Let government screw up

*addendum: This post, while it references one particular example published in the blogosphere today, was prompted by a number of examples - on blogs, in person and on twitter - where people inside and outside government have rushed to comment and judgement on social media work implemented by government agencies. It's a product of the rush to #fail - something of a new generation of "first!" in the comment field. I didn't try to write it as a critique of that one particular post - which had a lot of spot-on observations. A more transparent government. A more responsive bureaucracy. A more accessible public service. Those are the hopes and goals of Canadians no matter where they fall among a particular demographic or geographic segment. Whether they're open data advocates, engagement gurus, social media consultants or simply public servants pushing for change as quickly as possible.

I would argue that governments across Canada are committing the time, money and staff to make these changes. We're seeing new tools, new data streams, expanded outreach activities, even contests as government organizations assess which tools and strategies would work best for them.

I have the opportunity to speak to groups across government about the benefits, challenges and potential costs of social media. In the face of institutional anxiety, I've argued that social media is a positive environment that encourages experimentation. In fact, online users are willing to accept mis-steps and stumbles from government organizati0ns simply because it demonstrates initiative and ambition, if not expertise.

This seems to calm nerves among more traditional bureaucrats, who have been trained through repetition and repercussion to mitigate risk - especially the possibility of public embarrassment.

Which is why I find it upsetting - yes, upsetting - to watch when people in the "social media community" decide that there's no better way to greet a new social media initiative than a detailed critique of its failings, distributed as quickly and widely as possible in the name of "creating a conversation."

Senior civil servants, you see, are not comfortable with the rough and tumble dialectic that frames the development of most innovative projects in the online world. While they're trying to adapt as quickly as possible, they still rely on the advice of their functional experts to plan and launch new projects.

Blunt criticism of a project, when published or re-tweeted widely, then has to be interpreted/deciphered for these senior civil servants by the very same  technical and "social media" experts. This can become  a Sisyphean challenge: spend months building internal agreement for a project, then days defending it from criticism leveled by your erstwhile allies.

For the individual or team who spent a lot of time convincing a senior public servant to launch a groundbreaking personal web site incorporating relatively new communications channels (the public service still has fax machines), it must be frustrating to be criticized for:

  • using brown in your design;
  • poor photo montage skills*
  • a lack of "engagement"

Let's keep this in perspective: the Clerk of the Privy Council is the head of the public service of Canada. It is a job that requires the greatest networking, engagement and communication skills of any in the public service, but these skills are largely targeted at ensuring the dozens of Deputy Ministers are implementing the government's agenda, on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, basis.

If you want to argue that we need a central online gathering point for public service renewal efforts, I would agree with you. That responsibility, though, has been delegated to a committee of Deputy Ministers and the Chief Human Resources Officer. There have been cross-Government experiments and pilot projects, like GCPedia and GCConnex. Dozens of departments are lurking behind the firewall with blogs, wikis, podcasts and videos. Some are even resorting to relatively sophisticated Sharepoint installs.

There is one consistent quality sought from every Clerk: the ability to delegate power. Depending upon our ambition and our inspiration, we all would like some piece of this delegated power. Members of the #W2P community would like to see a delegation (network access, software, smart phones, time for side of the table projects) that would allow them to launch and implement innovative new projects quickly and collaboratively.

Before these powers and resources can be delegated on more than a short-term basis, there must be awareness and engagement among senior leaders at the ADM and DM level. That will begin to build buzz-word worthy activities into the long-term business processes at the Branch and Department-level. We're beginning to see that.

The fact that the Clerk is even experimenting with these tools is a tremendous step forward.

So get off his back and let the man (and the team behind the curtain) tweak their experiment.

*Don't get me started on photos and graphic design. For the longest time, many departments had in-house photo, film, editing and production teams capable of producing clear, consistent and first rate multi-media materials. Through attrition and cost-cutting in the 1980s and 1990s, this capacity was slowly eliminated. (If you're one of the few departments that still has this capacity, why don't you share it with the rest of us??) Today, graphic design and pre-production layout is either contracted out, or given to someone with consumer editing software installed on their desktop. (Or someone with a Mac at home).