The Canadian Government's New Web 2.0 Guidelines: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Yesterday, the government of Canada released its new Guidelines for external use of Web 2.0. For the 99.99% of you unfamiliar  with what this is, it’s the guidelines (rules) that govern how, and when, public servants may use web 2.0 tools such as twitter and facebook.

You, of course, likely work in organization that survives without such documents. Congratulations. You work in a place where the general rule is “don’t be an idiot” and your bosses trust your sense of judgement. That said, you probably also don’t work somewhere where disgruntled former employees and the CBC are trolling the essentially personal online statements of your summer interns so they can turn it into a scandal. (Yes, summer student border guards have political opinions, don’t like guns and enjoy partying. Shocker). All this to say, there are good and rational reasons why the public service creates guidelines: to protect not just the government, but public servants.

So for those uninterested in reading the 31 page, 12,055 word guidelines document here’s a review:

The Good

Sending the right message

First off, the document, for all its faults, does get one overarching piece right. Almost right off the bat (top of section 3.2) is shares that Ministries should be using Web 2.0 tools:

Government of Canada departments are encouraged to use Web 2.0 tools and services as an efficient and effective additional channel to interact with the public. A large number of Canadians are now regularly using Web 2.0 tools and services to find information about, and interact with, individuals and organizations.

Given the paucity of Web 2.0 use in the Federal government internally or externally this clear message from Treasury Board, and from a government minister, is the type of encouragement needed to bring government communications into 2008 (the British Government, with its amazing Power of Information Taskforce, has been there for years).

Note: there is a very, very, ugly counterpart to this point. See below.

Good stuff for the little guy

Second, the rules for Professional Networking & Personal Use are fairly reasonable. There are some challenges (notes below), but if any public servant ever finds them or has the energy to read the document, they are completely workable.

The medium is the message

Finally, the document acknowledges that the web 2.0 world is constantly evolving and references a web 2.0 tool by which public servants can find ways to adapt. THIS IS EXACTLY THE RIGHT APPROACH. You don’t deal with fast evolving social media environment by handing out decrees in stone tablets, you manage it by offering people communities of practice where they can get the latest and best information. Hence this line:

Additional guidance on the use of Web 2.0 tools and services is in various stages of development by communities of expertise and Web 2.0 practitioners within the Government of Canada. Many of these resources are available to public servants on the Government of Canada’s internal wiki, GCpedia. While these resources are not official Government of Canada policies or guidelines, they are valuable sources of information in this rapidly evolving environment.

Represents a somewhat truly exciting development in the glacially paced evolution of government procedures. The use of social media (GCPEDIA) to manage social media.

Indeed, still more exciting for me is that this was the first time I’ve seen an official government document reference GCPEDIA as a canonical source of information. And it did it twice, once, above, pointing to a community of practice, the second was pointing to the GCPEDIA “Social media procurement process” page. Getting government to use social media internally is I think the biggest challenge at the moment, and this document does it.

The Bad

Too big to succeed

The biggest problem with the document is its structure. It is so long, and so filled with various forms of compliance, that only the most dedicated public servant (read, communications officer tasked with a social media task) will ever read this. Indeed for a document that is supposed to encourage public servants to use social media, I suspect it will do just the opposite. Its density and list of controls will cause many who were on the fence to stay there – if not retreat further. While the directions for departments are more clear, for the little guy… (See next piece)

Sledgehammers for nails

The documents main problem is that it tries to address all uses of social media. Helpfully, it acknowledges there are broadly two types of uses “Departmental Web 2.0 initiatives” (e.g. a facebook group for a employment insurance program) and “personnel/professional use” (e.g. a individual public servant’s use of twitter or linked in to do their job). Unhelpfully, it addresses both of them.

