Web 2.0: Government’s social networking debate

The Ontario government’s ban on the use of social networking upstart Facebook in the workplace unleashed a hail of controversy in 2007. Pundits, technology evangelists and naysayers squared off in the media, debating the pros and cons of this emerging phenomenon.

Facebook has risen to sudden prominence in Canada, growing from one million visitors in 2006 to 14 million in 2007, according to ComScore Canada. Facebook ranks fourth in the top ten Web sites, after major search giants MSN, Google and Yahoo. And Canada contains about 10 per cent of Facebook’s entire global population, according to The Facebook Blog.

The government is scrambling to deal with social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies that are spreading like wildfire across the nation, particularly among the young. Some say social media can revolutionize government communications, while others say they are enormous time-wasters. How should governments tackle this new beast?

Ontario’s position

Ontario’s recent ban of Facebook and YouTube for government staffers was a play for time, explains Karl Cunningham, head of e-government at Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services (MGS).

“We’re in the process of developing a comprehensive Web 2.0 strategy,” he says. “We anticipate doing a review of policies and procedures, likely for the summer of 2008, as we go through an exploratory process.” Although the current policy considers the use of social networks for personal reasons on government systems as inappropriate, it does recognize and allow access if there are legitimate business reasons, he adds.

On the public-facing side, the Ontario government has launched some small Web 2.0 pilots, and intends to scale these projects up if they’re successful, he says. Current pilots include obviously.ca, a youth-oriented blog devoted to environmental issues, and the office of the premier is developing speech footage designed for YouTube.

Internally, there are about 180 collaboration spaces hosted on a common, open-source enterprise platform, he says. “The use of collaborative technologies is more widespread internally than externally,” he says, noting there are many blogs, wikis and RSS feeds in use.

Many program areas use these tools for communications with project teams, committees, and working groups. “Web 2.0 technology is most useful for this purpose, as it allows policy formulation and project management to be done in a more horizontal fashion across vertical silos.”

But social networks such as Facebook are seen as detracting from productivity at this point in time, he says. However, he acknowledges that Facebook is evolving rapidly, and it’s possible its business networking features may be developed to make it an indispensible tool in the future.

“That’s why we have a short life cycle around reviewing our policies and standards. As Facebook and other social media evolve, it’s important we keep up.”

He points out the Ontario government is already struggling to keep up with information management policies and practices around emerging issues for established and accepted tools such as internal blogs. Preserving significant information for historical records is a key issue.

“How will that content generated by blogs be appropriately managed and archived?” he says. “We need to figure out how to store and preserve this information, as it’s part of the public record.”

Dan Lublin, a Toronto-based employment lawyer, has spoken out publicly in favour of the Ontario government’s Facebook ban. He participated in a televised debate on TV-Ontario’s The Verdict with Gary Gannage, the president of the union of employees at Queen’s Park in Toronto.

“Interestingly, (Gannage) said he didn’t necessarily disagree with the ban, but was concerned about the perception that the ban was needed as staffers were wasting time. He took issue because it perpetuated stereotypes,” says Lublin.

Although he supports the ban, Lublin says there are some workplaces where a case can be made to permit the use of Facebook. “If there’s a connection between social networking and the job being performed, such as contacting potential clients and building exposure, then that’s a legitimate argument.”

But the crux of the matter is that Facebook is seldom used exclusively for business purposes, he says. “It’s difficult to distinguish or prohibit personal use while also permitting business use. And I’m not sure they’re mutually exclusive.”

Much has been made about the loss of productivity implied by the use of Facebook, he says. “The average Canadian uses Facebook about 29.4 minutes per day on average, but I’ve heard anecdotally some who misuse it more.” An argument can be made to allow its use on the grounds that most employers permit employees some reasonable use of the Internet for personal matters, but Lublin points out this is a privilege, and employers have the right to mandate how corporate resources are used.

While the productivity issue has been spotlighted, a far greater concern is the reputational risk social networks pose to government, he says. Facebook, for example, is set up to interlink employees in groups, and these in turn can automatically interlink with other groups and individuals depending on how they’re set up. Sensitive information can easily leak out to unintended recipients. “Employees may not necessarily know that they’re exposing their employers to risk with their postings.”

This feature negates the “reasonable use” argument for Facebook, he says. “Facebook creates what’s essentially a blog post that can be disseminated across the planet,” he explains. While Web surfing can do localized damage via viruses, social networking can have far-ranging impacts.

