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.