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Irish Government’s New Online News Service – A review

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This week’s launch of a new news information portal MerrionStreet.ie represents a new approach by the Irish Government to communicate with citizens.

The site – named after the Dublin street on which Government Buildings is located – is based on the WordPress Open Source software platform, and was built for the Government by Arekibo for a reported €40,000. The project took five months to pull together since the initial RFP was awarded earlier this year.

The new website provides the Government with a more dynamic web presence with the inclusion of news, photos, videos, Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as options for newsletters and web chats.

The Government describes the site as ‘providing a view of Government not seen before’. It explains:

In simple terms, MerrionStreet.ie will review the wide range of government activity and then report certain key events as news. All government press releases will be accessible from our website – either by way of RSS feed or by way of links to all government departments. But our central task will be to take a variety of events and report on them objectively, in the language of a news bulletin. We will also feature ‘Issues’ where useful thematic information, not tied to a particular date, is presented.

We use the latest audio-visual tools and Internet capabilities to hopefully bring these events to life. We have video, audio, photographs, text, links to other websites and much useful data which people can share. We are linked to YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

The site explains how its objective is ‘not to create a competition with traditional media in terms of deadlines, scope or scoop’. Its hope is that it will be used by journalists and others as a reference point upon which to view the latest Government developments. Noticeable it says it will “not engage in political comment.”

Political comment

The site has already come in for criticism, however, with some describing it as a means for the Government to ‘present the most positive spin on its daily news’. In Ireland’s popular newspaper, the Irish Independent, Michael Brennan describes MerrionStreet as providing ‘an uninterrupted outlet for the Irish Prime Minister’s musings’:

Modelled on a news agency, merrionstreet.ie allows the Government’s highly paid spin doctors to “report” on the work of Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his ministers.

Fed up with being unable to control the bad news, which has been frequent, Mr Cowen now has an uninterrupted outlet for his musings, free from pesky analysis and less than gratifying comment.

Such sentiments have also been expressed on Twitter and in discussion forums with comments such as those below representative of a lack of trust in the objectivity of information being released:

@Paul_Duggan: So FF are are using the @merrionstreet as a PR tool rather than a state info service…

@john_mcguirk: Looking at this MerrionStreet.ie thing. Looks like taxpayer-subsidised propaganda to me.

@irish_eagle Wanna know what the Irish word for Pravda is? See http://www.MerrionStreet.ie #Ireland #ItNeverRainsHere

Anticipating this kind of criticism the site says:

MerrionStreet.ie is produced by a team in Government Buildings, involving the Government Information Service, Government Press and IT. Our objective is not to create a competition with traditional media in terms of deadlines, scope or scoop. Indeed we hope journalists find MerrionStreet.ie a useful reference point, and are free to report and use its elements.

Social media tools

The site utilises a number of Social Media tools including Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. The team behind the site told Siliconrepublic they had seen what other nations, like the UK and France, had done in terms of embracing free social media tools and wanted to copy this approach. They cited Number10.gov.uk as a particular inspiration for MerrionStreet.

On announcing the new site, Government Minister Pat Carey tweeted:

New Government Comms. website launching tomorrow – merrionstreet.ie will mimic whitehouse.gov and Number10 websites. Will be a great tool.

The issue is that MerrionStreet does not embody many of the principles of these Government sites. The differences between the social media elements of Whitehouse.gov/Number10.gov.uk  and MerrionStreet are contrasted below.

@MerrionStreet

Follows 0 accounts, does not use hashtags or @replies and all tweets appear to be links to news articles. The current account is not utilising the platform in the manner in which it is intended i.e. as a two way communications medium.

Some twitter users have expressed disappointment at format of the @merrionstreet twitter account:
@GSheehy: Right, enough is enough. Unfollowing @merrionstreet until format changes. No doubt someone will RT the interesting ‘exchanges’.

Nevertheless, SiliconRepublic reports that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will eventually be among the MerrionStreet tweeters and will include the initials “BC” in his tweets to indicate his authorship. We have yet to see any tweets of this nature, however. Instead, tweets have been confined to announcements of his press statements, rather than any personal messages.

