Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A starting point for becoming a digital public servant

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I wrote this up for a colleague recently, and thought it might be interesting for others joining the fray. This one's written for a public servant audience, and if you found this via Twitter, you might be good to just straight-up skip it. I recognize that this isn't the first such blog post in the ecosystem, and this is truly a starting point.

First off: why?

  • Wanting to better understand the digital environment because it’s a big part of the lives of the public we serve
  • Modern government is rooted in collaboration and sharing information between government and citizens and it’s about walking the walk
  • Some good news: it actually just is incredibly valuable and rewarding. It’s a path to increased understanding and empathy, a passive mental rolodex of experts and potential collaborators, and a way to continuously scan the environment for news, challenges, opportunities, and risks
  • And as a bonus, if you create relationships with the people in your field and community, you’ll hear about interesting developments before anyone else

What: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Apps, blogs, and GCconnex/GCpedia


About 40% of Canadian internet users have a Twitter account. Many national conversations and news stories get nuanced, corrected, and defined over Twitter. There’s also an active government, politics, and public administration community on Twitter.

Twitter how-tos (how @mentions work, quoting, retweeting, etc.) are easily Googleable, so I’ll focus on Twitter for gov. 

At minimum, have an account with a fake name and an egg avatar (the default) and check Twitter daily, both for what the people you follow are saying but also relevant hashtags: #cdnpoli, #opengov, #goc, #leadersgc. But I’d tend to advocate for an account with a real photo and bio, even if you don’t tweet (or don’t tweet much, or don’t tweet much yet).

Tone and content has to be up to you. It has to be natural, and it’s obvious when it isn’t. That said, the easiest starting point is tweeting articles/links of interest - ideally with short reflections or comments. But there should be some personality in the mix. You tweet good content for a while and eventually your followers get a sense of what you’re interested in and start sending you things or starting conversations. Promoting one’s work, or GC work, should be a distinct minority: the community interest posts create social licence for a bit of promotion. A bit.

A note on branding. Most conventional wisdom about “what works” on Twitter is written by social media and marketing consultants that are aiming for followers and traffic. There are myriad tips and tricks for increasing “engagement.” I.e., getting retweets and clicks: images and video work well. Etc. But we’re not selling anything, and our work is interesting and important on its own - to certain people. Should you choose to share things publicly, your work, your content, and your personality will be your brand.

Lastly, we're moving out of the "public sector" sphere of discussions and more public servants are engaging with the people in their fields, and a lot of value will lie in connecting to the community outside the GC.


A rare few communities do well (Digital Government in Canada being one), and very occasionally you might start good conversations here. But, it’s an online CV. LinkedIn has great SEO (search engine optimization) so it’s always at the top of Google searches for your name (and people will search for you). People have gotten used to checking people’s LinkedIn profiles to get a quick sense of where people work and what they do, and it's a way for people to follow-up when they don’t have a more personal option. You don’t need to care about LinkedIn or check it often, but maintain an account with your photo, contact information, and the highlights of what you’re working on. (Alternatives for this purpose include and personal websites.)

Google Apps

I mostly mean Google Docs by this, but you’ll occasionally run into the need to trade files through Drive and spreadsheets through Sheets. When working on non-sensitive work with external partners, get used to working in Google Docs. It’s the standard simply because it’s very well designed – it just works. Important features:
  • Sharing and permissions
  • History
  • Comments
  • Formatting and accessibility

Google Hangouts

It’s basically Skype - videoconferencing over the internet - but it can handle up to 10 people and can be streamed live over Youtube. We’ve done Google Hangouts with public officials to promote consultations - the panelists videoconference in, and an audience views it on Youtube. In the GC we can (and generally should) use WebEx for videoconferences but we have this option for sharing virtual presentations and panels to a wider audience.


This is is really personal; it’s not for everyone. But, I’d highly recommend writing blog-length articles about topics of interest. If you have something to write about, there are many options for where it sits:, Canadian Government Executive Magazine, Canadian Public Service Renewal, Policy Options, a personal blog, or GCconnex. Blogging is great for A) thinking through issues, but perhaps more so B) to start conversations and give people reasons to reach out to you. It’s also a publicly available (and Googleable) record of your interests and expertise.


