Friday, March 6, 2009 Weekly Column: Blogs and the Government of Canada

There has been a lot of discussion in the public service blogosphere (the unofficial one anyway - if such a place now exists) about whether or not public servants should blog. Opinions fall on both sides of the discussion with varying caveats, and so this weekly is our contribution to that discussion.

Recently, David Eaves blogged a great piece on Why the Government of Canada Needs Bloggers (don't forget to read the comments!) that I simply had to respond to.

David's article identifies a recurring theme in his travels, namely:

... that public servants feel they are suffering from information overload. There is simply so much going on around them and it is impossible to keep up with it all. This is especially true of those in the senior ranks.

He then posits that this is the very reason that:

... the public service needs bloggers. Not to communicate with the public but to help public servants manage and understand all that internal knowledge and information.

I won't go on quoting Eaves verbatim, but I would like to address the points he raises, because they are important. (I have summarized his points in italics then responded below).

Blogs are Meta-Data

Eaves: Blogs are a filter. They sift through information, retain that which is relevant and present it in a manner that is digestible (e.g. readable and accessible) by their audience(s).

If you want to know what we are up to or what is going on in the world of public service renewal, you do one of a number of things. You come to the blog (or pull up your RSS reader), you search the tags to find what is relevant to you, or you go right to the twitter hashtag (#cpsr). As Eaves rightly points out, you are here because you are interested in what is being written and assembled here.

Think about what this blog does as its “core business” – we regularly assemble round-ups that aim to present you with interesting and relevant information because no one else is doing it (that we know of). Moreover, since we’re aggregating information, we’re generally free to present a variety of views on a particular topic. The fact that we do it here (because we love to) means that you don’t have to go out and try to get the information on your own. I assume that you come here instead because we give you the context that is most relevant to you as Public Servants.

Blogs at the Front Line

Eaves: Allowing bloggers (internally) at the front lines would provide a valuable opportunity for senior managers to see the reality on the ground.

I would go a step beyond what Eaves is saying here and argue that blogs at the front lines allow everyone (e.g. all levels) to engage in a conversation about the reality on the ground. Keeping that conversation rolling here allows people to engage the material on their own terms. They come here precisely because this isn’t a briefing note. We aren’t forcing anything on anyone. If you are interested in knowing more about the issues faced by the public service today from the perspective of a couple of relatively new public servants, then you come here to share in that experience.

Relevance, Reputation and Merit

Eaves: Relevant information rises to the top, and reputation and merit guide it there (not official or bureaucratic top down authority).

For obvious reasons we have not tried (nor will we ever try) to monetize the site. Yet, we do understand that we are building a brand by sharing stories that we can all relate to and by engaging issues that Public Servants are facing. We hope that this blog is a space that you trust, that you feel is open and that welcomes your contribution and gives you information that is relevant to you as a Public Servant.

If people considered what we write in this space solely on our substantive group and levels then it wouldn’t get very far.

The only reason that this blog succeeds is because you visit it. It’s like twitter – if you have no followers you are just talking to yourself. We need you - your encouragement, your emails, your tweets, your invitations to participate, your comments, and your participation. In short, it is your readership that makes this site relevant.

You give us that authority, the bureaucracy doesn’t. In fact, it can’t. It can’t because no one has been mandated to engage in these conversations, they don’t fall into checkable boxes on renewal actions plans.

Is Blogging Enough?

While I was commenting on Eaves’ post, I saw a trackback link to an article and found this gem (in direct response to the Eaves piece) by @hjarche on Why the Government of Canada needs Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). Jarche's counter point is that the Government of Canada needs more then just bloggers – it needs a comprehensive approach to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM).

Jarche contends that:

… blogging is not enough because managing information overload is more a question of attitude than skills...
… that public servants really need PKM; [it is] a way to help make sense of the information flows that face us…

According to Jarche, PKM is made of four elements:

1. Sorting & Filtering (e.g. Feed Readers & following on Twitter)
2. Annotating and Filing (e.g. social bookmarks)
3. Tentative Sense-making (e.g. Blog posts & Twitter Posts)
4. Engagement and conversations in these venues and others

I already manage my personal knowledge in this way, and truth be told, I manage the blog in this manner. I sort, filter, annotate and file using twitter hashtags #cpsr. I condense the essence of the resource including the URL, the context, the hashtag, (and often the retweet) into 140 characters. Then I use that system to make sense of it all, I turn it into a blog post and provide context for each item I tweeted. Then we publish the post and invite conversations into this space (as well as others).


