Tens of thousands of tweets and email were why the Harper government acted on usage-based billing last year, says minister. Read why he’s interested in trying crowdsourcing

Social media pushes government, says Clement

If there was any doubt social media can be a weapon for successfully pressuring government, Treasury Board president Tony Clement has cleared it up.

During speech in Toronto on Friday, Clement said last year’s public uproar over the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) decision allowing usage-based Internet billing was a “seminal moment for social media in Canada.”

The unpopular decision generated some 500,000 tweets and emails in a campaign led by OpenMedia.ca.

Very quickly Clement, who was Industry Minister at the time, and the government got the message.

“We decided to send a signal to the CRTC that if they came after the government of Canada with the status quo [and not change the decision] … we would just veto it. So I was enabled by the Prime Minister’s office to get that out on Twitter first.”

He claimed the tweet created a controversy because he went “direct to the people” and not through mainstream media. “We were trying to break new ground,” Clement said.

 However, at the time several legal experts protested that the move was discourteous to a quasi-judicial body.

In an interview Clement denied he was rude. “We had a government position we wanted to get across,” he said. “Now we can directly communicate to people who are interested in an issue instantaneously, simultaneously and get our decision out there. I think that’s a very exciting part of how we can break down some of these boundaries … Twitter is “a tool in our tool box that we can use when necessary.”

Asked if the government welcomes the kind of pressure that was brought to bear on UBB through social media, Clement said it is inevitable. “Regardless of what we want or don’t want, that’s the reality of today.”

“We have to adapt to it and be mindful of it.”

Clement was speaking on Ottawa’s open government policies, which his department is leading, at a meeting for communications professionals organized by a group called Third Tuesday.

Open government encompasses making datasets and information publicly available online, as well as allowing politicians and bureaucrats to leverage social media to communicate with the public.

The federal government has just finished a public consultation on setting a formal open government policy, which will finalized before an April meeting of the international Open Government Partnership in Brazil.

There are “hand-wringers” in Ottawa who aren’t comfortable with open government, Clement acknowledged, but these days, voters are increasingly knowledgeable about online tools. So bureaucrats and politicians are going to have to experiment – and, he admitted, make some mistakes – to innovate and bring government closer to the public.

One experiment Clement mused about is using crowdsourcing, where an organization broadcasts a problem to an online community, which submits solutions through social media that are then voted on. To lure participants the organization often offers a prize. The winning idea may or may not be adopted.

It has been used by many governments around the world. In Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, crowdsourcing was used to develop a bus stop.

Clement was cautious about its use. “It has the potential, on certain issues, to exit government from being the means by which a decision is made … With crowdsourcing you have the potential for government to say ‘Here’s the data, you now know as much about this as we do. Look at the data, come up with some solutions and we’ll implement it.’ The government could completely step back in certain circumstances.”

He said he finds the possibility “exciting.”

“That would really change things,” he added, “It’s not just, “Thank you for your advice, we will now be government again.”

Later, a member of the audience asked if there is a way to make sure people who don’t use social media aren’t drowned out by the digital literate. That’s a key risk in crowdsourcing, Clement acknowledged, which is why he is looking for a pilot project. Crowdsourcing to be “open and representative.”

“There is risk of failure,” he said of social media, “but the greatest risk is standing still.”

Last November the government issued guidelines for usingWeb 2.0 technologies. Federal departments are now creating individual guidelines for using Twitter, Facebook YouTube and the like.

The challenge, Clement said, is “to make that a natural and integral part of a modern open and collaborative [federal] workplace.”

Clement is one of the most avid users of social media in the Harper government, who has  sometimes been burned by his shoot-from-the-hip tweets. In January he had to apologize for calling a teen a “jackass” for criticizing the minister’s spelling.

“I’m up to around 4,700 tweets,” he told the audience, “4,690 of them I’m proud of. Ten or a dozen, not so much,” he added, to chuckles. “But I’ve learned from it.”

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