“The difference is that the Facebook audience can see what you’re saying and doing all day and postings remain there for all to see for all time. I suspect if everyone could see what you’re doing on the Web all day too, there would be a similar problem.”

Reputational risk is a primary concern for many employers in his clientele considering a ban, he says. And on this score, an employer’s long arm can extend out of the workplace into an employee’s home use. “An organization can’t prohibit home use, but if its use results in exposure to liability or impacts its reputation, it can legitimately administer discipline or dismiss an employee for off-duty conduct,” he says, adding it’s important not to confuse freedom of speech or privacy with workplace consequences.

In his view, the arguments for a ban on social media make more sense than the contrary arguments. “It doesn’t have to be a blanket ban, and exceptions can be made. It’s a lot easier to propose a general prohibition and create exceptions where necessary than to allow people to misuse the system,” he says, adding there are already some Canadian instances of dismissals for misuse of social media but none have been brought to court yet for decision.

Other jurisdictions

As social networking increases, more and more organizations are banning it. About 64 per cent of U.S. companies deny their employees access to sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, according to a survey by Clearswift, a London, UK-based provider of content security. In addition, 14 per cent have had to discipline staff for data loss and seven per cent for posting inappropriate content on social sites, but only 36 per cent have a policy covering such usage.

“The productivity issue is getting hyped, but organizations should be more worried about malware, bandwidth and reputational risk,” says Stephen Millard, VP of marketing at Clearswift. Many Web 2.0 sites are developed with technologies such as Ajax, which are designed to be dynamic and intuitive but not necessarily secure, and may create vulnerability to malware.

“Ajax provides multiple avenues for malware to get into a business,” he explains. “HTTP is like having one door into and out of an organization, but Ajax is like a house with many windows and doors.”

While the knee-jerk reaction of many organizations today is to ban social media, a longer-term solution that allows appropriate access will be needed – otherwise, organizations risk alienating younger workers and being unable to attract the best and brightest talent, he says. “Younger people expect to use these Web 2.0 technologies so social media needs to be allowed but in a controlled way.”

The U.S. FBI, Australia’s Department of Defense and the UK’s Department of Inland Revenue use Clearswift software to permit appropriate access to social media, he says. “A policy defines what staff at various levels of the organization can do – they only have access during specific hours, aren’t permitted to post video files, and so on – and the software enforces it.”

Many government officials find Web 2.0 technology threatening, says Nathan Rudyk, CEO of Almonte, Ontario-based market2world communications. Last year, Rudyk was involved in launching the Government 2.0 Think Tank (G2TT) in Ottawa. Started-up by civil servants on their personal time, the Web site’s intent was to create a community of people united in their desire to make the government more efficient and interactive through the use of the latest Web technologies.

“Its mandate was to help propose policy on how Web 2.0 tools could be integrated into government strategy,” says Rudyk.

Although G2TT’s start-up was greeted with an enthusiastic review in The Ottawa Citizen, the site was shut down shortly afterwards. “It speaks to some strange behaviour at higher levels,” he says.

He warns the Canadian government risks becoming irrelevant to citizens if it cuts itself off from widely-used social networking sites. “Ontario’s Facebook ban was a tragic decision, and should be reversed. It cuts off the bureaucracy from experiencing the information diet of the very near future.” Young people don’t use e-mail anymore, and increasingly rely on handheld devices and social networks to remain constantly connected to the hive.

“If government sites aren’t designed to operate that way, you’ve just cancelled that 14 to 24 year-old demographic.” he says. “And if the government can’t understand the dynamics of social media and non-hierarchical collaboration, it will be on the losing end of the battle for talent.”

As more and more citizens use social media to form interest groups, the Canadian government may lose touch with many disaffected segments of society. “The government is shutting itself off from understanding the flow of information about what could be displeasure with government policy and services,” he says.

“There could be a whole Facebook group airing concerns about safety on the streets or other issues. If government staff aren’t allowed to go there – but that’s where all the conversation is taking place about whether government is succeeding or failing – then they’re not tuned into the channels where people are talking.”

Moreover, there are many ways to use Web 2.0 to boost productivity today, he says. “Government is suffering a plague of e-mail, with cc and bcc typically overused.” The back-and-forth of many discussions attempted over e-mail could be more productively handled with blogs and wikis.

Improving communications

There are myriad areas where Web 2.0 technology could be used to improve communication flows internally and externally, Rudyk says. Advertising and other creative material could be test marketed on internal government blogs, and externally on YouTube.

