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Posts Tagged ‘policy’

What does this sound like?

Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility. Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making, and enables the public to assess performance. An open and democratic government implies that all employees have a role in communicating with the public while respecting the constitution and laws of Canada. Public service managers and employees must respect privacy rights, matters before the courts, national security, Cabinet confidences and ministerial responsibility. They serve the public interest best by communicating openly and responsively about policies, programs, services and initiatives they help to administer, while treating sensitive information with the discretion it requires.

A strong rationale for government bureaucrats to widely adopt social media communications, perhaps?  (Complete with caveats about doing so responsibly). Surprise — it comes from the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada.

Interesting: it looks like this has been part of the communications policy from at least 2002. Well before most of us had any idea about blogging, web 2.0 or social media. Go ahead, take a look at the text of the archived 2002 policy statement, it says the same thing.

(The GoC Communications Policy is a bit of a laundry list of requirements — 31 in total — for various aspects of communications: advertising, publishing, web, crisis communications, media relations, corporate identity, and so on. It’s easy to get lost in the details of each of these requirements and forget the overarching principles, laid out in the policy statement at the front end of the document. I’ve often skipped past this section — usually b/c I’m looking for some specific detail buried deeper in the document. But the other day I re-read the policy statement again for the first time in a long while, and that’s when this jumped out at me.)

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A bit late on blogging this, but anyhow.

Last week there were a couple of stories in the Ottawa Citizen (on Thursday and Friday) that touched on impartiality in the federal public service.

From the Friday story, titled Internet age a challenge to impartial public service:

The commission [ie, the PSC] concluded the young PCO analyst who posted his support for the Liberal party had crossed the line with “improper political activity,” but found no evidence that this affected his ability to do his job.

The employee wasn’t disciplined for his Facebook entry other than receiving a letter from the commission warning against “political activities” that could undermine his ability to do his job impartially — or leave that impression.

The unnamed bureaucrat wasn’t a senior executive but he did work for PCO, which has a more politically sensitive mandate than other departments.

Some thoughts:

1. Tempting to write this off as a PCO thing, since life is different at “the centre.” But that would be a mistake — especially for people working in communications and marketing, as we routinely bump up against the political/administrative divide in government. Impartiality is important throughout the bureaucracy.

2. Nor is it an age thing — leaving aside the fact that “young PCO analyst” is pretty ambigous, it is clear that social networking is increasingly popular among all workplace demographics.

3. In one sense, nothing has changed. Listing your political affiliation on a social networking site is analogous to wearing a party badge or political button on your coat. If you want to be seen as impartial, don’t do it.

4. Social networks like make it all too easy for this kind of thing to happen. When I signed up for Facebook, I remember that the “political affiliation” question was part of the registration process. Incredibly easy for an inattentive user to pick something that they will later regret since their focus is on getting signed up.

5. Yes social networking is redrawing the line between public/private. My rule of thumb – err on the side of caution and treat online participation as more public than private. I assume that how I present yourself online always has a an impact on my personal reputation and the reputation of my employer. (Writing this, it occurs to me that it’s probably no different in the private sector.) By the by, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has been doing great work on privacy issues around social networking.

6. As cases like these start to pile up, it will be tempting to simply block off the social web in government workplaces. This would be a mistake, as not only would business value be lost, but it would just drive the activity “underground.” People will find a way regardless — so better to encourage responsible use than to make people do it behind your back. The recently reanimated StopBlocking.org has great info on why it’s better to allow your people access.

7. On policy: I don’t feel that new rules need to be invented. There’s enough policy out there already. I am in favour of education and guidance though — to help us navigate through this new and unfamiliar terrain. Whether in terms of reminding employees of their responsibilities as public servants or by having early adopters and leaders showing us how it’s done. Or creating a touchstone of some sort that interprets existing rules in the light of new realities presented by the social web (for this last one, I’m looking at you TBS).

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"Pen to paper" by Marc Roberts on Flickr

Earlier this Week, NextGov and ReadWriteWeb reported that the US federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) had signed memoranda of understanding with several well known social sites: YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and blip.tv.

These MOUs are aimed at making it easier for American government agencies to use these platforms. They serve as templates for individual organizations to use when signing up to use the free services of YouTube, Flick, et al.

