to be sustained with some kind of regular review process.

    Like David Brake in comment #33 I noted that communities need a route to pro-actively register their existence/interest to the relevant department

  10. Noel says:

    “30,000 parents meeting in a park or football stadium to share information & tips about parenting, government would take notice….In the offline world we cannot think of any UK membership organisations growing this fast.”

    If these peer support forums are growing so well and offline organisations less connected – can government create spaces for mutual learning and support btw the two?

  11. I think that real progress in this area is unlikely until there are one or two reasonably well documented examples where a public body can say “by taking a pro-active strategy of engaging with users groups we have cut incoming calls/emails/letters by X%”. Without that, I suspect most organisations will be vaguely interested in this recommendation rather than act on it. Could you not support one or two pathfinders in this area?

  12. Sebastian Crump says:

    I too wondered where the lists mentioned in the recommendation would go. Dept sites are not really a public destination in the ‘future vision’, so Directgov/BusinessLink seem to be the most sensible location, ie. owned by the franchises. There are technical, process, resource and skillset implications of this (none insurmountable, but this should at least be acknowledged). Also not sure Cab Office should publish master list – ideally nobody should as it would be a natural output of them being provided in a standard format available via RSS/API.

  13. [...] 1 of the PoI Taskforce Report challenges public servants to involve themselves in user-led communities: As a matter of course, public servants should be active in online peer support forums concerned [...]

  14. Steph Gray says:

    I strongly agree. Though commenting here in a personal capacity, my Department has recently worked with The Student Room to combine the peer support they offer with the need for robust official information from Directgov: DIUS Mature Students campaign.

    If these partnerships are to become commonplace, government procurement rules will need to be reviewed to ensure Departments can easily work with user-led communities without needing to access them via inflexible OJEU frameworks

  15. [...] sections of the report. Thse comments have ranged from grammatical mistakes/typos to more detailed policy discussions.  The ease at which content in the report can be annotated, allows for casual users to [...]

  16. Two points…

    1. Where the ‘guidance’ is referrenced here, do you actually mean ‘principles’? As you know there are social media guidance materials available to civil servants and I think it is worth be clear on that. Though the guidance is getting out of date and is not in the public domain, it is still available.

    2. Are you talking about forums as in discussion groups on bulletin boards, or more generally, taking in blogs, webchats, bulletin boards etc? I would advise the latter, otherwise it’s too narrow.

  17. Second last paragraph…

    Should this read ‘public servants’ rather than just public?

  18. Andrew Lewin says:

    While I’m all in favour of the enabling and the encouragment of civil servants to engage in support forums relavent to their area of work, I’m sceptical about some of the surrounding points made here, for example:

    “Is there a danger of public servants choosing/sticking with forums?” suggests that there civil servants shouldn’t be too confortable or too settled. But the whole point of social media forums is that they they form a community; people who dip in and out and do ‘drive-by’ postings are rarely welcomed and often actively resented. Surely a civil servant should be engaged in, commited to and appropriately “comfortable” in a forum?

    Also there’s an issue of trying to encourage everyone to engage in forums whether they want to or not. Not everyone is comfortable with communications, let alone digital communications, and it’s easy to mis-write an email or a post so that it comes across as a PR statement, a bland “say nothing”, or worse – hostile and patronising. Not everyone is cut out for this kind of thing.

    After all, this shouldn’t be about “what the civil service does TO social media”, but how social media can teach, transform and work WITH the civil service.

  19. Tony, thanks for mentioning the IDeA Communities of Practice. Certainly, these represent an opportunity for civil servants to engage with local service providers who are sometimes implementing national policy and who are often “closer to the ground”.

  20. Commenting in a personal capacity: Re. public servants offering help where people are…in many ways this makes sense absolutely the way ahead. But we need to be really careful. Any new-mums’ forum will be full of complaints about the inconsistency of advice by health visitors/midwives (I know, I wrote some of them) – and frankly I’m not sure that I’d have wanted to know about health visitor reading my complaints about their service.

    Of course, on the other side of the coin there were many useful recommendations and great customer insight to be gathered in those sites.