Communication
May 7, 2012

The new balladeers for social media

Nicole Vienneau disappears in Syria three years ago and, according to the Ottawa Citizen, Foreign Affairs won’t tell her family what they know, claiming they need Nicole’s signature to release any information under the Privacy Act.

An Israeli soldier uses Facebook to tell his friends about a raid his army unit is about to make that night. Other soldiers notice and report him. The raid is cancelled and he is court martialled.

An 18-year-old student jumps off a bridge to her death. University authorities had not told her parents of her suicidal ideation because of privacy regulations.

A Veterans’ Affairs IT analyst spends multiple hours of her own time working to build IPAC Connects, a website for public servants to network and collaborate. When it is launched, she must bring in her personal laptop because regulations prevent her accessing the site via a work computer.

Social media and government policy: do we have too much privacy and security, too little, or is it just right? Are we managing information appropriately? Are official languages requirements still relevant? Are we taking advantage of the management opportunities afforded by new media?

Based on our research, the real impediment to more effective use of social media by government appears not to be restrictive policy but restrictive minds, the clay layer of management, the innovation-averse organizational culture, and the occasional cowards who hide behind regulations as a way of preventing the release of information embarrassing to them.

The need for privacy, security, sound information management and organizational decision-making must (and can) be balanced with the equally important need for open access to the Internet. And that will require a paradigm shift.

Powerful social media tools have increased the ability to collaborate and share information. Wayne Wouters, head of the public service of Canada, tweets and encourages staff to connect with him on the government’s internal wiki. He recently reported to the Prime Minister, “Today’s government workplace should take full advantage of the Web 2.0 collaborative tools…we should not be left behind.”

Chris Moore, CIO of Edmonton, is placing all possible information on the web for citizens to access and use. B.C. has Spark, a social networking tool for employee suggestions. Ron McKerlie, a deputy minister in Ontario, used a wiki to engage staff in building his keynote speech. Though there are many more examples, others are constrained.

The Tools
The available tools can be grouped into four. More tools, of course, are on their way.

1.    Blogging and Tweets are used to broadcast information widely.

2.    Wikis provide forums where ideas, issues, and work products are developed and evolved with groups that can be work-team focused, community of interest focused, or broadly open-ended. Canada has been early off the mark with internal wikis: B.C.’s Spark, GCPedia, NRCan’s wiki are examples.

3.    Facebook-like tools support profiles of people and their skills and interests and offer networking. Check out www.govloop.com or IPAC Connects at http://ipac-iapc.ning.com for examples.

4.    Data publishing is based on the premise that information’s value increases when it is released to businesses and communities. Data publishing has become a big deal in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, but it isn’t getting as much traction in Canada. On his first day in office, Barack Obama issued a memorandum ordering the heads of federal agencies to make available as much information as possible. The order read: “With a clear presumption – in the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister, wrote in 1874, “I repeat…that all power is a trust – that we are accountable for its exercise – that from the people, and for the people, all springs, and all must exist.” To put it in a modern context, information is power. The information we gather from the people and which is paid for by the people, is a trust that should belong to the people. We are accountable for its dissemination.

The geometric leap in data to be stored, and its potential value as a driver of innovation and prosperity, raises the question: why should data that is being stored for posterity not be available to citizens and businesses today?

Pushing forward by government has its own set of issues around privacy, official languages, security, decision making and information management. But managing those issues, we were told, would be easier than managing the challenges of not using social media.

The Issues

From our discussions, we received clear advice that was consistent across groups, geography, and level of government.

First, there is a tremendous appetite for the use of social media to collaborate, share information, increase transparency and improve the culture and efficiency/effectiveness of the public service.

We are only ten years away from the millennial celebration of King Canute’s visit to the coast of England where he commanded the tide not to rise. Like the tide, the public and media demands for more information, transparency and input, plus the internal employee demand for more collaboration, cannot be rolled back. And soon it will become an issue of competitive advantage, as Canada’s once strong lead in web 1.0 applications risks being lost to countries like Australia that are more aggressively pursuing web 2.0 and its potential.

Second, this is not a generational issue. It is not a case of millennials being for social media versus aging boomers against it. Good staff of all generations told us they wanted tools to help them do a better job.

Third, legislation is not the problem. True, much of our legislation is old, creaking, and needs an update. But most of our participants felt they could work within existing frameworks, provided there were up-to-date guidelines. The federal Treasury Board Secretariat issued guidelines for social media use a year ago and has new updates in the works. Alberta’s new guidelines are out for review by deputy ministers. England has adopted new guidelines. And Obama has made clear how to interpret the laws.

The real impediment to more effective use of social media to achieve better public service appears to be the culture of the public service itself, and the fact that some people hide behind the legislation and over-interpret it either to ease their own fears or hide poor performance. We have, for example, a political aide telling a non-partisan public servant to not release a report. We have pressure to muzzle the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the refusal to release the identity of NSERC grant recipients who defraud the government.

Participants said that social media demand a new paradigm regarding the ownership, use and management of information. The specific challenges regarding privacy, security and information management can be managed within that new paradigm. And, when needed, legislation provides for release of information if it is in the public interest to do so.

Fourth, there are new manifestations of old problems. For years, lawyers refused to use fax machines out of fear the machines could be abused. Now a fax can be equivalent to an original. “Loose lips sink ships” was a military slogan long before the Israeli soldier Facebooked his unit’s plans. And some of us are old enough to remember the plain brown envelope that was used to send information to the media long before the email “forward” button was invented.

Centuries ago, before the printing press, rulers sometimes sought to suppress literacy and to limit access to information and the power that it brought. News

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