@Whitehouse

Follows 107 accounts (mostly Government entities or administration personnel). It uses re-tweets, hashtags and has a real person tweeting from inside the Whitehouse. Many members of the administration have also started using individual accounts in an official capacity.

@Number10gov

Follows 474,600 accounts. It uses re-tweets, hashtags and has a real person tweeting on events from Number 10.

The UK Government’s Twitter Strategy provides good advice on how to use twitter effectively. This document says ‘we will actively follow other relevant organisations and professionals’ and ‘we will follow back anyone who follows our account, using an automated service’ because it is good twitter etiquette, it enhances your twitter reputation and vetting who to follow back is too time intensive.

Along with this the strategy explains the value of hashtags, re-tweeting and adding value with exclusive content. If the @merrionstreet account remains a static platform to be used simply as an RSS feed for news stories, it will quickly loose followers, and its value and usefulness will be further questioned. Instead, it should follow the strategy outlined by the UK Government, and embrace medium as a means of engaging with nearly 500 followers.

The MerrionStreet.ie images page displays sets of photos from the site’s flickr account. The Number10.gov and Whitehouse.gov websites also have flickr accounts, however, their use of these accounts differs in one noticeable and important way – their Copyright policy.

MerrionStreet flickr:

All photos published on the MerrionStreet flickr account use a Copyright All Rights Reserved license. This indicates ‘that the copyright holder reserves, or holds for their own use, all the rights provided by copyright law, such as distribution, performance, and creation of derivative works; that is, they have not waived any such right’.

For each photo there is a “Request to license MerrionStreet.ie’s photos via Getty Images” link, which forwards users to a Getty Images site to purchase the photos. Strangely even photos of Government buildings are licensed in this way.

Number10.gov flickr:

Publishes photos using the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license. This means that others are free to copy, distribute and display the photos on their sites, provided they give original credit to Number10.gov, do not use the photos for commercial purposes and do not alter or build upon the original works.

Whitehouse.gov flickr:

Publishes photos as United States Government Work. This means they are “not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work.”

The impact of setting such a restrictive license policy on Irish Government photos, is that any blogger or media outlet will need to either purchase the photos from Getty for use on their sites, or contact MerrionStreet directly. There appears to be a contradiction here as the site says: “We have video, audio, photographs, text, links to other websites and much useful data which people can share”. Unfortunately, this sharing does not extend to their photos.

Both the Whitehouse and Number 10 websites have their own video players through which they often broadcast live video, and which others can embedded on their sites. They also upload these videos to their respective YouTube channels, but YouTube does not represent the exclusive distribution mechanism for this media. Unfortunately, this is not the case with MerrionStreet.

MerrionStreet Video:

The site includes video footage of Ministerial speeches, Government announcements and a feature called “doorsteps” – where the Taoiseach or Minister answers a range of questions asked by a number of journalists. These videos are, however, all exclusively presented through YouTube. As such, the Irish Government appears to be explicitly endorsing this platform over and above the plethora of other video sharing platforms available.

The Irish government should avoid publicly endorsing one product or service over its competitors. Instead, it should ensure videos are available in different formats (e.g. .mp4) and on more than one video sharing platform. Also, they should ensure that when YouTube videos are embedded on MerrionStreet.ie they do not include the YouTube logo. This should apply to other areas of Government that create video content e.g. the House of the Oireachtas short films.

The MerrionStreet team could create its own branded, neutral video player that would allow anyone to embed the content. That would  be a more equitable way for the Government to spread its message, while still retaining a YouTube channel.

Number 10 Video:

Number 10 has its own platform neutral video player available called Number 10 TV. Videos on this player can be freely embedded in other websites and blogs. It also maintains a YouTube channel, however, it does not exclusively present its videos through this platform.

Whitehouse Video:

The Whitehouse has hundreds of videos available on its website, YouTube and Vimeo channels. It has been careful not to endorse any Video platform exclusively, and was required to create its own video player with captioning for Section 508 compliance.