In my mind 95% of the document relates to departmental uses… this is about ensuring that someone claiming to represent the government in an official capacity does not screw up. The problem is, all those policies aren’t as relevant to Joe/Jane public servant in their cubicle trying to find an old colleague on LinkedIn (assuming they can access linkedin). It’s overkill. These should be separate documents, that way the personal use document could be smaller, more accessible and far less intimidating. Indeed, as the guidelines suggest, all it should really have to do is reference the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service (essentially the “idiots guide to how not to be an idiot on the job” for public servants) and that would have been sufficient. Happily most public servants are already familiar with this document, so simply understanding that those guidelines apply online as much as offline, gets us 90% of the way there.

In summary, despite a worthy effort, it seem unlikely this document will encourage public servants to use Web 2.0 tools in their jobs. Indeed, for a (Canadian) comparison consider the BC Government’s guidelines document, the dryly named “Policy No. 33: Use of Social Media in the B.C. Public Service.”  Indeed, despite engaging both use cases it manages covers all the bases, is straightforward, and encouraging, and treats the employee with an enormous amount of respect. All this in a nifty 2 pages and 1,394 words. Pretty much exactly what a public servant is looking for.

The Ugly

Sadly, there is some ugliness.

Suggestions, not change

In the good section I mentioned that the government is encouraging ministries to use social media… this is true. But it is not mandating it. Nor does these guidelines say anything to Ministerial IT staff, most of whom are blocking public servant’s access to sites like facebook, twitter, in many cases, my blog, etc… The sad fact is, there may now be guidelines that allow public servants to use these tools, but in most cases, they’d have to go home, or to a local coffee shop (many do) in order to actually make use of these guidelines. For most public servants, much of the internet remains beyond their reach, causing them to fall further and further behind in understanding how technology will effect their jobs and their department/program’s function in society.

It’s not about communication, it’s about control

In his speech at PSEngage yesterday the Treasury Board Minister talked about the need for collaboration on how technology can help the public service reinvent how it collaborates:

The Government encourages the use of new Web 2.0 tools and technologies such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These tools help create a more modern, open and collaborative workplace and lead to more “just-in-time” communications with the public.

This is great news. And I believe the Minister believes it too. He’s definitely a fan of technology in all the right ways. However, the guidelines are mostly about control. Consider this paragraph:

Departments should designate a senior official accountable and responsible for the coordination of all Web 2.0 activities as well as an appropriate governance structure. It is recommended that the Head of Communications be the designated official. This designate should collaborate with departmental personnel who have expertise in using and executing Web 2.0 initiatives, as well as with representatives from the following fields in their governance structure: information management, information technology, communications, official languages, the Federal Identity Program, legal services, access to information and privacy, security, values and ethics, programs and services, human resources, the user community, as well as the Senior Departmental Official as established by the Standard on Web Accessibility. A multidisciplinary team is particularly important so that policy interpretations are appropriately made and followed when managing information resources through Web 2.0 tools and services.

You get all that? That’s at least 11 variables that need to be managed. Or, put another way, 11 different manuals you need to have at your desk when using social media for departmental purposes. That makes for a pretty constricted hole for information to get out through, and I suspect it pretty much kills most of the spontaneity, rapid response time and personal voice that makes social media effective. Moreover, with one person accountable, and this area of communications still relatively new, I suspect that the person in charge, given all these requirements, is going to have a fairly low level of risk. Even I might conclude it is safer to just post an ad in the newspaper and let the phone operators at Service Canada deal with the public.

Conclusion

So it ain’t all bad. Indeed, there is much that is commendable and could be worked with. I think, in the end, 80% of the problems with the document could be resolved if the government simply created two versions, one for official departmental uses, the other for individual public servants. If it could then restrain the lawyers from repeating everything in the Values and Ethics code all over again, you’d have something that social media activists in the public service could seize upon.

My sense is that the Minister is genuinely interested in enabling public servants to use technology to do their jobs better – he knows from personal experience how helpful social media can be. This is great news for those who care about these issues, and it means that pressing for a better revised version might yield a positive outcome. Better to try now, with a true ally in the president’s office than with someone who probably won’t care.

