Column: Expect Casualties

Friday, December 11, 2009
I have undertaken a number of one-on-one conversations with people who work on web 2.0 initiatives in government and although our conversations were never exactly the same, some common themes emerged.

The feeling that we are experiencing a slow down of the viral growth of grassroots support is more widespread than we tend to admit publicly. Don’t get me wrong, we have champions working on a number of fronts, but we are still technically the early adopters of social media in government and securing mainstream support is difficult. Previously new faces are not so new anymore; they are more weathered and their stories take a more realist than idealist approach. At the very least I, and others, have noticed this change in behavior in my own dealings.

It tends to be the same players around the same tables, the digital watercooler has never felt more insular. I am going to come out here and make what I consider a bold statement - one that you will probably disagree with - but I believe that we may have reached the upper limit of the viral growth that web 2.0 initiatives in the public service have wrongly relied on. Our engagement strategy, if you can call it that, has been "if you build it they will come" and to some extent people have come. But my experience is that once the majority of people show up they have no idea what they are supposed to do so they slide back into their old routines.

I previously wrote about some of the difficulties of measuring the value of social media in government but in so doing maybe I jumped the gun. A discussion on measurement would require us to know how these technologies apply to our business and the more I look around, the more I see a deep lack of understanding as to how to employ these technologies outside the realm of external communications. My fear is that we are so focused on communicating with Canadians that we forget to pay attention to improving how we communicate with each other. In typical bureaucratic form, we are mired in a discussion about the potential of these tools to change the way we work rather than actively changing the way we work.

In an environment defined by tapered resource growth and increased demand for expertise we risk stretching our champions too far. I for one am severely over-committed and have had to pull back on a number of fronts. But as I look around at some of the other people who have been pulling this machine along, I sense that they too are tired and that their fatigue is slowly boiling into frustration, which is in turn causing them to begin to question why they continue to put in great efforts for little reward.

Trying to change the system means that none of your work is positively reinforced by those who adhere to its existing mindset. This puts some of our greatest champions, thinkers, and innovators, at risk of burnout. Being innovative is hard work, especially when the system is designed to slow you down and to push you to your limit in order to ensure maximum effectiveness while limiting liability and the misappropriation of resources. Finally, I think that public servants and Canadians alike are risking a lot here by relying on a very small community for big change and without leadership from the very top. The bureaucracy after all is built around hierarchy, and forging ahead without it makes it incredibly difficult to reintegrate our work when it comes time to actually take action, because it is never clear who should take action, or who should shoulder the risk. Given this set of conditions, I think it would be short-sighted to assume that everyone working on social media in government is going to make it through okay, and I think it would be naive if we didn't expect casualties.