The pros and cons of government social networking

OTTAWA — Canadian government departments are using social media, wikis and other collaboration tools to change the way they do things. But sometimes they struggle to keep up as tools like Facebook change the way citizens work to influence government.

Just ask Michael Wernick, deputy minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. On the one hand, Wernick told a keynote panel of deputy ministers at the annual GTEC conference in here Thursday, his department has many operations in areas where it can’t count on broadband being available. On the other hand the department has been “caught off guard by how much social media … is being used in our community.”

For instance, he said, the department was close to completing an agreement in northern Quebec – until opponents organized a Facebook group to oppose it, signed up 1,400 people and ultimately “torpedoed” the deal.

Social media tools are making it easier to organize citizen campaigns to influence government, Wernick said. And while that can be positive, he worries that catalyzing opposition to initiatives may be easier than organizing support, possibly making agreements harder to reach.

Whether that is a problem or not, civil servants are using new media more and more.

Earlier this year, the Department of Canadian Heritage built an iPhone application to help promote the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Canada. More than 23,000 people downloaded the app, which gave quick access to the royal itinerary and photos and allowed users send postcards to Will and Kate from their smartphones.

The app took 10 days to build, said Nada Semaan, associate deputy minister of Canadian Heritage, and had a brief reign as the third most popular iPhone app in Canada. The department recently launched an app focused on the War of 1812. And social media will play a significant role in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, she said.

Canadian Heritage also used Facebook to invite public comment on the government’s new copyright act, receiving more than 8,000 written submissions and reaching more than 35,000 viewers altogether, Semaan said.

Mail was once the main medium for citizen input to Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Wernick said. It gave way to e-mail, and more recently to interactive, wiki-style methods that allow people to engage with each other rather than simply sending one-way messages to the department.

Panelist David Moloney, executive vice-president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), said his agency is using video and wikis to help its staff, who are spread around the world, work together. For instance, he said CIDA held a recent program evaluation meeting with the program manager in Honduras linked with others in Canada via online video. And CIDA has given overseas program directors simple digital video cameras so they can capture video of projects and send it to Ottawa.

CIDA has more than 60 internal wikis, Moloney said, and currently operates four public collaboration sites. He said the agency is interested in offering ways for people in developing countries – where mobile phones are ubiquitous and often used in more sophisticated ways than they are here – to communicate with CIDA.

Civil servants throughout the government use GCpedia, a sort of internal equivalent of the popular Wikipedia, to share information. Wernick said tools like GCpedia offer a way to improve networking within the public service and to build a sort of organizational memory.

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