I think that the “business model” we use here in this space could be equally applicable to government departments looking to foster that internal dialogue around issues of relevance to its business. I am positive that the skills sets required to do this work exist in every department and in every region: it’s just a matter of putting them to use.

Jarche mentioned that he didn’t think the problem was a skill problem, but an attitude problem. I agree, but I would like to qualify that a little by saying that, in my experience, the most problematic attitude is the one that doesn’t see the value in using new and evolving skills, and by extension the value-adding processes attached to them, like blogging.

I would go even one step further and say that any department looking to actively engage their staff in that mysterious thing known as public service renewal, to consider adopting the model we have in place here, and start talking to people about the issues they care about in their departments.

Epilogue: Why We Do It

I got this email after my talk in Edmonton, it pretty much sums up my reasons behind going out and engaging people in conversations that matter to them:

Hi Nick,

I was in attendance at your talk in Edmonton last week. Your ideas and enthusiasm spurred me to do a little bit of scheming of my own. Amazingly, the results have already made themselves apparent!

Some chats with the right people at the conference resulted in a meeting this morning, which has resulted in me being selected to facilitate the Orientation to the Public Service (OPS) courses offered by CSPS. Being able to do large-scale training and facilitation is something I've always wanted to do, but they aren't really functions of my current position, so this was a huge win for me.

A little scheming and some creative pitching to my manager have given me this opportunity, and your talk was the spark that enabled me to make the right contacts and convince my boss to let me pursue this. I'll be going to Ottawa in a few months for the "train the trainer" session, and I'd consider it an honour to buy you a beer as thanks while I'm there!

Thanks once again for your talk and your work. It's people like you who give hope to the rest of us that we can effect positive change in the public service!



Hey GW – I will gladly take you up on that offer, and thanks to everyone who helped me get that opportunity to share some time with you, and again, thanks to everyone for stopping by this space. Without you, we'd be talking to ourselves.


  1. You quoted Eaves as saying, Relevant information rises to the top, and reputation and merit guide it there (not official or bureaucratic top down authority).

    Don't you find that organizations can be self-replicating and what is relevant to solutions often remains buried because it would require too much of a shake up to acknowledge certain possibilities? And is it not those who bury possibilities most effectively that often gain the reputation and merit (for "people skills") so that the elephant remains effectively underground? Innovators can often be considered pests and irritants.

  2. Amanda - I think it's worth being considered a pest to be what Seth Godin calls "Creative instigators". It puts us in the company of all the great unappreciated innovators of their times!

    However, to avoid being thought of *only* as sh*t disturbers, we have to get all of our work done, establish ourselves as ethical, hard-working and values-based employees, and suggest appropriate, business-driven use of technology (as opposed to doing cool things just because we can) and finally, I think we have to pick our battles. It's not always worth it...

    However, there is a nice way to do just about anything, isn't there?

    And Nick - don't worry buddy, you're not tweetin' to yourself!

  3. I largely agree with you. Of course the change issue is not just about doing things differently for the sake of it, but actually working to improve things, sometimes in ways that would involve a major paradigm shift. Seems you have to identify blockages and shortfalls before you can remedy them (few enjoy that), and even further, having identified them even in the nicest most positive way, meaningful change sometimes requires such a paradigm shift that the burden of the rethink in itself just is not appealing to people, even when the results would be. In my experience, people generally (?) prefer the comfort of the given parameters and will lift their head up, completely understand the posibilities presented, then smile and say "that will never change."

  4. P.S. I guess I sound a bit like a nay-sayer myself.. but that is not my intention at all. I'm hoping that people will open up to big paradigm change and with this web 2.0 stuff we might have more of a chance.

  5. I think the integration of Web 2.0 into the Public Service will need to be brought in piecemeal to ever have any chance of being accepted as worthwhile work tools.

    If you unleash a bunch of blogs, there will be enough of them that people ignore for nay sayers to build their case that blogs are wastes of time.

    However, if smaller changes are brought forth in a timely manner, i.e. GCPEDIA, GEDS 2.0 (or whatever you want to call it), etc. Then you'll have a better platform to work from to incite bigger changes.

    Or in essence: start inciting changes where the benefits are the most evident, and then you'll have a broader base willing to support the ideas of blogging & tweeting in the Public Service.