The Whitehouse has also used YouTube.com to allow the public to pose questions to the President on a wide range of issues, and has recently been used by Press Secretary Gibbs to respond to questions regarding the recent oil spill.

There are longstanding policies against using advertising on federal websites or having sites endorse specific software or products. General Services Administration (GSA) guidelines prohibit .gov websites from commercially endorsing any product, commodity, or service.

GSA finalised an agreement with YouTube in February last year to resolve the legal concerns such as liability, endorsements, advertising, freedom of information and governing law. This allows for other government agencies to use YouTube without conducting their own formal assessment of its suitability and adherence to government laws.

MerrionStreet Facebook:

The MerrionStreet Facebook page has already garnered over 250 fans, but has seen very little by way of interaction or dialogue with these users. The current page appears to be merely an outlet on which news stories are posted, rather than a genuine attempt to start a conversation around particular news stories.

Number 10 Facebook:

The Number 10 website has developed a Facebook application in order to disseminate news and other information throughout the site. They’ve also recently announced a partnership with the Social networking site to support the Treasury’s Spending Challenge. The Democracy UK page will be used to stimulate debate regarding ideas proposed to cut public spending.

Whitehouse Facebook:

The Whitehouse has an extensive Facebook presence with more than 600,000 fans and thousands of ‘Likes’ and comments on news articles and videos. This provides a platform upon which the Whitehouse can share information including photos and videos, announce official government events and observances and gather feedback from constituents. This page enables users to publish their comments on Whitehouse news, something which is not possible on Whitehouse.gov.

Earlier this year, GSA signed a terms-of-service agreement with Facebook to make it:

easier for government agencies to create Facebook pages and use them to dramatically increase access to information, offer education on government services, and further empower citizens to interact with government.

This new agreement with Facebook resolves the legal concerns found in many standard terms and conditions that pose problems for federal agencies, such as liability, endorsements, advertising, freedom of information, and governing law. As part of this there is no advertising on the Whitehouse Facebook page, in contrast to the usual advertising that is included in the sidebar and header of users’ profiles and which appears on the MerrionStreet page.

Reaction

Reaction to the new site has been mixed. Many have commented on the cost involved in the creation of the website, when it uses freely available software. Some twitter reactions to the site include:

@gavinsblog: So Merrionstreet.ie is exactly what I expected – crap

@paulmwatson: When they said @merrionstreet.ie was inspired by number10.gov.uk they weren’t kidding. Expensive WordPress blog.

@ronnymitchel: In all fairness to @merrionstreet, although they paid waaaaay too much for the site, it does look nice for just @wordpress.

@micflan: 40k obviously doesn’t buy you a favicon, custom 404 pages or decent URL’s (index.php in every one). http://www.merrionstreet.ie/

This, however, misses the point and we should consider what the Government originally tendered for. The original RFP sought services including:

  • Design of the website and associated accessible HTML templates
  • Building the website according to the agreed design specifications
  • Installation and commissioning of solution
  • Provision of software maintenance and solution support including the associated templates,
  • Provision of solution documentation
  • Provision of solution training and handover to Department personnel

The RFP made no specific requirement for citizen engagement or dialogue through Twitter or Facebook. The only mention of social media in the RFP was:

The design must integrate seamlessly with various social networking sites ((e.g. YouTube, Facebook etc.) while maintaining a consistent look and feel wherever technically possible

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that these elements remain relatively static.

Improvements

This is not to say that these elements shouldn’t be improved upon. The Government could attempt to create much more entertaining and informative YouTube videos – by taking inspiration from Whitehouse.gov’s West Wing Week and the Inside the White House series. MerrionStreet should be more aggressive and original in its efforts to communicate the Government’s message, over and above the creation of glossed up press releases.

As of now, their Facebook/Twitter pages merely republishes information posted on MerrionStreet. The team behind the site should consider posting more content that is original to Twitter/Facebook, giving users added incentive to visit these pages.

