Tag Archives: public service

The Canadian Government's New Web 2.0 Guidelines: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Yesterday, the government of Canada released its new Guidelines for external use of Web 2.0. For the 99.99% of you unfamiliar  with what this is, it’s the guidelines (rules) that govern how, and when, public servants may use web 2.0 tools such as twitter and facebook.

You, of course, likely work in organization that survives without such documents. Congratulations. You work in a place where the general rule is “don’t be an idiot” and your bosses trust your sense of judgement. That said, you probably also don’t work somewhere where disgruntled former employees and the CBC are trolling the essentially personal online statements of your summer interns so they can turn it into a scandal. (Yes, summer student border guards have political opinions, don’t like guns and enjoy partying. Shocker). All this to say, there are good and rational reasons why the public service creates guidelines: to protect not just the government, but public servants.

So for those uninterested in reading the 31 page, 12,055 word guidelines document here’s a review:

The Good

Sending the right message

First off, the document, for all its faults, does get one overarching piece right. Almost right off the bat (top of section 3.2) is shares that Ministries should be using Web 2.0 tools:

Government of Canada departments are encouraged to use Web 2.0 tools and services as an efficient and effective additional channel to interact with the public. A large number of Canadians are now regularly using Web 2.0 tools and services to find information about, and interact with, individuals and organizations.

Given the paucity of Web 2.0 use in the Federal government internally or externally this clear message from Treasury Board, and from a government minister, is the type of encouragement needed to bring government communications into 2008 (the British Government, with its amazing Power of Information Taskforce, has been there for years).

Note: there is a very, very, ugly counterpart to this point. See below.

Good stuff for the little guy

Second, the rules for Professional Networking & Personal Use are fairly reasonable. There are some challenges (notes below), but if any public servant ever finds them or has the energy to read the document, they are completely workable.

The medium is the message

Finally, the document acknowledges that the web 2.0 world is constantly evolving and references a web 2.0 tool by which public servants can find ways to adapt. THIS IS EXACTLY THE RIGHT APPROACH. You don’t deal with fast evolving social media environment by handing out decrees in stone tablets, you manage it by offering people communities of practice where they can get the latest and best information. Hence this line:

Additional guidance on the use of Web 2.0 tools and services is in various stages of development by communities of expertise and Web 2.0 practitioners within the Government of Canada. Many of these resources are available to public servants on the Government of Canada’s internal wiki, GCpedia. While these resources are not official Government of Canada policies or guidelines, they are valuable sources of information in this rapidly evolving environment.

Represents a somewhat truly exciting development in the glacially paced evolution of government procedures. The use of social media (GCPEDIA) to manage social media.

Indeed, still more exciting for me is that this was the first time I’ve seen an official government document reference GCPEDIA as a canonical source of information. And it did it twice, once, above, pointing to a community of practice, the second was pointing to the GCPEDIA “Social media procurement process” page. Getting government to use social media internally is I think the biggest challenge at the moment, and this document does it.

The Bad

Too big to succeed

The biggest problem with the document is its structure. It is so long, and so filled with various forms of compliance, that only the most dedicated public servant (read, communications officer tasked with a social media task) will ever read this. Indeed for a document that is supposed to encourage public servants to use social media, I suspect it will do just the opposite. Its density and list of controls will cause many who were on the fence to stay there – if not retreat further. While the directions for departments are more clear, for the little guy… (See next piece)

Sledgehammers for nails

The documents main problem is that it tries to address all uses of social media. Helpfully, it acknowledges there are broadly two types of uses “Departmental Web 2.0 initiatives” (e.g. a facebook group for a employment insurance program) and “personnel/professional use” (e.g. a individual public servant’s use of twitter or linked in to do their job). Unhelpfully, it addresses both of them.

In my mind 95% of the document relates to departmental uses… this is about ensuring that someone claiming to represent the government in an official capacity does not screw up. The problem is, all those policies aren’t as relevant to Joe/Jane public servant in their cubicle trying to find an old colleague on LinkedIn (assuming they can access linkedin). It’s overkill. These should be separate documents, that way the personal use document could be smaller, more accessible and far less intimidating. Indeed, as the guidelines suggest, all it should really have to do is reference the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service (essentially the “idiots guide to how not to be an idiot on the job” for public servants) and that would have been sufficient. Happily most public servants are already familiar with this document, so simply understanding that those guidelines apply online as much as offline, gets us 90% of the way there.

In summary, despite a worthy effort, it seem unlikely this document will encourage public servants to use Web 2.0 tools in their jobs. Indeed, for a (Canadian) comparison consider the BC Government’s guidelines document, the dryly named “Policy No. 33: Use of Social Media in the B.C. Public Service.”  Indeed, despite engaging both use cases it manages covers all the bases, is straightforward, and encouraging, and treats the employee with an enormous amount of respect. All this in a nifty 2 pages and 1,394 words. Pretty much exactly what a public servant is looking for.