 

19 thoughts on “The Canadian Government's New Web 2.0 Guidelines: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

  1. Alexandra Samuel

    What a terrifically useful post, David! I can’t help but feel you’ve taken a bullet for those of us who haven’t yet (and perhaps won’t) endure the whole document. 

    Your point about separating the “official use” and “individual use” guidelines seems especially important, even for those who aren’t interested in web 2.0 for government per se. But just about any organization — i.e. not just governments but businesses and nonprofits — would do well to think about individual policy as a separate challenge from organizational use. Great point for us to all keep in mind.

    Reply
  2. Rob Cottingham

    I’ll second Alex’s comment, and agree with you that there’s much in this document that’s helpful. It’s too bad that the social-is-good sections are couched in such leaden language, but not a shock.

    My big concern over the guidelines is that they make nimble, responsive and experimental social media use extremely difficult. There’s no apparent distinction (unless I’m missing something – always possible) between small pilot projects, on the one hand, and large-scale strategic deployments on the other; this document seems to have only the latter in mind.

    Which means the toe-dipping kind of projects that so often seem to be necessary to win over skeptics in senior management face huge, disproportionate barriers… at least until a department introduces a strategic framework that sets out the parameters for experimentation. And thinking about those departments that are most likely to drag their heels in developing that framework, and to make it as restrictive as possible – aren’t they the ones in the greatest need for small-scale, low-risk experiments that can establish the potential value of larger initiatives?

    Reply
  3. Rob Cottingham

    Hi, Tanya – I did a rough word count, and the BC guidelines checked in at just under 4,000 words, while the Government of Canada’s were just over 13,000 (in each case, including the attached appendices). Am I miscounting?

    Reply
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  5. Josh Greenberg

    Very insightful post, David. I wish I’d read this first, before slogging through the guidelines on my own. What I find most interesting is the paradox that this step toward a progressive digital strategy represents for a government whose broader communication policy is built on the principles of risk aversion and centralized control. I second your remarks and those of Alex and Rob above that the heaviness of the framework will fail to incentivize either experimental or truly responsive (dialogic) communication. Certainly it won’t achieve the Minister’s stated aim to expand the use of social media across the public service. I suspect departments and staffers already comfortable with these tools and aware of the wider legislative and normative boundaries that govern their use will continue on as they have – junior staffers, interns and others who will no doubt be responsible for managing many Facebook or Twitter sites will do so in a very limited and restrictive way

    Reply
  6. Jeff Braybrook

    Thanks David, for seeing the shiny side of things. The original intent was to have two sections (users and departments) as with the guideline for internal use published a few years ago.  I separated out the guidance to personnel and it reads pretty well, it is well under 1,000 words and is two and a half pages long. I will parse these a bit further, simplify and post on my blog
    Cheers

    Reply
  7. Jeff Braybrook

    Okay David.  I took up your challenge and pulled out the employee guidance part.
    Two and a half pages long (966 words) and seems clear to me.  Pretty sure that is shorter than IBM’s, which is considered something of a best practice.

    How’s this?  http://jeffbraybrook.com/

    Reply
  8. Robert Giggey

    I have a specific question about one of the guidelines under the “professional networking & personal use”.  The fourth guidelines says:

    “Only publicly available information may be shared externally, unless you are specifically authorized otherwise. Wherever possible, provide links to original source material and attribute as required to respect copyright and intellectual property rights.”

    I’m wondering how David, Jeff, or others interpret the “publicly available information” language.  My understanding is that a lot of what public servants do every day can be made available to the public through access to information, e.g. meetings staff have had, reports that are being developed, departmental plans, etc. but obviously most of this ongoing work would be unknown to the public.  So does this guideline restrict public servants speaking about ongoing work b/c it is or isn’t “publicly available”?  I ask b/c of course a lot of the professional networking uses of social media include talking about stuff public servants are actively working on, but haven’t necessarily been “offficially communicated”.

    Should this point stay, be removed, or clarified?

    Thank-you,

    Reply
  9. Robert Giggey

    I have a specific question about one of the guidelines under the “professional networking & personal use”.  The fourth guidelines says:

    “Only publicly available information may be shared externally, unless you are specifically authorized otherwise. Wherever possible, provide links to original source material and attribute as required to respect copyright and intellectual property rights.”