Finally, the Taoiseach’s office should try to expand MerrionStreet into a more sophisticated online operation that seeks to engage with citizens, rather than merely push information to them. Unfortunately, the initial scope of MerrionStreet was far too narrow. Its objective was simply to ‘Deliver a cohesive and whole of Government approach to the dissemination of Government information in a wide variety of formats’.

Improving the site to become a two-way medium with comments and citizen engagement is when it’ll really become interesting. At the moment, the site isn’t up to the standards of Whitehouse.gov or Number10.gov.uk. Getting to this point will require a change in focus from the ‘dissemination of information’, to – as Australia announced yesterday – a more:

open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology.

Hopefully, this will come with the next release.

Further reading:

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Paul M. WatsonNo Gravatar 22/07/2010, 5:46 am

    Good constructive review. Your point about the RFP corrects the many negative comments, including mine. We got what the RFP asked for. At 40k I do think it a tad expensive but then any project with an RFP is not going to be as cost effective as two guys in a garage. All the discussions with government people would have sapped a good deal of that 40k.

    However, I do think a simple, free (or $100) WordPress template and some WordPress setup would have accomplished most of what MerrionStreet.ie provides. It should be about the content and communications, not a slick visual design.

    Next time (they seem to say that a lot in government) a bit of vision and proper engagement before the RFP is written would help. What do we the people want out of our government websites?

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 27/07/2010, 1:19 pm

    Good point Paul, and I agree that in terms of Government 40k is not so much. For example, I was looking at a recent RFP for a ‘Consultant to Advise on Web Strategy’ for oireachtas.ie. This is is a 90 day contract, which could potentially run over 40k! It seeks advice on:

    i) developing a single vision strategy for the Houses of the Oireachtas web presence
    ii) ensuring that best industry standards are applied to the oireachtas.ie website
    iii) developing the capability to deliver video, downloads, podcasts, virtual
    tours
    iv) developing the strategy with a view to creating a strong presence among the target audience(s)
    v) advise on a protocol for staff to use data such as information flows and for
    creating connectivity between social media sites etc.
    vi) provide technical assistance to identify and deal with issues with existing
    website.

    Perhaps the Department of the Taoiseach are going to create a similar RFP to get advice on managing the social aspects of Merrionstreet. It’s a real pity, however, that they could not include all these together on the initial RFP, which would save time and money.

  • steve whiteNo Gravatar 28/07/2010, 12:45 pm

    you’re right that the tender was modest, if not some of the press promoting it, but as @handelaar cuttingly points out its, putting the media on flickr and youtube is just cheap storage, maybe making it more findable, they could have held the media content and pushed it from the site itself but it was about getting the gloss of social media while cutting off most of the features that make it social, thats more then irksome, this is simply about them trying to get us to forward their spin on things, usually you allow and hope people forward or use your content but they also may comment on it while they do so, thats the deal that you make with people.

    i’d really like a .ics/ical based events calender for statements, chamber activities and legislation, (it be best that oir.ie staff fill the cal themselves rather then me trying to scrape it off oir.ie )

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 01/08/2010, 11:22 am

    Totally agree with the sentiments above. The Whitehouse.gov site already has an .ics feed available for schedules, an RSS feed for legislation etc. It would be nice if MerrionStreet were to incorporate some of this functionality.

    I have noticed, however, that they have recently changed some of the licensing on their flickr photos. For example, in the post above I mentioned that the photo set for Government buildings was licensed as Copyright. This has now changed to a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license. Many of the new photos uploaded are all licensed in this way now, which is a real step forward.

    Also, the Twitter account for @merrionstreet is now following 14 twitter accounts, and has started to post via web and Blackberry as opposed to directly through the API. Still waiting for their first reply to any tweets though!

  • Aoife KellyNo Gravatar 05/03/2012, 3:54 pm

    It’s great to see the Irish government stepping into the 21st century @merrionstreet now has 6,229 followers and follows 67 accounts so it’s definitely interacting with the public a lot more than it was!

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