The Ugly

Sadly, there is some ugliness.

Suggestions, not change

In the good section I mentioned that the government is encouraging ministries to use social media… this is true. But it is not mandating it. Nor does these guidelines say anything to Ministerial IT staff, most of whom are blocking public servant’s access to sites like facebook, twitter, in many cases, my blog, etc… The sad fact is, there may now be guidelines that allow public servants to use these tools, but in most cases, they’d have to go home, or to a local coffee shop (many do) in order to actually make use of these guidelines. For most public servants, much of the internet remains beyond their reach, causing them to fall further and further behind in understanding how technology will effect their jobs and their department/program’s function in society.

It’s not about communication, it’s about control

In his speech at PSEngage yesterday the Treasury Board Minister talked about the need for collaboration on how technology can help the public service reinvent how it collaborates:

The Government encourages the use of new Web 2.0 tools and technologies such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These tools help create a more modern, open and collaborative workplace and lead to more “just-in-time” communications with the public.

This is great news. And I believe the Minister believes it too. He’s definitely a fan of technology in all the right ways. However, the guidelines are mostly about control. Consider this paragraph:

Departments should designate a senior official accountable and responsible for the coordination of all Web 2.0 activities as well as an appropriate governance structure. It is recommended that the Head of Communications be the designated official. This designate should collaborate with departmental personnel who have expertise in using and executing Web 2.0 initiatives, as well as with representatives from the following fields in their governance structure: information management, information technology, communications, official languages, the Federal Identity Program, legal services, access to information and privacy, security, values and ethics, programs and services, human resources, the user community, as well as the Senior Departmental Official as established by the Standard on Web Accessibility. A multidisciplinary team is particularly important so that policy interpretations are appropriately made and followed when managing information resources through Web 2.0 tools and services.

You get all that? That’s at least 11 variables that need to be managed. Or, put another way, 11 different manuals you need to have at your desk when using social media for departmental purposes. That makes for a pretty constricted hole for information to get out through, and I suspect it pretty much kills most of the spontaneity, rapid response time and personal voice that makes social media effective. Moreover, with one person accountable, and this area of communications still relatively new, I suspect that the person in charge, given all these requirements, is going to have a fairly low level of risk. Even I might conclude it is safer to just post an ad in the newspaper and let the phone operators at Service Canada deal with the public.

Conclusion

So it ain’t all bad. Indeed, there is much that is commendable and could be worked with. I think, in the end, 80% of the problems with the document could be resolved if the government simply created two versions, one for official departmental uses, the other for individual public servants. If it could then restrain the lawyers from repeating everything in the Values and Ethics code all over again, you’d have something that social media activists in the public service could seize upon.

My sense is that the Minister is genuinely interested in enabling public servants to use technology to do their jobs better – he knows from personal experience how helpful social media can be. This is great news for those who care about these issues, and it means that pressing for a better revised version might yield a positive outcome. Better to try now, with a true ally in the president’s office than with someone who probably won’t care.

 

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”.

Just a Click Away Keynote Slides

A little over two months ago I gave a keynote at the Just a Click Away Conference in Vancouver. The conference was a gathering for legal information and education experts – for example the excellent people that provide legal aid. My central challenge to them was thinking about how they could further collapse the transaction costs around getting legal assistance and/or completing common legal transactions.

I had a great time at the event and it was a real pleasure to meet Allan Seckel – the former head of British Columbia’s public service. I was deeply impressed by his comments and commitment to both effective and open government. As one of the key forces behind the Citizens at the Centre report he’s pushed a number of ideas forward that I think other governments should be paying attention to.

So, back to the presentation… I’ve been promising to get my slides from the event up and so here they are:

From Public Servant to Public Insurgent

Are you a public insurgent?

Today, a generation of young people are arriving into the public service familiar with all sorts of tools – especially online and social media driven tools – that they have become accustomed to using. Tools like wikis, survey monkeys, doodle, instant messaging or websites like wikipedia, or issue specific blogs enable them to be more productive, more efficient and more knowledgeable.

And yet, when they arrive in their office they are told: “You cannot use those tools here.”

In short, they are told: “Don’t be efficient.”

You can, of course, imagine the impact on moral of having a boss tell you that you must do you work in a manner that is slower and less effective then you might otherwise do. Indeed, today, in the public service and even in many large organizations, we may be experiencing the first generation of a work force that is able to accomplish coordination and knowledge building tasks faster at home than at work.

Some, when confronted with this choice simple resign themselves to the power of their organizations rules and become less efficient. Others (and I suspect not an insignificant number), begin the process of looking for their next job. But what I find particularly interesting is a tinier segment who –  as dedicated employees, that love the public service and who want to be as effective as possible – believe in their mission so strongly that they neither leave, nor do they adhere to the rules. They become public insurgents and do some of their work outside the governments infrastructure.

