Federal CIO urges social networking code of conduct

The use of Web 2.0 tools in the federal government is expected to increase but most implementations will be internal in nature, according to Ken Cochrane, CIO of the Government of Canada.

There are a few Web 2.0 technology initiatives underway at the federal level, but there’s not a lot of activity at present, Cochrane says.

“But we expect to see more over time,” he says. “The way we’re looking at these tools, we’re focused on implementing them inside the walls of government in an intranet-type setting.”

The federal government has not yet formulated a specific policy for use of social networks, says Cochrane. “Some departments may block access to Facebook, but it’s up to them to decide.”

Whatever risks to productivity these tools may pose emanate from outside, not within government, he says. “There are risks in people going out to the Internet and offering personal opinions that may be inappropriate.”

But internally, social networking can enhance collaborative efforts significantly. “We’re really just replacing phone calls, meetings and e-mail with many of these Web 2.0 technologies. Until we get more evidence, I would tend to say they’re productivity builders, not reducers.”

The CIO community within the GOC is acting in many ways as the test bed for wikis, blogs and other collaborative technologies, he says.

“There are 200 CIOs and senior staff using wikis and blogs. We have a community of people that are using these tools to help develop policies and standards for the GOC, and to determine how well we can use them. They’re trying to learn about human behaviour around the technology.”

He points out the CIO group has interactions with many government groups, and the examples they set will foster the spread to other departments that want to find out how to use the technology to improve their own workings. “The CIO branch is demonstrating how it can be used for complex interactions, and other areas are now coming to us and asking if they can use these tools as well.”

Cochrane says government CIOs should look for ways and means to further engage staff. “We know different departments have dabbled in this area, but what we’re trying to do is provide leadership to solidify the use of Web 2.0 and the rules needed around these tools to legitimize their use.”

Establishing these rules of the road will pave the way for more widespread use, he says. “Up to now, there’s been a lot of noise about productivity, but the reality is that if the tools are used with proper direction and within the right parameters, there’s good value. We need to take the mystique out of them – they’re straightforward tools – and toughen them up for use inside government.”

For example, a social network site similar to Facebook could, in theory, be set up inside government if there’s a compelling case. “If we brought it in, we could potentially set it up as a phonebook. People could set up profiles, and inventory their skills and interests, and so on. This could be a useful tool as staff move around different departments.”

The CIO branch is expanding acceptable use policies for the Internet to cover off social media and other Web 2.0 technologies. “This policy work isn’t finished yet, but as we develop the rules more fully, we’ll share them across departments so they can adopt them.”

There are many aspects to sort out such as privacy, accessibility, and a code of conduct. Bilingual requirements are also a concern for this emerging area. “To encourage people to offer their ideas when using blogs, they must be allowed to do it quickly in their language of choice in order to make effective use of this medium. Instead of making it mandatory to translate everything, we summarize it all in both languages on a weekly basis. This seems to satisfy bilingual requirements.”

Cochrane says the government is also exploring the use of Web 2.0 tools to engage citizens, and recently completed an online survey to get Canadians’ views on the issues that garnered about 2,500 responses.

“They see Web 2.0 as interesting, but there was also cautionary feedback. They don’t want the government to use the technology just because it’s cool – they want such decisions to be based on solid business requirements,” he says. “Canadians expect the government to be serious.”

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at rosie@rosie-lombardi.com

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