On Journalism, Government and the cost of Digital Illiteracy

Earlier today the CBC published a piece by Alison Crawford about Canadian public servants editing wikipedia. It draws from a clever twitter bot — @gccaedits— that tracks edits to wikipedia from government IP address. I love the twitter account — fun!

The article, not so much. How sad that the digital literacy of the CBC is such that this is deemed newsworthy. How equally sad that government comms people feel they need to respond to things like this.

The article is pretty formulaic. It pulls out the more sensational topics that got edited on wikipedia, such as one on hockey (aren’t we so Canadian!) and one sexual positions (obligatory link bait).

It then has an ominous warning letting you know this is a serious issue:

“It’s yet another edit in a string of embarrassing online encyclopedia changes made by federal employees during the work day.”

It then lists other well known scandals of public servants editing wikipedia you are almost certainly familiar with, such as The “poopitch” and the “ Rush incident.”

See the problem? The waste!

I do. I see the colossal problem of a media institution that does not understand digital or how to deploy its power and privilege. And of a government unable to summon a response appropriate in scale to these types of stories in the past.

Let’s break it down:

  1. This is Not a Problem

Look at @gccaedits. There are on average maybe 7 edits per day. There are 257,034 public servants in Canada not counting the RCMP or the military. Assume each edit comes from a unique individual 0.0027% of public servants are spending say 15 minutes editing wikipedia each day.

But how do we know employees weren’t doing this during their break? Can anyone of us say that we’ve never looked at a sports score, sent a tweet, conducted an elaborate prank, called a friend or read an article unrelated to our work while at the office? How is this any different? In what world is a handful of people making an edit to wikipedia an indication of a problem?

I’ll bet the percent of CBC employees making edits to wikipedia is equal or greater than 0.0027%. Will they share their IP addresses so we can check?

2. Articles Like This Create Waste

Did you know that because this article was written there is probably 1–10 people in government who spent hours, if not their whole day: investigating what the government’s policies are regarding wikipedia editing; calling IT and asking them to trace the IP addresses that made the changes; bringing in HR to call the person responsible or figure out consequences. Maybe the union rep got pulled from their normal job to defend the poor “offender” from this overbearing response. It is possible tens of thousands of dollars in time was spent “managing” this issue. That, right there, is the true waste

You know that those public servants were not doing? They were NOT finding ways to help with the fire in Fort McMurray or addressing suicides in First Nations communities or the millions of other PRESSING AND URGENT PROBLEMS WE NEED GOVERNMENT FOCUSED ON.

3. Articles Like These Diminish Journalism

It isn’t just about the cost to government having to deal with this. What other issues could have been written about today? What about something actually important that held the government to account?

Remember the other week when Amanda Pfeffer of the CBC wrote about how IBM won a $32M Ontario government contract to fix software IBM itself had created? More of that please. I don’t mind attacking public servants judgement, but let’s do on shit that matters.

4. Journalists and Managers Cooperate for Terrible Outcomes

This isn’t just the fault of the CBC. Governments need to learn the consequence to reacting — as opposed to opportunity of simply ignoring — these types of articles.

The reflexive response to articles like these for management is to grope for a “solution.” The end game is almost always expensive and Orwellian network monitoring software sold by companies like Blue Coat and a heap of other “security” tools. As a result public servants are blocked from accessing wikipedia and a range of other deeply useful tools on the web all while their computers become slower and more painful to use.

This is not a path to more effective government. Nor a path to valuable journalism. We can do better.

Okay, rant mostly done.

I feel bad for public servants who had a crappy day today because of this.

I feel bad for Alison Crawford — who has lots of important stories to her credit, and wasn’t even the first to write about this, but whose article is the focus of this piece. Please keep reading her stuff — especially on the judicial file.

Ultimately, this CBC could have been an amazing article about how the ‘poopitch’ and ‘Rush’ incidents were crazy over reactions and we need to figure out how to manage the public service in a digital age.

But it wasn’t. It was a cheap thrill. Less of that please CBC. More of the real journalism we desperately need.

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