If I could start with a blank sheet of paper… (part 2)

The other week Martin Stewart-Weeks posted this piece on the Australian Government’s Web 2.0 Taskforce blog. In it he asked:

“…imagine for a moment it was your job to create the guidelines that will help public servants engage online. Although you have the examples from other organisations, you are given the rare luxury to start with a blank sheet of paper (at least for this exercise). What would you write? What issues would you include? Where would you start? Who would you talk to?”

Last week I responded with this post which explained why my efforts would focus on internal change. This week I want to pick the thread back up and talk about what applications I would start with and why.

First, Social Networking Platform (this is essential!):

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

A government-run social networking platform, 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.

If I could start with a blank sheet of paper… then I’d create a social networking platform for government. I think it would be the definitive game changer. Public servants could finally find one another (saving millions of hours and dollars in external consultants, redundant searches and duplicated capacity. Moreover if improving co-ordination and the flow of information within and across government ministries is a central challenge, then social networking isn’t a distraction, it’s an opportunity.

Second, Encourage Internal Blogs

I blogged more about this here.

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. Since information is siloed everybody has to rely on either informal networks to find out what is actually going on (all that wasted time having coffee and calling friends to find out gossip) or on formal networks, getting in structured meetings with other departments or ones’ boss to find out what their bosses, bosses, boss is thinking. What a waste of time and energy.

I suspect that if you allowed public servants to blog, you could cut down on rumours (they would be dispelled more quickly) 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.)

Third, Create a Government Wide Wiki

The first reason to create a wiki is that it would give people a place to work collectively on documents, within their departments or across ministries. Poof, siloes dissolved. (Yes, it really is that simple, and if you are middle management, that terrifying).

The second reason to provide some version control. Do you realize most governments don’t have version control software (or do, but nobody uses it, because it is terrible). A wiki, if nothing else, offers version control. That’s reason enough to migrate.

The third reason though is the most interesting. It would change the information economics, and thus culture, of government. A wiki would slowly come to function as an information clearing house. This would reduce the benefits of hoarding information, as it would be increasingly difficult to leverage information into control over an agenda or resource. Instead the opposite incentive system would take over. Sharing information or your labour (as a gift) within the public service would increase your usefulness to, and reputation among, others within the system.

Fourth, Install an Instant Messaging App

It takes less time than a phone call. And you can cut and paste. Less email, faster turn-around, quicker conversations. It isn’t a cure all, but you’ve already got young employees who are aching for it. Do you really want to tell them to not be efficient?

Finally… Twitter

Similar reasons to blogs. Twitter is like a custom newspaper. You don’t read it everyday, and most days you just scan it – you know – to keep an eye on what is going on. But occasionally it has a piece or two that you happen to catch that are absolutely critical… for your file, your department or your boss.

This is how Twitter works. It offers peripheral vision into what is going on in the areas or with the people that you care about or think are important. It allows us to handle the enormous flow of information around us. Denying public servants access to Twitter (or not implementing it, or blogs, internally) is essentially telling them that they must drink the entire firehose of information that is flowing through their daily life at work. They ain’t going to do it. Help them manage. Help them tweet.

7 thoughts on “If I could start with a blank sheet of paper… (part 2)

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