For those in the GC, you should really get at least the generalities of these tools by now. Some communities essentially don’t exist on the GC2.0 tools, and some communities have incredibly active people all the time. It can be an outreach tool: you can post updates and calls-to-action in relevant groups then again on The Wire, which is an internal Twitter-like service. GCconnex just passed 100,000 members and is opening up to academics and FPT partners. GC2.0 is part of the culture of collaboration in the GC on which Open Government is building (really: the people who “get” Open Gov now are the people that “got” GC2.0 six years ago). Most execs don’t have time for GC2.0 (with some notable exceptions), but I encourage you to bear in mind that these are now far from fringe platforms and should still be among our many working-level channels to reach people. They just take a little time to situate oneself in.

Risks and pitfalls

Trolling: this means people replying or posting with deliberately asinine comments intended to rile people up and get them to say dumb things. The universal wisdom is “don’t engage with trolls,” but watch out for falsely writing people off as trolls, too - we learn a lot from our critics even if their delivery is rough.

Malware: be cautious of links from people you don’t know. Almost everything on Twitter is fine, but if you get LinkedIn messages, emails, or Direct Messages that feel “off,” they very well might be. You can expand shortened links (e.g., “”) through to check them.

Values and Ethics: of course. Our V&E regime hasn’t quite adapted to the digital age yet, so I advocate erring on the side of caution (my presence is likely over the traditional "line"). Reflect the government well and avoid politics. That said, don’t cheerlead either. Admitting the challenges that governments face (saying “governments” rather than the GC is useful) can reflects the GC well because it demonstrates concern, thoughtfulness, and empathy.

Some would still say that public servants shouldn't have a digital presence such that it could be associated with their specific role in government (the principle of anonymity), and they may be right. But it's happening, let's admit it, and do it well when we do. You may well choose not to go the digital presence route, and there are solid arguments supporting that stance.

Passwords and info security: no information security professional behaves online like most people do, because they know more. Don’t reuse passwords, don’t use obvious passwords, don’t include any info in profiles that appears in password recovery (e.g., DOB) and enable two-factor authentication. Google good infosec practices. This paragraph shouldn’t scare you; signing up for digital networks is really quite fine, but due diligence is worth it.

Other platforms in the ecosystem

You may, at some point, be called upon to join one of the following platforms to work with external partners. The good news is that they’re getting increasingly intuitive, and the more you play with any platform the easier you’ll pick up the next - you'll start to learn common interface patterns. Avoid “Can you email me that document? I’m not on Slack.” You’d be registered and working on the document in the same amount of time it’d take for them to respond.

Ones you might be asked to use

Slack: Slack is the current standard for collaborative project and team management. It’s a conduit for chats, discussions, file-sharing, etc. If you get invited to a “Slack channel” it means a private space set up for a particular group of people to work together on something. Intuitive and slick.

Facebook: can be really powerful for government outreach. If you’re on Facebook personally, spend some time with your privacy settings.

Basecamp: another project management / team collaboration tool: discussions, groups, file-sharing.

Trello: a group to-do list on steroids: a map of activities, a way to pass tasks back and forth, and an easy way to get to links. 

Dropbox: tool for sharing large files.

Ones you should just know exist

Github: Github is a collaborative coding community. Businesses can use private instances to manage their proprietary code, but it’s more interesting for us from the point of view of open source software. Some GC projects post their software code there, and many people who build sites, programs, or apps post their code here, to be re-used or improved by anyone else.

Sourceforge: similar to above.

Stack Overflow: a public discussion board where community members help each other solve problems and discuss projects. It started off as being about about software and coding, but has collated around themes.

Reddit: an immensely popular discussion board on basically every topic ever, including many that just shouldn’t exist. However, more and more public officials are hosting time-bound discussions on Reddit (Q&A sessions called “Ask Me Anything” or AMAs) and Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada just hosted part of their Innovation Agenda consultation there. It’s a go-to-where-the-community-is approach and a way to get traction. Should be at least a consideration for future Open Gov engagement.

Yammer: enterprise instant messaging; on the decline, it seems.

Instagram: immensely popular social photo-sharing.

Snapchat: preposterously popular photo and message sharing app, particularly among young people. It’s a texting app that’s optimized for quick photo-taking and -sharing, with rules that people like (videos and photos auto-delete being the major one).

Flickr: photo-sharing tool. Works for, say, Parks Canada. Less so for departments like Treasury Board Secretariat.

Slideshare: presentation-sharing tool.

Jive and Sharepoint: enterprise collaboration software. These are the GCconnex idea as created by major software firms.

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