My thoughts on the bilingual issue holding back the use of social media in government

I want to make a few things clear before I write this post today.

First of all, I was born in France, I love Quebec here in Canada, I am a trilingual anglophone, and I have nothing but full support for our country having two official languages. That being said, there are certain exceptions in regards to the bilingual requirement, which I think our Treasury Board should consider.

First and foremost, the whole point of effective use of social media is defeated when blog posts, podcasts, rss feeds, etc…, have to be translated each and every single time something is posted. This renders instant response impossible, and will make government organizations seem out-of-date and behind the loop (not that the perception out there is any better now). The translation departments are backlogged enough as is having to translate every single document that exists within each branch. Government websites (aside from a few exceptions) have become warehouses of useless information because it’s become too much of a hassle to make a change, have it approved, send it to translation, send it to the web guys, etc… you know the drill.

Along comes the Web 2.0 revolution of instant sharing, collaboration, and conversation and what does the government do? First of all the provincial government bans Facebook. Smart move guys! That’ll teach ’em! (i’m being blatantly sarcastic here ->See my post on that issue). Now the government has put a hold on the use of blogs and participation in online social networks because everything that comes out of the government must be bilingual! So if someone working for the government had a departmental or work blog (as is widely prevalent in the U.S –> see my post on Secretary of State Mike Leavitt), and had to respond to reader comments, they “theoretically” would have to send it to translation and wait days if not weeks before they could post. Does that make a lot of sense to you?

How about the case of a “what’s new” rss feed. The purpose is of course to have feeds delivered instantaneously and automatically to subscribers as they are published in response to daily or weekly activities. By the time it’s sent to translation and approved, the message will be out of date. Further still, the whole point of blogging and social networks is 2-way conversation. How is that possible if there are no responses to the comments that would be coming in from active citizens (as a result of the translation delay)? Aren’t government employees supposed to be serving the public (i.e. “public servants”)?

If you work for the government, you’re probably asking, who has the time for all of this anyway? I hear your pain. Unfortunately your excuse is not valid. There are enough social media tools out there (feed readers, auto blog writers, alerts, etc…) that can drastically streamline and speed up your daily tasks ten-fold! Think of all the time that would be freed up if all employees were taught how to effectively use a feed reader (allowing them to unsubscribe from all their newsletters and reduce email reading time), use internal chats for communication instead of email, use internal social networks for collaboration and project work instead of meetings… the list goes on.

You’re probably thinking that sounds expensive? You’re wrong. It’s pennies compared to the alternatives the government spends money on instead. What is expensive is the cost of not embracing social media and ignoring the social (not just technological) revolution taking place.

What’s the solution?

Create a policy for all social media use in government to be “open” to whatever language someone feels comfortable writing in. If citizens want to comment in French, that’s fine…someone should answer them in French. If they comment in English, answer in English. Create an open platform of bilingualism, not a one-way bilingual communication vehicle. Blogs are not supposed to be press releases or “communication pieces” as the government likes to call them.

Citizens deserve the right to dialogue with the government in a free and open manner. Why keep those channels closed? Why block the vastly superiour communication technologies and networks that your young workforce (and “progressive” older workforce) has grown up with and mastered? I’ve said this before and I will say it again, employees that choose to waste time, will waste time regardless of what restrictions you put on them. Instead of banning social media, why not figure out how to use it to your advantage?

My point here is that the TBO should adapt it’s guidelines and policies on bilingualism with modern best practices. Not ancient Web 1.0 thinking, where the web is seen as a storage of digitized static information where everything needs to be finely polished and reviewed by the communication department.

The one exception to all of this that I see is the use of social media tools to gather information on citizens (e.g Facebook Polls). Here it should be bilingual since time-sensitivity is not necessarily a factor and official research should be conducted in both French and English. The good news is that Facebook will soon be updating some of it’s tools (such as Facebook Polls) for French audiences, so hopefully there will be no more excuses in that regard…

A lot of you may disagree, I want to hear your thoughts, let’s open this one up…

One Reply to “My thoughts on the bilingual issue holding back the use of social media in government”

  1. Add another nonsense of bilingualism, such as a recent proposal to have all Ottawa bus drivers bilingual, but NOT those from Quebec side of National Capital (driving in Ottawa).
    It was made by a person who has already sued Air Canada for not being able to ask in French for a tea while on the plane. It all serves purposes well beyond simple way of communication because if needed, people can communicate almost anything.
    How much more money will be wasted to fulfill these absurd ideas with results already obsolete when created.

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