Just got back from a week on the road and have given 4 out of 5 of my lectures on the future of the public service. Best part of the lectures? The Q&A, always lots of smart comments, critiques, ideas and thoughts coming out of the audience.
One theme that came up was that public servants feel they are suffering from information overload. There is simply so much going on around them and it is impossible to keep up with it all. This is especially true of those in the senior ranks.
This is why the public service needs bloggers. Not to communicate with the public but to help public servants manage and understand all that internal knowledge and information.
The simplest way of explaining this is to refer to one of my favourite authors – David Weinberger – who noticed that (outside government and on the internet) we already have a solution to the problem of too much information. As he states in his 2008 Bertha Bassam Lecture at the University of Toronto – the solution is to create more information:
In the early 1900s we faced the challenge. We were told over and over again in alarmist books and articles that we were going to drown in the ocean of information. Watch out! There’s an information Tsunami coming… fell everybody! We are all going to die…!
And it turns out there was way more information than anybody expected. Orders of magnitude more. We can’t even imagine the amount of information that there is. And yet we are doing pretty well. I’m not drowning. You drowning? I’m not drowning… we are doing pretty well.
And the reason we are doing pretty well is that the solution to the information overload problem is to simply generate still more information. That is information about the information, or as we like to say meta-data. And so that is what we’ve been doing. And by doing that, by generating this information about the information we are able to manage and find and build and collect and make our way through it.
This is what blogs often are: meta-data. They sift through the information that is out there and tease out what is important and what is relevant and write it up in a readable and accessible fashion.
So if public servants feel overwhelmed by information one of the main reasons is that they have no filters. There are few, if any bloggers within departments that are writing about what they think is important and what is going on around them. What is actually happening versus what is simply smoke and mirrors. I suspect that if you allowed public servants to blog, you could cut down on email traffic and, more importantly, meetings (which are a drain on everybody’s time) by at least 25%. Want to know what my team is up to? Don’t schedule a meeting. First, read my blog. Oh, and search the tags to find what is relevant to you. (you can do that on my blog too, if you are still reading this piece it probably means you are interested in this tag.)
Still more interesting would be that some people in a department would start to blog about what is going on, on the ground. An ADM wants to know what really matters to those on the front line of program? Reading the blog of a front line officer might give him or her more insights, more quickly than simply asking their DG.
And, of course, what happens in the real world would happen in government to. Some people, who write well and on topics others care about, would have more people read there posts. Others, who were more niche, or who wrote on things that were less relevant, would get less traffic. Reputation and merit would guide information rather than authority or, worse, access to the ministry’s email list.
In this world, the relevant information finds you and you it, rather than the information that someone else thinks you should know. That is how you solve the information overload problem in government. So let the bloggers run free.
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Would there be a broader issue of access/accountability? For example, who would be able to access these blogs (internal/external, specific to groups/regions, etc)? I think it would be fantastic, personally. It would link departments together and, perhaps, begin to break down silos that exist not only between, but also within departments.
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CH – As a starting point I think there should at least be blogs internal to the department. Obviously, my feeling is that they should also be visible to other ministries – in most cases keeping unofficial thoughts secret from one another is pretty much grinding the movement of knowledge, information and expertise to a slow crawl. Opening them up to be accessible to the public would be fantastic as well – and the risks would be smaller than what any legal department would tell you… but I can imagine that is another battle for another day. In the short term, let's help out those working for the government first.
Nice. Love that weinberger quote. I gather you are thinking here of *personal* rather than corporate blogs. There are a few of us out there doing the personal blogging thing unofficially. But my feeling is that right now, mainstream thinking inside the GoC is that official, corporate blogs are the way to go. The thinking goes like this: who has time really to blog when you are supposed to be, you know, actually working… so let a few folks in the communications shop maintain a single, authoritative, corporate blog – which will be a way to regurgitate news releases for the blogosphere. Plus it will have the added benefit of keeping comms busy and out of our hair while the rest of the org goes about doing real work. Case of broadcast-era thinking being applied to a non-broadcast world.
Peter – love the line “case of broadcast-era thinking being applied to a non-broadcast world.” True, true.The worse part is that these “corporate” blogs will probably go unread. The lesson the government will draw?: Nobody reads government blogs ergo, they don't work in government… Sigh…
David, from an outside perspective I find this useful as a personal thought experiment. I'm often overwhelmed by an excess of information and finding effective filters is something I struggle with. I also don't have the patience to sort through volumes of diverse source material.Do you think there is a sacrifice of reliability when it comes to this kind of dissemination?
Dave, this is where I think the broadcast mode of thinking hampers us. Will the average blog within the public service be less reliable than official notes? The answer is yes. However, nobody will read the average blog. Over (even a short period) of time, public servants will mostly gravitate towards and read blogs that offer useful insights and that filter information in a helpful manner. As a result I suspect that more people will end up seeing more helpful and more reliable information the is presently the case. This is mostly because currently “reliable” information is indistinguishable from unreliable information – so most people are forced to tune all of it out.
