As BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion negotiates with many governments around the world over data access and security, and while public servants gather in Ottawa for the annual IT fest that is GTEC, it is perhaps timely to ask whether or not the BlackBerry has improved public sector operations here at home.
Any answer, no doubt, requires a more precise question (or many questions). Is information shared more rapidly? Undoubtedly. Are decisions made faster? Maybe. Are public sector capacities for innovation and learning being transformed by this new architecture for instantaneous, individual, and mobile connectivity? Perhaps not.
Pardon? I lost you temporarily as your BlackBerry buzzed you to distraction. No problem; welcome back.
The Blackberry is perhaps rivalled only by Google in this country as personification of the new digital age. And as with Nicolas Carr’s provocative question as to whether “Google is Making Us Stupid,” there are important and legitimate debates emerging about the new workplace and what is transpiring within large organizations.
A good deal of research examining the effect of information technology on decision-making structure has demonstrated that IT is most often viewed in incremental, as opposed to transformational, terms. The primary reason is that leaders – holders of power within existing structures – are prone to deploy new technological tools in manners that augment their authority and control, or at least attempt to do so. Rare is the corporate or political leader who willingly cedes power.
It will come as a surprise to few that government is a large bureaucracy, and nowhere is this characterization truer than at the national level. While the federal government has been stunningly swift to deploy BlackBerry devices across its ranks (as has the political class overseeing it), there has been scant critical thinking as to the linkages between usage and productivity and performance.
What we do know for certain is that many of those in the executive cadre who climbed the organizational ladder in a largely hierarchical and control-minded environment now have a new tool to exert influence and control. Although the BlackBerry is arguably also a tool for individual empowerment – sharing information more widely, creating more virtual and collaborative teams, and responding more swiftly to citizen concerns – such benefits can only be realized through a holistic structural and cultural reorientation of government itself.
Change starts at the top. Politically, BlackBerries are but the latest and ever-more effective tool for attempts by an expanding Prime Minister’s Office to contain information, control decision-making, and shape communications to the extent possible. Ministers, when permitted to appear before the media, rely on the BlackBerry to ensure they remain on script. The folks at the centre are always watching, always directing.
Such centralizing tendencies resonate and strengthen within central agencies that are no strangers to exerting control – all the more so in an era of fiscal restraint and expenditure review. With deputies and their assistants awash in emails, the natural reflex is to deflect them on down to subordinates who, in turn, are inclined to do the same.
The flip side of this dynamic is widening disgruntlement among younger public servants, new to government but already veterans of the digital age. Promised a flatter, more dynamic workplace welcoming of their ideas, it is now not unusual to hear stories of the new recruit firing off an email directly to the deputy (much to the chagrin of the managers in between). As one public servant put it, the culture of government is to edit (and then edit some more) and publish: prodded by social networking and the Internet, young people today are inclined to publish and then edit, to speak now and reflect later – hardly becoming of a traditional bureaucrat!
As IT drives government-wide agendas for interoperability and integration, pressures mount to view the Government of Canada as a “single enterprise.” The tremendous risk here is that this single enterprise is a much larger and more rigid bureaucracy, with the inertia of political direction and managerial control intensifying at the core. The BlackBerry, in the absence of a more fundamental rethink of governance, can only accentuate this trend.
With regards to GTEC, the problems are twofold. First, many public servants attending are too bound by BlackBerries (shackling them virtually but no less firmly to “urgent” demands at the office) to fully immerse themselves in the many high-quality sessions exploring the sorts of technological and organizational change required. And second, the cadre of the most senior managers and politicians, those most in need of such a transformation dialogue (a few of whom shall drop by GTEC for carefully scripted addresses), are too busy – too connected – to partake.
Alas, if fortunate enough to attend, do yourself a favour: turn off the BlackBerry and enjoy!
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).