Don't Ban Facebook – Op-ed in today's G&M

You can download the op-ed here.

The Globe and Mail published an op-ed I wrote today on why the government shouldn’t ban face book, but hire it.

The point is that Web 2.0 technologies, properly used, can improve communication and coordination across large organizations and communities. If the government must ban Facebook then it should also hire it to provide a similar service across its various ministries. If not it risks sending a strong message that it wants its employees to stay in your little box.

One thing I didn’t get into in the op-ed is the message this action sends to prospective (younger) employees. Such a ban is a great example of how the government sees its role as manager. Essential the public service is telling its employees “we don’t trust that you will do your job and will waste your (and our) time doing (what we think are) frivolous things. Who wants to work in an environment where there own boss doesn’t trust them? Does that sound like a learning environment? Does it sound like a fun environment?

Probably not.


Facebook Revisited

MAY 17, 2007 AT 12:38 AM EDT

Today’s federal and provincial governments talk a good game about public-service renewal, reducing hierarchy, and improving inter-ministry co-operation. But actions speak louder than words, and our bureaucracies’ instincts for secrecy and control still dominate their culture and frame their understanding of technology.

Last week, these instincts revealed themselves again when several public-service bureaucracies — including Parliament Hill and the Ontario Public Service — banned access to Facebook.

To public-service executives, Facebook may appear to be little more than a silly distraction. But it needn’t be. Indeed, it could be the very opposite. These technology platforms increasingly serve as a common space, even a community, a place where public servants could connect, exchange ideas and update one another on their work. Currently, the public service has a different way of achieving those goals: It’s called meetings, or worse, e-mail. Sadly, as anyone who works in a large organizations knows, those two activities can quickly consume a day, pulling one away from actual work. Facebook may “waste time” but it pales in comparison to the time spent in redundant meetings and answering a never-ending stream of e-mails.

An inspired public service shouldn’t ban Facebook, it should hire it.

A government-run Facebook, one that allowed public servants to list their interests, current area of work, past experiences, contact information and current status, would be indispensable. It would allow public servants across ministries to search out and engage counterparts with specialized knowledge, relevant interests or similar responsibilities. Moreover, it would allow public servants to set up networks, where people from different departments, but working on a similar issue, could keep one another abreast of their work.

In contrast, today’s public servants often find themselves unaware of, and unable to connect with, colleagues in other ministries or other levels of government who work on similar issues. This is not because their masters don’t want them to connect (although this is sometimes the case) but because they lack the technology to identify one another. As a result, public servants drafting policy on interconnected issues — such as the Environment Canada employee working on riverbed erosion and the Fisheries and Oceans employee working on spawning salmon — may not even know the other exists.

One goal of public-sector renewal is to enable better co-operation. Ian Green, the Public Policy Forum chair of Public Service
Governance noted in an on-line Globe and Mail commentary (Ensuring Our Public Service Is A Force For Good In The Lives Of Canadians — May 8) that governments face “increasingly complex and cross-cutting issues … such as environmental and health policy.” If improving co-ordination and the flow of information within and across government ministries is a central challenge, then Facebook isn’t a distraction, it’s an opportunity.

Better still, implementing such a project would be cheap and simple. After all, the computer code that runs Facebook has already been written. More importantly, it works, and, as the government is all too aware, government employees like using it. Why not ask Facebook to create a government version? No expensive scaling or customization would be required. More importantly, by government-IT standards, it would be inexpensive.

It would certainly be an improvement over current government online directories. Anyone familiar with the federal government’s Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) knows it cannot conduct searches based on interests, knowledge or experience. Indeed, searches are only permissible by name, title, telephone and department. Ironically, if you knew any of that information, you probably wouldn’t need the search engine to begin with.

Retired public servants still talk of a time when ministries were smaller, located within walking distance of one another, and where everyone knew everyone else. In their day — 60 years ago — inter-ministerial problems were solved over lunch and coffee in a shared cafeteria or local restaurant. Properly embraced, technologies like Facebook offer an opportunity to recapture the strengths of this era.

By facilitating communication, collaboration and a sense of community, the public services of Canada may discover what their
employees already know: Tools like Facebook are the new cafeterias, where challenges are resolved, colleagues are kept up to date, and inter-ministerial co-operation takes place. Sure, ban Facebook if you must. But also hire it. The job of the public services will be easier and Canadians interests will be more effectively served.

David Eaves is a frequent speaker and consultant on public policy and negotiation. He recently spoke at the Association of Professional Executives conference on Public Service Renewal.

5 thoughts on “Don't Ban Facebook – Op-ed in today's G&M

  1. Pingback: Public Service Sector Renewal and Gen Y: Don’t be efficient

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