Friday, November 14, 2008


My apologies to everyone but this week has been quite hectic for me. I started a new job this week (which added to my commute!) and Remembrance Day took its toll on my home life (my brother-in-law is currently deployed in Afghanistan). Mike and I have also been working on a discussion paper we hope to share with you shortly. To Mike's credit, the ball is back in my court.

Given that we've been busy, we planned on cheating a little bit with this week's column. We were planning on sharing responses to some questions we put to TBS about GCPEDIA, but have yet to receive them back.

So here goes Plan B

I was watching the Agenda with Steve Paikin on Monday and Darin Barney made a great comment about technology and the mobilization of people in the context of the Barack Obama presidential campaign. I have cut specific references about Obama and the US so it fits within the context of public service renewal.

It is important to keep in mind that [it] used emerging technologies to great effect but it didn't succeed in mobilizing an unprecedented number of young [people] because it used facebook and youtube. It succeeded, I think because it offered young [people] something they haven't had for a long time ... substantial positions they could be enthusiastic about, a sense of tremendous stakes and opportunity... a chance to say something real about the kind of country they wanted to live in. It’s this that moved them, not facebook and youtube, even though that may have been the means for communicating that message... I think it is very important to understand that we may be selling young people short if we think we can engage them simply by connecting with them via the new technologies they happen to use.

At it’s core, Barney’s statement emphasises the importance of how technology is used over the simple fact that technology is used. Facebook, youtube, and social media are all just vehicles. The message, and what people do with it, is still paramount.

It has been widely documented, and should be fairly obvious by now, that young people are mobilized electronically more than ever before. Facebook, youtube, blogs… web 2.0 is simply a fact of life for young people. Barney is correct when he asserts that thinking that any entity can engage the interests of young people simply by having a presence on these sites is selling them short.

I fear that government departments may be too eager to deploy web 2.0 solutions to show potential recruits that government ‘gets it’: they’re innovative, ready to communicate and to work with you on your terms. But therein lies the oversight that Barney points out. Simply putting up a page or an ad on facebook or an ad on youtube without the means to actively engage them is unlikely to have any substantial effect.

Even something as simple as an interactive webcast with a Deputy Minister on PS renewal, followed up by an dedicated intranet forum on and an invitation to explore ways to get involved within my own department has, last I checked, been met with very little uptake.

I can’t help but feel for people like Etienne who have made incredible efforts in terms of bringing something to people in a method that they can engage in it. Truth be told, I am as guilty as others are in terms of consuming the knowledge he is sharing without actively contributing to it. I think his frustration is understandable and warranted, but I also think that one of his original premises – bottom-up renewal – is as valid today as the day that he first employed it.

Deploying the technology is simple (recall the people, process, technology problem), mobilizing people is the truly difficult part). The web (and thus web 2.0 technologies) allow us (those interested) to share information across the public service, but I think (at least my experience has led me to think) that the most effective place that public servants can make organizational and cultural change is in their own department (at least for now)… again I think this is where something like GCPEDIA can play an enormous role. Moreover, those of us working in areas of Knowledge Management, Planning and Exchange (did I mention I have a new job now, guess in what area?) have a responsibility to start actively collaborating better and facilitating the collaboration of others.

I am really interested in what you all think about this? What do you think about the relationship between technology and engagement? Is the public service too caught up in an if you build it they will come approach to web 2.0 technologies?

We are interested in hearing comments from users, implementers, practitioners and target group members (or anyone else we may have missed).

1 comment:

  1. Hey guys,

    As usual, your blog sparked a couple of ideas.

    I think it is better for departments to have dedicated intranet forums on PS Renewal with very little uptake, than nothing at all. As you point out, it shows the Department is not only listening to employees, it is actually meeting their request.

    The problem is that if the original request to have a forum to discuss PS Renewal was partly a "cop out" or a product of "learned helplessness" (as I believe it is the case), it's only a matter of time before come up with other demands to meet their needs and therefore ensure the problem remains somewhere “out there”. Departments must therefore anticipate the future needs of the employees.

    As you indicate, "deploying the technology is simple, mobilizing people is the truly difficult part." But I would add that deploying the technology is simple to "measure", while mobilizing people is not. And guess which of the two typically is the objective against which senior executives are assessed in their annual performance appraisal? You guessed it! Deploying the technology is all that really matters.

    Furthermore, while employees may be afraid to freely express their thoughts on public sites without retaliation (as the results of my current poll seem to suggest), Departments are perhaps even more afraid of what employees might say on an intranet forum! (That is partly because anything written by an employee on an intranet site is "ATIP-able"). Consequently, Departments will usually assign a "moderator" to the intranet forum, whose job is to reject the inappropriate comments. A friend of mine who was such a moderator on a forum that received a fair deal of participation referred to his role as the "filternator", i.e. he filtered the comments and terminated the conversations! Just having a moderator who filters message before they are published sends a signal to employees that once again, the Department doesn't trust them to behave appropriately.

    So what are the solutions?

    First of all, I think Departments should keep putting in place spaces - virtual or not - for employees to voice their ideas.

    Secondly, Departments should go a step further, and rather than appointing a filternator... oups... I mean a moderator, identify one or more "facilitators" whose job would be tho frame the issues in a constructive manner to elicit input from employees and prevent liabilities. For senior executives who truly value the input of staff, this should be a no-brainer as it could be a gold mine of information and a great way to get the "pulse of the organization".

    Thirdly, looking at the results of my survey on PS Renewal, I would make a point of posting on Departmental discussion forums ideas on how to get involved in PS Renewal, therefore addressing the top demand of staff. From there, it's only a step away to hold a virtual brainstorming session to generate more ideas, or to systematically publish every relevant link or document you come across and share them with employees (thus meeting the #2 and # 3 needs expressed by the respondents to my survey).