Why Social Media behind the Government Firewall Matters

This comment, posted four months ago to my blog by Jesse G. in response to this post on GCPEDIA, remains one of the favorite comments posted to my blog ever. This is a public servant who understands the future and is trying to live it. I’ve literally had this comment sitting in my inbox because this whole time because I didn’t want to forget about it.

For those opposing to the use of wiki’s social media behind the government firewall this is a must read (of course I’d say it is a must read for those in favour as well). It’s just a small example of how tiny transactions costs are killing government, and how social media can flatten them.

I wish more elements of the Canadian government got it, but despite the success of GCPEDIA and its endorsement by the Clerk there are still a ton of forces pitted against it, from the procurement officers in Public Works who’d rather pay for a bulky expensive alternative that no one will use to middle managers who forbid their staff from using it out of some misdirected fear.

Is GCPEDIA the solution to everything? No. But it is a cheap solution to a lot of problems, indeed I’ll bet its solved more problems per dollar than any other IT solution put forward by the government.

So for the (efficient) future, read on:

Here’s a really untimely comment – GCPEDIA now has over 22,000 registered users and around 11,000 pages of content. Something like 6.5 million pageviews and around .5 million edits. It has ~2,000 visitors a week and around 15,000 pageviews a week. On average, people are using the wiki for around 5.5 minutes per visit. I’m an admin for GCPEDIA and it’s sister tools – GCCONNEX (a professional networking platform built using elgg) and GCForums (a forum build using YAF). Collectively the tools are known as GC2.0.

Anyways, I’m only piping up because I love GCPEDIA so much. For me and for thousand of public servants, it is something we use every day and I cannot emphasize strongly enough how friggin’ awesome it is to have so much knowledge in one place. It’s a great platform for connecting people and knowledge. And it’s changing the way the public service works.

A couple of examples are probably in order. I know one group of around 40 public servants from 20 departments who are collaborating on GCPEDIA to develop a new set of standards for IT. Every step of the project has taken place on GCPEDIA (though I don’t want to imply that the wiki is everything – face-to-face can’t be replaced by wiki), from the initial project planning, through producing deliverables. I’ve watched their pages transform since the day they were first created and I attest that they are really doing some innovative work on the wiki to support their project.

Another example, which is really a thought experiment: Imagine you’re a coop student hired on a 4 month term. Your director has been hearing some buzz about this new thing called Twitter and wants an official account right away. She asks you to find out what other official Twitter accounts are being used across all the other departments and agencies. So you get on the internet, try to track down the contact details for the comms shops of all those departments and agencies, and send an email to ask what accounts they have. Anyone who knows government can imagine that a best case turnaround time for that kind of answer will take at least 24 hours, but probably more like a few days. So you keep making calls and maybe if everything goes perfectly you get 8 responses a day (good luck!). There are a couple hundred departments and agencies so you’re looking at about 100 business days to get a full inventory. But by the time you’ve finished, your research is out of date and no longer valid and your 4 month coop term is over. Now a first year coop student makes about $14.50/hour (sweet gig if you can get it students!), so over a 4 month term that’s about $10,000. Now repeat this process for every single department and agency that wants a twitter account and you can see it’s a staggering cost. Let’s be conservative and say only 25 departments care enough about twitter to do this sort of exercise – you’re talking about $275,000 of research. Realistically, there are many more departments that want to get on the twitter bandwagon, but the point still holds.

Anyways, did you know that on GCPEDIA there is a crowd-sourced page with hundreds of contributors that lists all of the official GC twitter accounts? One source is kept up to date through contributions of users that literally take a few seconds to make. The savings are enormous – and this is just one page.

Because I know GCPEDIA’s content so well, I can point anyone to almost any piece of information they want to know – or, because GCPEDIA is also a social platform, if I can’t find the info you’re looking for, I can at least find the person who is the expert. I am not an auditor, but I can tell you exactly where to go for the audit policies and frameworks, resources and tools, experts and communities of practice, and pictures of a bunch of internal auditors clowning around during National Public Service Week. There is tremendous value in this – my service as an information “wayfinder” has won me a few fans.

Final point before I stop – a couple of weeks ago, I was doing a presentation to a manager’s leadership network about unconferences. I made three pages – one on the topic of unconferences, one on the facilitation method for building the unconference agenda, and one that is a practical 12-step guide for anyone who wants to plan and organize their own (this last was a group effort with my co-organizers of Collaborative Culture Camp). Instead of preparing a powerpoint and handouts I brought the page up on the projector. I encouraged everyone to check the pages out and to contribute their thoughts and ideas about how they could apply them to their own work. I asked them to improve the pages if they could. But the real value is that instead of me showing up, doing my bit, and then vanishing into the ether I left a valuable information resource behind that other GCPEDIA users will find, use, and improve (maybe because they are searching for unconferences, or maybe it’s just serendipity). Either way, when public servants begin to change how they think of their role in government – not just as employees of x department, but as an integral person in the greater-whole; not in terms of “information is power”, but rather the power of sharing information; not as cogs in the machine, but as responsible change agents working to bring collaborative culture to government – there is a huge benefit for Canadian citizens, whether the wiki is behind a firewall or not.

p.s. To Stephane’s point about approval processes – I confront resistance frequently when I am presenting about GCPEDIA, but there is always someone who “gets” it. Some departments are indeed trying to prevent employees from posting to GCPEDIA – but it isn’t widespread. Even the most security-conscious departments are using the wiki. And Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council has been explicit in his support of the wiki, going so far as to say that no one requires manager’s approval to use the wiki. I hope that if anyone has a boss that says, “You can’t use GCPEDIA” that that employee plops down the latest PS Renewal Action Plan on his desk and says, “You’ve got a lot to learn”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s