Interesting – there might be some legal issues and procedural ones though. Here in the UK the govt is very reluctant to let the public see any discussions or advice given by civil servants to the govt on some sensitive issues like privatisation, the War in Iraq and awarding of certain contracts. The excuse is that such advice is confidential bt the reality is that govt doesn't want to expose its decision making process.The other point about meetings is relevant and would be good, however, from my experience of watching and studying European and Asian govts a lot of departmental meetings are less to do with flows of information and more to do with making sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and hammering out a consistent uniform line, to do with internal politcking and bureacratic in-fighting and lasty as a measure of control of suordinates. I would say 50%-60% could be safely eliminated from a pure efficiency point of view but given the political processes in many countries this is unlikely to happen.
David as usual your comment makes perfect sense. I will respond in kind with our weekly column this week because you raise many points that need to be addressed beyond this comment stream (e.g. creating meta data, the fact that no one is going to read an average or below average blog, and the inherent value in sharing front line stories to name but three). I will tweet you the link when I post it. I would also love to see some of the notes or listen to a lecture you gave (if you have a recording). You know where to find me.Cheers,
To extend what David wrote: blogs are much like conversations in the way that authority and utility is evaluated and established. If you always go out with a group for lunch and one of the fellows talks a lot about music, for instance, but claims all sorts of songs were #1 hits, when that's just not true, you'll eventually discard what he says about music. Moreover, your discovery that his music information isn't credible probably informs your perception of other information he provides. Perhaps not everything he says is false, but when he starts talking about fiscal policy or the money supply, you're bound to treat his input with more skepticism — and do your own fact checking, or simply dismiss it out of hand.Blogs are similar in many ways, with at least one important advantage: many, many people fact check and the more people who read and comment, the richer the discussion and the more useful the property (both the blog content and the comment stream it generates). So, as blogs surface within the government, the community will eventually decide who is credible and/or who is skilled at synthesizing lots of information into a tersely cogent analysis.
the most important is, they can promote canada as beautiful travel destination in the world..
Governments have legitimate concerns that employees' otherwise off-hand or un-thought out comments could get out in the public realm through a freedom of information request. This is not an attempt to silence free speech but rather to ensure that the integrity of a government's (ministry, department, etc.) position and process is advanced. And these days as people use email, blogs and social networking tools, in a manner that was unheard of ten years ago, this concern is more out front. So does the business case for a more transparent, organic self-learning public service trump the reputational and legal risks of disclosing the free flow of employees' commentary, thought out or not? This is not an easy question and one which is more central to the issue than one might think. What Mr. Barwa wants above is not a free flow of information but rather anecdotal fodder for his conspiracy theories. Working with Freedom of Information legislative imperatives and concerns and the corresponding need to improve the public service through encouraging more open systems is a very real balancing act.
and for what its worth regarding my comments above – I suggest anonymous blogs and facebook clones that are hosted by servers outside the government – i haven't quite figured out the legal/ technical side of this, but otherwise intranets can be tricky places to allow unsolicited posts because of FOI.
And I particularly like the Weinberger quote above. I agree.Since Gutenberg we have always had too much information. Information used to be collected in things we called BOOKS and the way we used to manage this information was through a LIBRARY. What are meta data and search engines but really a super cool dewey decimal system.
I know you saw it already, but for those who didn't see my response, you can find it here:http://www.cpsrenewal.ca/2009/03/there-has-been…ncharneyhttp://cpsrenewal.ca
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Something I don’t get, possibly because I’m a white male, is why we should pay any attention in the public domain to the concerns various people have about abortion. If Catholics don’t like it, don’t do it. If Protestants don’t like it (and that is something that only arose in the 1970s, at the behest, according to Frankie Schaeffer, of Fulton Sheen to Protestant leaders who previously had no moral qualms about it, but only about promiscuity), don’t do it.What this really is, is not about abortion. It is about controlling sexual activity, and the sole basis for it is theological. And theology should not play any role in the public order of a pluralist democracy. That’s what is at issue. The religious do not like not controlling the social order, and they do not like people being free of their control.Abortion is not murder – it is destruction of tissue, which increasingly resembles a person. But a person is not something that is all or nothing, and we set secular boundaries more or less arbitrarily, because biology is vaguely bounded. So the religious authorities oppose abortion because it gives them a way to shift attention from the fact that they want to control who can have sex when, since controlling mating is a major justification for religious authority. By casting it in terms of a moral absolute like murder, this gets lost in the shuffle.But once you establish abortion as a moral prohibitivum, you can now justify real moral crimes, like shooting abortionists, bombing clinics. In other words it becomes a basis for terrorism, and terrorism this is. It is no different to the Wahabism that justifies Al Qaeda’s crimes or the Taliban.So why do television shows like Boston Legal see it as necessary to pay lip service to the “moral conundrum” of abortion? Why should every show that tries to back abortion rights have to make the abortion-having woman undergo a moral crisis? There is no moral crisis; there’s a theological crisis only, and if you are not in that theological tradition, then there are no reasons to feel any more guilty about an abortion than about having an appendectomy. And since the Church’s theology is not the basis for western common law, nor even for the moral consensus, there should be no legal sanctions other than those imposed upon responsible medicine and psychology.Again: if the Church is worried about some activity, prohibit it for members of the Church, not for anyone else. They have and should never be given control over those who are not members of their club of their own free will. That is what makes it possible to be in a democracy.
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