The greatest strength of web 2.0, which includes social media as well as collaborative technologies, is its user accessibility. Social media can be used by anyone to build connections locally or globally, among friends or strangers. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and the like are all incredibly user-friendly, and learning to use them takes very little time. Collaborative technologies, such as Google Docs, allow for teamwork through file-sharing and online communication in unprecedented ways. The use of these technologies can make the arduous process of collaboration laughably easy, even enjoyable.
Once accessed, web 2.0 applications can act as catalysts for all kinds of innovation and outreach: they can be used to share information easily and to a wide audience, to market and to inform, and to build and strengthen relationships with others in an online environment.
Web 2.0 could potentially have huge benefits for use by government departments. Some of these are outlined in the Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0 released by the Government of Canada Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) Chief Information Officer Branch. This guide lists recruitment, risk and emergency communications, services to the public, stakeholder outreach and education, collaboration, and consultation as the major gains of web 2.0.
This is true. However, while this list does emphasize the web 2.0 strengths of communication and collaboration, it omits its tremendous accessibility. Web 2.0 is a tool that government departments could make use of quickly and easily to achieve huge benefits; that is its strength. It would require very little work to set up web 2.0 programs for departments to more frequently and openly engage the public and for public servants to talk to one another with greater ease; initiatives that the public, and many public servants, badly want to see put in place.
GovLoop is a prime example of the kind of vibrant, interactive community that can exist online for public sector and government employees. This social network was founded by Steve Ressler in 2008 and it has over 65 000 members, mostly American, as of 2013.
Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that there will be a government sanctioned, Canadian equivalent anytime soon, based on the many limitations and restrictions that the Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0 places on departmental use of web 2.0 technologies.
Departments are required to put in place a 13 point plan (as outlined in section 4.2 of the guide) that complies fully with all the most recent government and departmental publications and policies on the subject. Departments must additionally ensure that all work done using web 2.0 technology is fully and equally bilingual, and that all publications have zero chance of ever reflecting badly, or even just inconsistently, on government aims. Additionally, these plans and policies must involve multiple layers of interdepartmental hierarchy before any steps forward regarding web 2.0 are even taken. Any department that manages to actually use web 2.0 must have also put monitoring systems in place for its use.
It seems common sense that there should be oversight as to what information is given to the public and that there has to be some consistency and restraint with what is posted where. However, the amount of planning that this guideline describes is absolutely crippling with regards to the spirit of web 2.0 accessibility and ease. What should be an enormous time-saver and boon to communication ends up using additional departmental resources and draining web 2.0 technologies of much of their efficiency and ease.
Ironically, in the planning stages for the use of web 2.0, many departments will likely find themselves bogged down in miscommunication, delayed responses, and lengthy documents passed hand-to-hand. Any department that actually makes full use of the latest and greatest advances in web 2.0 technology deserves to be applauded, if only for the distance that it had to travel to get there.
The Treasury Board of Canada’s guideline encourages departmental use of web 2.0, but what it outlines is entirely antithetical to the spirit of accessibility central to this new technology.
Do you agree or disagree? Has your department had stories of success or failure when it comes to social media and collaborative technologies? How important is web 2.0 for the future of Canadian public service? Let us know in the comments!