Previously, it had been impossible for US federal government organizations to agree to the standard terms of service for these sites due to legal requirements under which they operate. According to ReadWriteWeb,

the GSA had a number of other legal concerns about the standard terms and conditions of these services, including problems with indemnification clauses, liability limits, and endorsements, which led it to enter negotiations with these services. Also, a lot of the standard agreements call for dispute resolutions by state courts, while for government agencies, federal law has to apply.

In addition to the video and photo-sharing services that now have agreements with the government, the GSA is pursuing similar arrangements with the big social networks, Facebook and MySpace.

What’s the Significance?

I see this as a really positive step. It’s something that US public servants can point to in their efforts to reassure their managers and executives that it’s OK  for government to be on these major platforms. This will make it easier to go to where online audiences actually are.

We need the same kind of thing here — PWGSC and other central agencies are you listening? (Time to get on the phone to your counterparts in the GSA and ask them to share their templates!)

However, dealing with legal liability is only one of many barriers to convincing the org to move forward. If I consider the situation in the Government of Canada, we’ve got many other policy requirements on the books that impede participation or engagement in the social web – privacy, accessibility, various web standards, information management, official bilingualism, the list goes on. I’m sure it’s a similar situation in the US.

Leaving aside the “web of rules,” there’s still many other challenges on the road to government 2.0.

  • coherence and consistency — various govt agencies take different approaches to all of these issues.
  • bureaucratic culture — a traditionally command and control environment that is uncomfortable with the idea of direct engagement with stakeholders.
  • Learning curve — for those public servants taking the leap into the social web in a work setting.

… And these are just a few of the angles to be considered. So while this news is welcome, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

Aside

The NextGov story mentioned that:

the GSA did not make an agreement with the online messaging service Twitter because the agency determined the provider’s standard terms and conditions aligned with federal requirements.

Interesting, as Twitter’s terms of service are very short and sgtraightforward, unlike many other social sites. As a point of comparison, see Facebook’s mammoth terms. Sometimes, less is more!

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Government 2.0 Meets Catch-22

Good post yesterday from NYT’s Bits blog on some of the challenges involved in implementing social media in US government organizations. Several excellent comments too.

Organizations of all sorts have been trying to figure out how they can adapt social networks, blogs, wikis and other Web tools to their traditional operating methods in order to connect to customers and partners.

But it is tough. “We have a Facebook page,” said one official of the Department of Homeland Security. “But we don’t allow people to look at Facebook in the office. So we have to go home to use it. I find this bizarre.”

It is bizarre, but it’s a fact of life for bureaucrats. Here in the Canadian federal government, we are facing the same kinds of challenges.

But this also shows that governments have moved past the “should we do this?” phase, to being at the point of asking “how are we going to do this?”

It’s here that Web 2.0 brushes up against the “web of rules” in government (bad metaphor I know!).

My take is pretty simple: the ultimate goal of governments doing communications work is not compliance with policies. We do it is support of our organizations’ mandates. Informing citizens of a new programs or services, or issuing research and publications, or consulting with stakeholders, or whatever else.

I’m not saying that compliance isn’t important. It is — how we achieve our goals is an important part of the process. It’s just that many of the rules out there, especially those affecting web communications, are based on old paradigms or situations that simply don’t square with the realities of the participatory web. Top of mind examples: privacy, accessibility, contracting, endorsement, gifts.

In a lot of cases, the requirements of policies in these areas simply assume that online communications = the corporate web site. There is simply no reference to using web services or participating in online communities elsewhere.

In fact, there are often ways to accommodate the requirements of these policies, even if the solutions are not identical to the techniques that are spelled out in [insert name of directive or standard here].

As a starting point, the American Federal Web Managers Council put together a document that outlines practical responses to many of the perceived barriers to adopting social media in Government. And here’s a fellow government communicators’ guide to getting the organization started down the road to social media adoption.

Coming back to the NYT post, I’m with with the commenter in the discussion who pointed out that:

The key is we have to focus on the spirit of the law and not the minutia of the detail. The issue is risk mitigation and not risk avoidance. In the end, the purpose of government is to better serve its citizens. Government 2.0 has a lot of opportunities to further meet this goal.

Yes, exactly.

Update: fixed a disastrous typo … had left the word “not” out at a key point. You can see it pretty clearly above! That’s what I get for blogging late at night when I should be asleep.

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Zsuzsanna Kilián

Credit: Zsuzsanna Kilián (nkzs on stock.xchng)

When I posted last week about getting government publications online, I had forgotten something key: according to the Government of Canada’s Communications Policy, departments and agencies are required to “maintain a publicly accessible index” of their publications. (If you want the reference, it’s the first item in the list under requirement 27 — sorry that’s not a very good link for it, you’ll have to scroll and scroll to get to it.)