Having spoken about government 2.0 and the future of the public service innumerable times now I have, on several occasions, run into individuals or even groups, of these public insurgents. Sometimes they installed a wiki behind the firewall, sometimes they grab their laptop and head to a cafe so they can visit websites that are useful, but blocked by their ministry, sometimes they simple send around a survey monkey in contravention of an IT policy. The offenses range from the minor to the significant. But in each case these individuals are motivated by the fact that this is the most, and sometimes only, way to do the task they’ve been handed in an effective way. More interesting is that sometimes their acts of rebellion create a debate that causes the organization to embrace the tools they secretly use, sometimes they it doesn’t and they continue to toil in secret.

I find this trend – one that I think may be growing – fascinating.

So my question to you is… are you a public insurgent? If you are I’d love to hear your story. Please post it in the comments (using an anonymous handle) or send me an email.

What Munir's Resignation means to Public Servants

This came to me from an anonymous email address, but the author claims to be a public servant. No inside gossip or revelation here, but a serious question about how the public service will react to a critical moment.

The independence of Canada’s public service has been a key part of our governing system. It has its advantages and its drawbacks (discussed in some detail most recently by John Ibbitson in Open and Shut) but it has been important. Munir’s resignation reaffirms this system, how his boss and colleagues react will say a lot about whether other public servants feel the value of independence is still core to the public service.

Read on – it’s thoughtful:

Defining moments. For some individuals these are easy to identify, like when a promising young athlete suffers a career-limiting injury.  For others, such moments come later in life, but are no less real or significant.

The resignation of Munir Sheikh from his position as Chief Statistician of Canada is clearly a defining moment for him personally.  He ends a full career in the Public Service on a point of principle.  This principled stance, necessary in his view to protect the integrity of his organization, has brought pride to many public servants, including this author.

But this act may not only be defining for Mr. Sheikh; it also has the potential to impact on the broader public service.  The Public Service mantra is fearless advice and loyal implementation and we tend to be very good at this.  However, it has always been recognized that this only goes so far.  There are limits to loyal implementation.  Clear examples are when a government attempts to unduly benefit either themselves or their friends through government funds.

Deputy ministers (the position of Chief Statistician is one) are often faced with limit-pushing situations, their ability to manage the delicate political-Public Service relationship is key to their success (and survival) as senior public servants.  When these limits are in danger of being exceeded, the deputy minister can rely on delay to allow time to change the ministers’ mind, and/or intervention from the Prime Minister, via the Privy Council Office.  When these fail, the deputy can either acquiesce (partially or fully) or resign.  This is the theory.  However, in practice I cannot recall the last time a deputy resigned on a point of principle (leaving aside the potential reasons for the former Clerk, Kevin Lynch’s retirement).

Mr. Sheikh has attempted to set a new standard – disregarding the advice of a department is fine – publicly undermining the integrity of that advice is not.  It remains to be seen whether this standard will stick or whether it will in future be seen as a high-water mark for deputy integrity that will never be seen again.

The public and private reactions of the Clerk of the Privy Council will have a significant impact on how others view this resignation.  He is the Prime Minister’s deputy minister, who sets the tone and expectation for all other deputies.  He is also the Head of the Public Service, and helps set the tone for all public servants.  What, if anything, will he say about this issue, to the Prime Minister, deputies and ordinary public servants?  How should we comport ourselves when faced with such issues?

Wayne Wouters, this is your opportunity.  Tell us what you think, this can be your defining moment too.

Banned Blogs

So I’m fed up. I’m tired of hearing about fantastic blogs written by fantastic people that are banned by different federal departments of the Canadian public service.

Banned you say? Isn’t that a little dramatic?

No! I mean banned.

The IT departments of several federal governments block certain websites that are deemed to have inappropriate or non-work related content. Typically these include sites like Facebook, Gmail and of course, various porn sites (a list of well known mainstream sites that are blocked can be found here).

I’ve known for a while that my site – eaves.ca – is blocked by several departments and it hasn’t bothered me (I’ve always felt that blocking someone increase people’s interest in them), But as whispers about the number of blogs blocked grows, I find the practice puzzling and disturbing. These are not casual blogs. One might think this is limited to casual or personel blogs but many of the blogs I hear about are on public policy or the public service. They may even contain interesting insights that could help public servants. They are not sites that contain pornographic material, games or other content that could be construed as leisure (as enjoyable as I know reading my blog is…).