    I’m wondering how David, Jeff, or others interpret the “publicly available information” language.  My understanding is that a lot of what public servants do every day can be made available to the public through access to information, e.g. meetings staff have had, reports that are being developed, departmental plans, etc. but obviously most of this ongoing work would be unknown to the public.  So does this guideline restrict public servants speaking about ongoing work b/c it is or isn’t “publicly available”?  I ask b/c of course a lot of the professional networking uses of social media include talking about stuff public servants are actively working on, but haven’t necessarily been “offficially communicated”.

    Should this point stay, be removed, or clarified?

    Thank-you,

    Reply
  10. Robert Giggey

    I have a specific question about one of the guidelines under the “professional networking & personal use”.  The fourth guidelines says:

    “Only publicly available information may be shared externally, unless you are specifically authorized otherwise. Wherever possible, provide links to original source material and attribute as required to respect copyright and intellectual property rights.”

    I’m wondering how David, Jeff, or others interpret the “publicly available information” language.  My understanding is that a lot of what public servants do every day can be made available to the public through access to information, e.g. meetings staff have had, reports that are being developed, departmental plans, etc. but obviously most of this ongoing work would be unknown to the public.  So does this guideline restrict public servants speaking about ongoing work b/c it is or isn’t “publicly available”?  I ask b/c of course a lot of the professional networking uses of social media include talking about stuff public servants are actively working on, but haven’t necessarily been “offficially communicated”.

    Should this point stay, be removed, or clarified?

    Thank-you,

    Reply
    1. David Eaves

      Rob, I’d love a clarification to this question as well. I’m fairly sure there is actually an established set of precedents that come out of the Values and Ethics Code. I would just look to see what public servants are allowed to discuss in public or at a conference/meeting, that would be a good starting point.

      Reply
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  12. Craig Sellars

    Great post David. I agree, the individual guideline should be summed up simply.

    1. Do not be stupid; and
    2. If you feel an overwhelming urge to be stupid, please consult the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service

    Reply
  13. Ryan Androsoff

    David,

    Thank you
    for your interest and thoughts on this issue. We think it’s great that the
    Guideline is generating discussion on how the Government of Canada can take
    advantage of social media and collaborative tools to engage with Canadians.

     

    On behalf
    of the Treasury Board Secretariat, I would like to offer three clarifications
    related to the new Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0.

     

    First, the
    Guideline is intended for use by departments. It was not designed as a handbook
    for each employee.

     

    Second, the
    Guideline does not create any new burdens on departments or public servants.
    The Appendix of the Guideline simply provides a social media lens to help
    departments apply existing obligations when engaging with Canadians using Web
    2.0 tools and services.

     

    Third, the
    publication of the Guideline is a starting point, not the end of the process.
    The Guideline will be reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis to reflect the
    evolution of the use of these tools, and will be bolstered by the guidance that
    Departments and Agencies develop to assist their employees. 

     

    Your
    insights, as well as feedback from public servants gathered through our
    internal wiki, will help inform the process going forward. All comments are
    welcome.

     

     

    Ryan
    Androsoff

    Senior
    Policy Advisor, Web 2.0

    Community
    and Collaboration Division

    Chief
    Information Officer Branch

    Treasury
    Board of Canada Secretariat

    Reply
    1. Thom Kearney

      Hi Ryan, 
      Just wondering is there a formal process and timeline for revision of the guideline?  I know these things are tough to get done and the appetite for further revision might be less than enthusiastic at the moment but it would be great if there was a process interested parties without access to GCPedia could participate in. 

      Reply
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  15. Thom Kearney

    Hi David, 
    Sorry you could not make it to PS Engage when the minister announced the guidelines. Like you I believe he gets the value of social media in spite of the government’s doctrine of communication control. 

    I hope that Federal Public Servants will push their departments to use more social media and refine the guidelines.  

    Reply

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