This dovetails nicely with obtaining publications being one of the main reasons that visitors come to federal government websites.

So making a prominent “publications” link that leads to a robust catalogue can serve to kill two birds with one stone — not only are you meeting customer demand, but you can also tell your bosses that you are meeting policy obligations. They should like that very much.

BTW, I do plan on posting up a more fulsome piece on how this might look in an ideal world — stay tuned.

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Spotted via DavePressPrinciples for Participation Online, guidelines for UK civil servants to follow when on social networks or in the blogosphere:

1. Be credible
Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.

2. Be consistent
Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.

3. Be responsive
When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.

4. Be integrated
Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.

5. Be a civil servant
Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency.

… and if we were doing a GoC version, I would add: be bilingual.

More seriously though, it’s really simple isn’t it? However, when it comes to the web, a lot of people who I have talked to at work are so focused on the technology (“its all so new and changing too fast – that’s scary”) that they miss the idea that participating online is really not much different from being involved in things like conferences or meetings. Or frankly, talking on the phone or via email with clients or stakeholders. Like the list says, how you communicate online should be integrated with how you communicate offline.

The disclosure thing is key – if you are a bureaucrat and you are making an edit to a Wikipedia entry or posting a comment on a blog, identify yourself up front. The optics of anonymity are bad enough for private citizens, but they are magnified for public servants.


So what about the situation in Canada?

The GoC is also working on guidelines to help Canadian bureaucrats navigating the social web – see Mike Kujawski’s summary of the recent Marcom 2008 conference, under the header “Applying Social Media to a Public Sector Environment:”

Presented by the man [Jeff Braybrook at Treasury Board Secretariat] who whose team is responsible for developing the policies governing social media usage in the public sector. Bottom line: The Federal government is currently rolling out policies for internal usage of social media (e.g. Creating an internal social network application to replace GEDS [the GoC telephone directory] and using wikis to create project/initiative communities). As for everybody’s main concern (i.e Social Media policies for communicating with Canadians), the CIO Branch is working as hard as possible to get these out ASAP.

I didn’t get to see this presentation in person, but I’ve seen the slides. Money quote – “Expectation of professional and courteous behaviour is not new and not a function of the media or venue.” That is – the policies and standards that are already in place for civil servants are enough to cover our participation in the social web.

What this more of less says to me is that we don’t really need any new rules at all. But to provide a touchstone for nervous civil servants unfamiliar with social media and social networks (like my boss or yours), I’m all for having an “official” playbook. I’m looking forward to have something I can point to that will help reassure my colleagues and superiors that it’s OK for us to be in the social Web too.

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Last week, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration went out on a limb and asked its employees to turn off their BlackBerries after hours. (Here’s the memo announcing the policy.)

My first response to this was, er, instinctual – they’ll never take my crackberry away from me! Never!

Since reading this story, this has nagged at the back of the ol’ brain. Why? I think it’s got to do with the work/play or work/life divide. On the work side:

Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said the use of personal digital devices such as the BlackBerry increases employees’ workload dramatically.

“It increases our ability to work anytime, anywhere, immediate answers expected, be available 24-7, on the road, at home, on weekends, on vacation,” she added Friday. (Source: CBC News)

True enough. But here’s the thing: with SMS and internet access built in, the crackberry ain’t just about work. I’m constantly using my ‘berry after hours, but usually it’s doing stuff like this: to read the news, catch up with the latest sports scores, check the weather, drop in on the Twitterverse, chat with family and friends.

I suppose that using a mobile that’s been provided by my workplace in this way is strictly speaking a bad thing that could get me in trouble — There’s probably a policy somewhere that says what I am doing is wrong. Mea culpa. But in a world that’s online 24/7, where exactly do you draw the line?

Aside: I have checked out my wireless use a little, and I’ve been told that I’ve never incurred more than the monthly minimum change for our data plan at work. So not to worry, taxpayers, I’m not costing you any more money with my frivolities.

I guess what I’m saying is — it’s not about the tools, but rather the attitude that one brings to them. The impulse to respond to emails as soon as they hit the inbox on the ‘berry is the exact same thing as the compulsive need to answer the phone just because it’s ringing. If you want to address work related stress, that’s where the emphasis needs to be, no matter what the device in question is.

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