Five minutes with ACMA’s Tom Burton

Tom Burton has spent the last few years as online director at The Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank run by the Obama Administration. The former journalist and ministerial adviser spoke to Computerworld about his new role as the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) Gov 2.0 champion.

Why is it important for a government department, such as ACMA, to develop a stronger relationship with the public?

The explosion, I suppose, in web communication tools is here, it’s not going away and it’s creating a whole new way of communicating. The language I like to use is creating a ‘conversational media’. We’ve seen enough of it now to know that it’s very transformative and if you don’t participate in it as an organisation then the conversation will happen despite you.

So organisations — not just government, it’s all organisations — need to participate otherwise their voice is not heard and they don’t get their view across.

The technology is here and it’s certainly not going away. If you don’t participate in the space then someone else will and it won’t necessarily be what you think is in your best interests.

Is it a way of controlling what the public says about your organisation?

You can’t control it. As soon as people accept you’re not going to control it, the better it is. It’s very important that it’s authentic, because if it’s not authentic, it is seen as public relations spin. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of organisations; you have to be very genuine. If organisations aren’t prepared to be authentic then they’re wasting our time and theirs. Lots of organisations will find that too big a jump because they’re very controlled.

What will be the biggest challenge of your new role?

For an agency like ACMA, which is a regulatory agency, there are certain processes to follow. You also have a broader public roll in terms of managing many fast moving areas, for example spam and cyber safety which are hugely contentious issues where things move very quickly. We need a considered approach that is much more consumer-facing. The second thing is, probably from a cultural perspective, demonstrating the benefits to everyone, both internally and externally — and this is true of any organisation. You have to get people to understand why they need to change the way they’re doing things.

It’s not a trivial exercise. You have to be relatively committed, you have to be prepared to give it time and, probably the biggest challenge, is that you have to listen to what people are saying and doing and react to that. There’s no point just going into a forum and putting a few comments down and walking away. If the forum’s clearly got a view, it’s informed and you must listen to that. The cultural change is much more important than the technology change. Technologies change rapidly; it was Twitter last year and it will be Google Wave this year and something else the year after. The platforms you use are not irrelevant, but you don’t want to be fixated on the technology.

Over the past five to ten years people have set up websites very much like department stores; everything sits within a very controlled brand and environment. Yet in the Web 2.0 world, much of it sits outside your environment. There may be a Facebook page on cyber safety, which is much more visited, contributed to and busy than anything we might have. So we need to be a part of that space and contributing to it, recognising that we don’t actually control it, and that people may come nowhere near our website or anything we publish. That’s another challenge — it’s distributed and not within the traditional websites or structures.

How does the Web 2.0 landscape in Australia compare with that of the US?

We have a lot of people using Facebook, a lot of people Twittering. The gap is among organisations actively participating in Web 2.0. A lot of Australian organisations aren’t quite sure about it and have a lot of command and control issues.

[Washington] DC, for example, is very much an epicentre for the use of social media tools in a political environment. They use it aggressively in lobbying and advocacy, government policy and processes. There are a lot of agencies, think tanks and lobby groups and the application of social media is much more intense. Australia isn’t that far behind the US, but we don’t have that intensity of use. I think we won’t be too far behind. We’ve certainly had a taste of it [with Kevin07]. We’ve dipped into it, but our use has been very boutique.

How has the online communications landscape changed over the past five years?

I think the so-called instant media, with people talking and responding very quickly, is a big new space everyone’s dealing with. Twitter is the best example. The conversational media space is another new one where you need to be genuinely engaged in talking. It was around 10 years ago to an extent, but now every product you put out there typically should have a conversation or proposition around it so people can interact.

The one that’s been around for a long time but keeps happening is deeper engagement with broadband applications and the most obvious is video and other sorts of richer media. The third development, user-generated content, is much more aggressive. It can be blogs, video, whatever, but there has been this huge phenomenon of user-generated content. They’re the three that I think are most significant in terms of big phenomena.

What is your favourite tech gadget?

I love my iPod Touch. It’s a nicely designed machine that fits in my pocket, I can read The New York Times anywhere and it’s a wonderful use of computer technology and content. It’s very much a new media model.

You can get an iPhone, but you’re going to end up paying a lot of money for the phone. The iPod Touch gives you everything; the use of the applications are huge and I think we’ll look back very quickly and see there won’t be a serious media outlet without an app for the iPhone or iPod Touch.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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