How do you put a human face to a major government department?
How about simply letting the public see and speak with the human faces that dwell within?
It’s a little hard to believe that more governments and their departments, of all sizes and jurisdictions, don’t make better use of video conferencing to virtually invite people into their day-to-day routines so that we in the community can better understand and utilize the services they provide.
Be it a practical function like letting people make video appointments, or a vehicle for empowering democracy within the community, tapping into the array of video chat services currently available could help break down the walls between government and citizen.
At least the Department of Education is giving it a shot.
It staged a series of public video meetings over Google Hangouts earlier this year to celebrate its achievements in Hispanic education, and that’s not the only time it’s opened itself up through the free chat service.
Maybe it’ll be a precedent to get other branches of government embracing Google for more than just its analytics.
Government Hangs Out Online
The DoED initiative represents the practical possibilities of Google Hangouts, away from the headline-grabbing sessions with public figures such as David Beckham, President Obama, and the Pope.
The seven Department of Education videos that subsequently made their way to public viewing on Google-owned Youtube are as unpolished and, in more than a few cases, simply staged as any video chat you might launch yourself with a group of friends.
And that’s the point. These are real people sharing real ideas, and they’re not terribly concerned about faces disappearing behind the row of waiting chat windows, or speakers sitting too far from their camera. More than one video audibly begins with an off-screen “go now” command.
What’s important is the message. In this case, it’s highlighting the people, programs, and students who have improved educational possibilities within the Hispanic community. It’s a chance for the workers within an otherwise monolithic bureaucracy to break virtual bread with the students, teachers, and administrators who depend on them for funding and support.
Google Hangout’s ease of use makes that conversation accessible to every attendee, no matter their tech proficiency.
Google Hangouts Video Conferencing
Hangouts has been chasing Skype and FaceTime for the popular vote in video conferencing ever since it broke free from Google+ and killed off Google Talk in 2013.
Its greatest asset in the video chat race has been the fact it lets everyone play together. It’ll cross the iOS/Android divide as easily as it crosses the PC/smartphone divide–it’s a trick FaceTime has yet to achieve. There are minor differences between the services, such as the missing contact status indicators on mobile, but no one inside the call is getting a privileged experience over anyone else.
And it’s smart too. The screen automatically brings whoever is currently speaking into the main frame, while keeping everyone else to a minimum below. Obviously, this can get tricky at times, and even a little disorienting, when people cut each off or speak at the same time–as demonstrated in the DoED video on several occasions.
There’s also some cause to wonder how long it will exist in its current form now that Google Duo and Allo have arrived. That gives Google four separate messaging services, and given its history of killing off broad platforms in favor of specialists, such as the relocation of Hangouts on Air to Youtube Live, Hangouts’ days may be numbered, despite what Google itself has to say.
But for now it’s free, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s easy to contact people as long as they have a Google account.
So why aren’t more government agencies using it to talk to the public?
Video Conferencing between the Government and Its People
DoED has used Hangouts to stage get-togethers large and small–and it has a rather colorful Google+ page running as well.
In 2013 it staged a teach appreciation hangout dedicated to African American educators. And later that same year it did the same in promotion of international exchange programs for U.S. schools.
But to take the idea further, those same hangouts could be localized to give parents and teachers from individual districts a chance to discuss funding, fees, programs, and all manner of things with their government administrators and officials.
The fallout from the global financial crisis hit schools hard, causing many to cut back on peripheral services like field trips. A hangout with the teachers and students of those schools, right at the time the cutbacks were being made, could have given a human face to the bureaucratic forces that seemed unable to help or appreciate educators’ many concerns.
Communication leads to understanding. And when the means to do so is as readily accessible as Google Hangouts–or its blood rivals Skype and FaceTime for that matter–then it makes sense to take a swing at it whenever possible.