Update on Social Media Policies in the Canadian Government

A while back I wrote a blog post about a special social-media task force set-up by Government of Canada CIO Ken Cochrane. The task force was set-up to examine social media best practices and develop government-wide policies on its usage accordingly. In a recent interview with InterGovWorld.com Ken Cochrane talks about the latest progress:

The CIO branch is expanding acceptable use policies for the Internet to cover off social media and other Web 2.0 technologies. “This policy work isn’t finished yet, but as we develop the rules more fully, we’ll share them across departments so they can adopt them.”

There are many aspects to sort out such as privacy, accessibility, and a code of conduct. Bilingual requirements are also a concern for this emerging area. “To encourage people to offer their ideas when using blogs, they must be allowed to do it quickly in their language of choice in order to make effective use of this medium. Instead of making it mandatory to translate everything, we summarize it all in both languages on a weekly basis. This seems to satisfy bilingual requirements.”

Cochrane also talks about the government exploring the use of Web 2.0 tools to engage citizens, and about a recently completed online survey to get Canadians’ views on the issues that garnered about 2,500 responses.

“They see Web 2.0 as interesting, but there was also cautionary feedback. They don’t want the government to use the technology just because it’s cool – they want such decisions to be based on solid business requirements,” he says. “Canadians expect the government to be serious.”

This is an interesting point, but I think it came out because there is a general misconception amongst the public about what exactly is Web 2.0 and social media. I would have liked to have seen the survey questions as well, to see if they were formulated properly. Too many people now think of Web 2.0 as a buzzword representing cool viral videos on YouTube, chatting on Facebook and catchy one word application names (tumblr, plaxo, flickr, twitter, jaiko, etc…). It’s not about being flashy and having all the latest tech gadgets, applications and tools, but rather about accepting the democratization of the web and about the fact that one-way, stagnant communication with taxpayers is no longer acceptable (in terms of government).

However, it’s good to see progress and discussion like this about Social Media going on internally in the government. I think this will help renew the outdated Treasury Board communication policies that currently exist, which significantly limit effective 2-way dialog and collaborative “citizen-2-government employee” engagement. Not only that, as Ken mentioned, Social Media and Web 2.0 tools and applications can be extremely beneficial for streamlining internal business processes and collaboration between work groups, which is something the government desperately needs.

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…