Column: Public Sector Wikis and How to Use Them

Thursday, April 1, 2010
I'll be honest. I'm frustrated.

I'm frustrated that people still question the value of an enterprise-wide wiki like GCPEDIA. after all no one seems to question the value of Intellipedia.

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I'm not frustrated at those asking the question, but with those who are supposed to be providing the answers, myself included.

By now we should have been able to explain the value of GCPEDIA with such clarity as to render any question at this point moot.

The reason we haven't been able to deliver that explanation thus far?

No clear business objective.

Sure there are pockets of collaboration, collective authorship, small victories, piecemeal information sharing and crowd-sourcing, but all without an overall purpose baked in. The result of which has been a value proposition based on serendipitous discovery of others or information and reliance on organic growth.

But therein lies the problem - serendipity is deeply connected to the size of the community and the amount of information they collectively contribute; and organic growth has a low ceiling in hierarchical super structures.

I'm not advocating that we eliminate or somehow reel in the often messy and under-the-radar collaboration that GCPEDIA allows, but rather supplement it with a set of pages that delivers some real business value to the traditional hierarchy.

Easier said than done?

For anyone looking to use a wiki in the public sector I offer you two concrete business uses that, in tandem are sure to fundamentally change the nature of how your organization does business:
  1. organizational briefing "books"
  2. real time dashboards

Briefing Books

Every department/agency produces massive tomes known as briefing books. Briefing books are usually coordinated and produced in a senior office, one level below the top rung. These books include information on everything the department/agency does: history, mandate, relevant legislation, hot issues, internal corporate services, budget, etc. They are used to brief new department heads and new Ministers when they arrive. As someone who has coordinated them (by email and/or diskette based on security level!) I know first hand how much of a logistical headache they can be. People frequently fail to use the appropriate template; have trouble with version control; and need to make small adjustments based on the feedback of senior management.

Moreover, I know how valuable of a set of documents they are NOT to be shared openly throughout the organization. Generally speaking briefing books are costly to produce in both time and materials; are only distributed to Directors General and above; and are rarely shared with working-level staff.

It is no surprise that my opinion is that briefing books are a perfect fit for a wiki. Instead of trying to coordinate input via email when a cabinet shuffle is rumoured (been there, done that) we could simply assign pages to the responsible areas and have them update pages as new information becomes available. At its core this is the difference between proactive and reactive organizations.

Would you be surprised if I told you I tried to advance this proposition over two years ago? I was told it couldn't be done because "briefing books are secret". After some digging I learned that everything in briefing books is information that is widely available except for the policy advice to Ministers. In my experience the policy advice contained in briefing books is usually no more than 2-3 lines per hot issue. This translates into roughly 1-2 printed pages and less than 1% of the total material in the book.


Wiki based dashboards are an incredibly powerful tool built on a relatively simple concept: present very high level information about what people are working on from across the department in a single place that allows you to better coordinate your department/agency's efforts. I first came across wiki dashboards when looking into the work done in Natural Resources Canada over a year ago. Since then I have developed a policy dashboard for my department (internal link) and have created a template (internal link) that allows others to create their own dashboards with very little trouble.

Dashboards provide what the Government of Canada Employees Directory (GEDS) lacks: a window into what people are currently working on. The dashboard is a space where you can see an entire directorate list of all of the projects currently in progress under their purview, along with live links to contact people who are working on them via email.

Proactive disclosure of information via the dashboard ensures that people know what others are working on. One of the biggest problems in the public sector is a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, the coordination problems it entails and the drain on productivity it creates. Dashboards mitigate these problems extremely well by sharing valuable information in a concise manner. Moreover once dashboards are in place, users can create a live hyperlink in the dashboard to the actual work they are doing, thus providing a deeper level of detail into their work than the dashboard itself can offer.

Other benefits I didn't even mention ...

  • Search-ability
  • Cross linking between related pages/dashboards
  • Portability (briefing books can be over 200 pages and GEDS doesn't say what people work on)
  • Notification of updates to pages via email

Squandering Success

Think about how powerful a tool a simple wiki could be if we linked a department's briefing book (factual information) with dashboards (coordination).

Now think about how powerful GCPEDIA could be if we linked all of the data at the departmental level across departments and agencies.

Now understand that reliance on organic growth and faith in serendipity will likely never deliver this type of concrete business value to GCPEDIA. The directive needs to come from somewhere on high. My first inclination are the central agencies - after all Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat and Finance would have a great deal to gain in terms of administering and coordinating things like the Management Accountability Framework (MAF); Program Activity Architecture (PAA); supplementary estimates; and Memorandums' to Cabinet.

I have no doubt in my mind that GCPEDIA could be put to better work than it is now. Furthermore, if we used GCPEDIA in this highly targeted manner we would not only silence all the critics but also deliver the single largest public sector success story of our time.