Friday, June 27, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: The Importance of Informal Networks and All Things Digital

Lately a common thread of my discussions with public servants has been the importance of informal networks and of all things digital. The fact that these discussions are always informal and almost always digital seems either definitively ironic or more deeply indicative of their importance, and the importance of technology in facilitating them.

A couple of columns ago we put it out there that we would like to see some more direction from the centre on some things (i.e. providing us with concrete examples of how we can get involved in the renewal process). We received some good feedback and ended up having to ‘reload’ our weekly column.

The comment left by Renewalist spoke to the need for “regular and influential people inside of government [to use] their melons and [adapt] to the inevitable realities [in] their own ‘corners’ of the public service.” Renewalist also spoke of the need for courage at all levels, “It's about people like you and me stepping up and stepping into places and things that need to change.”

Given the lack of official means to participate in renewal in the broad sense, that is to say beyond taking it upon yourself to engage in your own work, informal and behind-the-scenes activities become critically important to advancing renewal efforts. We whole-heartedly agree that renewal is about people stepping up to effect change.

If the renewal environment is categorized by both a cross-section of individual movers combined with a lack of overarching means to participate, than informal networking and the use of new technologies are two of the most important means through which Public Servants are able to get in touch with one another and participate creatively in the broader renewal discourse.

Online Activities is happy to have started to make some critical (yet informal) connections on the web recently. Last week Etienne Laliberté posted a consolidated list of Public Service Blogs on Contrarian Thinking, and was even ‘inspired’ to write a very sensible piece on his blog. Peter Smith followed up with a post on Spaghetti Testing. In between all of this there was undoubtedly a flurry of behind the scenes emails between people who have never formally met but share a common interest in the future of the public service. Moreover, there is a clear connection between ‘renewal’ and ‘web 2.0’. Perhaps you have heard of government 2.0?

Offline Activities

I am not sweeping formal associations aside as being unimportant in the present environment because this is simply not the case. I participate in my department’s youth organization and sit on relevant committees (e.g. Intranet Committee and Training and Development Committee). It is through these committees that I try to push for ideas in official capacities and proper channels.
Having said that though, my most rewarding conversations about renewal often happen outside the traditional channels. Put simply, I make the effort to get out there and talk to my fellow public servants. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I finally had the pleasure of having lunch with a colleague who is highly (officially) involved in renewal efforts.

Two things stick out from our offline conversation.

The first is that the conversation lacks a definitive start and end point. The conversation did not start when we met for lunch, nor did it end when we finished. It both started and finished online, moving seamlessly from virtual to real space and back again.

The second thing is a pointed statement he made about technology/social media and the government. It went something like this:

“If we don’t provide the [digital] tools that new recruits want or need then they will step outside the public service and provide those tools themselves. Under these circumstances we should be actively managing risk by providing the tools and space to maneuver internally. If we fail to act out of fear of inevitably internal setbacks or abuses we are making a grave mistake. The potential for questionable digressions in internal space pales in comparison to that same potential born out on externally.”

The Confluence of Activities

It boils down to what Colin Mckay addresses in a section entitled Kneecap the Red Tape Brigade, in The Secret Underground Guide to Social Media for Organizations (reproduced for your benefit below):

I’m often asked if the introduction of social media tactics requires new human resources policies - you know, to deal with the slander, the leaks, the allegations, even the sexual harassment.


Any organization worth their salt has already put policies in place to deal with:

• Interpersonal conflict
• Confidentiality of information
• Who acts as a spokesperson
• Sexual and physical harassment
• Protection of personal information

Social media does not cause a new range of human behaviour – it simply magnifies the faults in that behaviour.

In other words, fear of possibly magnifying currently existing human behaviour does not sufficiently justify our aversion to embracing new technologies to work with. I have a feeling that perhaps there are many of us struggling with similar problems but we don’t know it or, even more frustratingly, do know it, but are held hostage by lack of information. One would think that given the technological advantage we have over previous generations of bureaucrats we should have broken down communication silos a long time ago. The idea of sharing best practices widely is nothing new, yet for some reason when best practices are still relatively new practices sharing is anything but wide. Technology is supposed to not only improve processes but facilitate information sharing, which is why the denial of access to new technologies or best technological based practices is at best counter-productive.

Our inability to do something as simple as consolidate an online repository of renewal best practices, be they in staffing, development programs, internal communications, intranets, online tools, stakeholder involvement, or youth organizations is both frustrating and highly problematic.

All I want is a single place to go to get information on all things renewal.

Maybe then we can all stop wasting time trying to convince others that this will work and show them that it is already working.

1 comment:

  1. A neat complement to "digital" informal networks are communities of practice. Communities of practice are “groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.” (Source: Like what you descrive in your column, communities of practice are meant to be informal and grass-root rather than formal and top-down. Most communities of practice I know about have a digital component.

    If you are familiar with communities of practice, you might be interested in the article I wrote on the topic a while ago:



    P.S.: Earlier this week I shared with my RDG and some colleagues how valuable blogs were to get new insight with regards to PS Renewal. I also told them that my prime source of news on PS Renewal was None of them knew about your blog but needless to say they'll be checking it out as soon as I forward them the link. Keep the blog going!