Blogs, videocasts and podcasts could be set up to provide guidance on any number of citizen concerns instead of static Web site text: how to conserve fuel, operate a boat more safely, and so on.
Rudyk points out it would be particularly useful in speeding up crisis communications.

“If something’s gone wrong with a food or drug, instead of doing cross-country consultations, the government can go to Facebook, start a group and interact with Canadians to sort out how to solve the problem,” he says. “They’re there — although the government may not be.”

While many governments have internal Web 2.0 projects underway, there are very few real benefits in the here and now, says Andrea Di Maio, VP of public sector research at Gartner. “Many agencies want to be modern and are doing these projects in good faith, but they don’t have a strong business case. Relatively little is happening that is actually useful,” he says.

Nevertheless, governments need to plan for the future, and there’s still time before the influx of next-generation workers who’ve grown up on Web 2.0 tools, DiMaio says. He sees clear benefits in the use of collaborative tools today, particularly by IT staff.

“For inter-agency collaborations in areas like interoperability standards and other tech problems, wikis and blogs work well,” he says, pointing out many IT folks are already members of the open source community and accustomed to online interaction.

A sensible balance

But making Web 2.0 tools a normal part of government business will involve some major shifts. “The real question is, to what extent will staff benefit from being provided with Web 2.0 tools, particularly those without a technology background,” he says.

Casework is a case in point. Staff involved in child welfare and other human services typically track their cases with workflow management tools that help them serve their clients. To solve a problem, it could be very beneficial for them to tap into the collective knowledge of a number of communities, possibly external non-profits or government agencies involved in similar casework in other jurisdictions.

“If you think about how that task would change, those communities are not communities of government staff only – they’re both internal and external,” says Di Maio. “What’s clear with social networks is there are no boundaries. You can have an internal blog but it won’t tap into the collective knowledge.”

Real change will take place when social networks start incorporating people on the inside and outside around common interests, he says. All manner of communities – people who receive child benefits, charities that help low-income families, and so on – might congregate around child welfare themes, possibly as a sub-network within Facebook.

“These communities are self-aggregating and must form themselves,” he says. “Government is part of the audience, as it wants to tap into that – but it can’t be the creator. If the government sets out to design a community for this purpose, it’s already started at the wrong end.”

While creating a specific community may be a dead-end, letting staff roam freely in existing social networks may be too time-consuming, he says.

“To get measurable benefits, governments can’t say, ‘Let’s do social networking’ – they have to do it in the context of a specific category of problem they want to solve.” Governments should start with small-scale projects with select trusted staff who have a specific code of conduct to explore and experiment, he says.

Governments globally are debating social networking and how to handle this new beast. “Banning access to Facebook and other sites is not an entirely bad idea for now,” he says, pointing out this will give decision-makers time to develop the codes of conduct needed to allow staff to access external sites within specified mandates.

There are many other types of Web 2.0 technologies to consider, says Di Maio. Blogs are of limited value to government in his view. “Blogs often become a place to complain,” he says.

Having a business case

Blogs may pose a reputational risk to government, and there’s rarely a good business case for them, he says. “The reality is, people don’t care about blogs that are created by government unless they’re lobbyists with an interest in being connected to government.”

There’s also much hype around virtual worlds, but these too have few benefits for governments today, he says. “While many have created a presence on Second Life, few have come up with a vaguely sensible business case.”
Di Maio says there’s only one example of a strong case, given the demographic that inhabits Second Life: the U.S. Center for Disease Control has set up a virtual counter to provide information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

“Young people are at risk of getting STDs, so a presence on Second Life is an attempt to anticipate problems with a very particular demographic that isn’t really willing to have relations with government.”

But one area that shows real promise is mash-ups – Web applications that combine data from different sources with open application programming interface tools. As with social networking, combining internal and external resources can lead to breakthrough developments in government efficiency, he says.

There are many areas where a collaborative approach between government and citizens could deliver more value, he says. A fisheries agency, for example, could allow a fishermen’s trade association to create a mash-up with geographic data provided by government to create up-to-date maps about areas to fish, or tax forms could be mashed with online banking applications so people can see the potential impact of new
investments on their taxes.

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Contact her at rosie@rosie-lombardi.comRelated content:

Government faces Facebook reality

Federal CIO urges social networking code of conduct

The rise and fall of the Government 2.0 Think Tank

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