So, in an effort to get a better grasp of the scope and depth of the problem I’d like your help to put together a list. On eaves.ca I’ve created a new page – entitled “Banned Blogs” that lists blogs and the Canadian Federal Government Ministries that ban them. If you are a public servant and you know of a blog that is blocked from your computer please send me a note. If you know a public servant, ask them to check their favourite blogs. If you know of a site that is blocked you can send me an email, at tweet, or an anonymous comment on this blog, I’ll add it to the list. It would be fantastic to get a sense of who is blocked and by which departments. Maybe we’ll even knock some sense into some IT policies.

Maybe.

(Post script: Douglas B. has some great suggestions about how to deal with blocked sites and lists some of the ancient policies that could help public servants fight this trend).

The PM’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service: The Good, The Bad, The Hopeful

On February 25th Paul Tellier and David Emerson – two men whose understanding of Ottawa I have a tremendous amount of respect for – released The Fourth Report of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service. It is a document that is worth diving into as these reports will likely serve as reference points for (re)thinking on renewing government for the foreseeable future.

The Bad:

On the rough side, I have a single high-level comment: These reports are likely to be as close as we are going to get in Canada to Australia’s Government 2.0 Taskforce (on which I served as part of the international reference group) or Britain’s Cabinet Office Power of Information Taskforce Report (which would have been tremendous to have been involved in).

To be clear, this is not the fault of the committee. Its terms of reference appear to be much broader. This has to predictable consequences. First, relatively little time is dedicated to the general reorganizing of society being prompted by the now 40 year old internet revolution is only carving out a small role. The committee is thus not able to dive into any detail on how the changing role of information in society, on open data, on the power of self-organization, or the rising power and influence of social media could and should re-shape the public service.

Second, much more time is dedicated to thinking about problems around HR and pay. These are important issues. However, since the vision of the public service remains broadly unchanged, my sense is the reforms, while sometimes large, are ultimately tweaks designed to ensure the continuation of the current model – not prompting a rethink (or the laying of groundwork) for a 21st century public service which will ultimately have to look different to stay relevant.

The best example of the implications of this limited scope can be found under the section “Staying Relevant and Connected.” Here the report has two recommendations, including:

The Public Service must take full advantage of collaborative technologies to facilitate interaction with citizens, partners and stakeholders.

The Public Service should adopt a structured approach to tapping into broad-based external expertise. This includes collaboration and exchanges with universities, social policy organizations, think tanks, other levels of government and jurisdictions, private sector organizations and citizens.

These are good! They are also pretty vague and tame. This isn’t so much renewal as it is a baseline for a functioning 20th century public service. More importantly, given some of the other pieces in the report these appear to be recommendations about how the government can engage in pretty traditional manners (exchanges). Moreover, they are externally focused. The main problem with the public service is that its members aren’t even allowed to use collaborative technologies to interact among themselves so how can they possible be ask to collaborate externally? As I say in my OCAD lecture and my chapter in Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice – a digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government. The change required is first and foremost internal. But advocating for such a change is a major effort – one that will require significant culture and process change – which I haven’t found so far in the report and which is probably beyond its scope.

The Good:

That said, when the report does talk about technology and/or collaboration – it broadly says the right things. For example, in the section Creating A Modern, Enabled Workplace the report says:

creating a workplace that will attract, retain and empower public servants to innovate, collaborate and be responsive to the public. Among other things, this must include the adoption of collaborative technologies that are increasingly widespread in other sectors.

And, perhaps more importantly, under the section Strengthening Policy Capacity: A Relevant and Connected Public Service the report states:

A public service operating in isolation runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. We believe that the quality of policy thinking must be enhanced by additional perspectives from citizens, stakeholders and experts from other jurisdictions and other sectors (e.g. business, academia, non-governmental organizations). We believe sound government policy should be shaped by a full range of perspectives, and policy makers must consistently reach beyond the National Capital Region for input and advice.

Furthermore, the Public Service now has an opportunity to engage Canadians, especially younger ones, through the use of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies such as wikis, blogs and social networking. These offer an excellent way for the Public Service to reach out and connect.

Again, great stuff. Although, my concerns from above should also be reiterated. A networked public service is one that will need new norms as it will function very differently. The task force has little to say about this (again because of their expansive purview and not through their own fault). But this issue must be addressed in full. I frequently argue that one reason public servants are so stressed is that they live double lives. They already live in a networked workplace and play by network rules in order to get their job done, however, they are perpetually told they live in a hierarchy and have to pretend they abide by that more traditional rule set. Double lives are always stressful…

The Hope:

As the committee moves forward it says it will:

…consider and advise on new business models for the Public Service with a view to creating an innovative and productive workforce that continues to deliver increasing value for money by taking advantage of new tools and technology;

I hope that open data, open systems and some of the ideas around a network government I’ve been advocating and talking about along with numerous others, get in front of the committee – these all represent building blocks for a significantly more flexible, innovative and product public service.