Friday, July 3, 2009

Public Servants as Private Citizens - the game has changed

A twitter friend sent me to this blog recently, on the blogger's thoughts about the new Government 2.0 Taskforce. I agree with it in principle, but I suspect that a Whole of Government policy on social media is equal parts vitally needed and doomed to failure.

In part, this is because government and public servants need to re-look at an element of their relationship that has now changed fundamentally - talking about their work. Traditionally, public servants could talk write about their work, and publish their diaries in later years if the information was sensational enough (think Spycatcher (and how stupid am I - I didn't know that his lawyer was one Malcolm Turnball - how ironic is THAT given "Utegate")). Alternatively, though could blow off their mouth at the local watering hole, in the comforting, dim awareness that the people they shouldn't be telling these things to would be just as likely to drunkenly forget what was said as the speaker. Or, you could leak to the press, and maybe or maybe not get a result. The end result was generally the same though: most people didn't care what a public servant said in private as it was generally unheard of for them to say anything interesting enough to listen to. There wasn't an audience, and traditional "codes of conduct" reflected that.

Now, though, public servants twitter. They facebook, the LinkIn, they participate in the great social media revolution. And other people can listen. Sure most of it, inside and outside the public service, is utter dross. My twitter feed and facebook profile have followed me in and out of the public service on several occasions, with little-to-no change in the amount of drivel I dish out. But if someone's listening hard enough, there's probably enough in there to get some gleaning of the kind of work I'm doing, the kind of tools I'm using, and consequently, the kind of investment decisions that are being made in government. I don't think its a secret, but I couldn't say for certain.

Even worse, I occasionally crowdsource answers when I hit problems I can't solve "inside". Should I be doing that? I honestly don't know. On balance, I remember the adage of my old project management lecturer ("Its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission"), and figure if anyone is that keen to stop me talking, they can tell me. Assuming anyone else in my area is listening (they're not).

So, what can I talk about, and what can't I talk about. Well, in a broad sense, I know I can't go blathering about tender processes or contract negotiations or staffing or any of that obvious stuff. But what about what I'm working on right this second (well, aside from my blog, obviously - I mean that I'm setting up a new SharePoint TeamSite (grrr!))? What about going out to lunch with a couple of colleagues? What about being pissed off about the outcomes of a meeting? What about complaining about the computers being upgraded? The office being refurbished? The new team driving me nuts?

What if I'm slowly building a narrative that - when done in ephemeral pronouncements at a weekend lunch or a local piss-up is OK because everything is said and forgotten - but when done in the "permanence" of the Internets, can give huge clues about things that otherwise wouldn't be known. What if I'm being researched by those mysterious followers that pop up on my twitter feed? I honestly have no idea, and much, MUCH worse, I don't know who to ask. By asking these questions, I'm getting the horrible feeling that I'm being the expert I'm looking for (please don't ask me for advice - I only give bad advice).

Those are just some questions off the top of my head. They may add up to nothing important at all, but what if...? And its that "what if" that may change the very nature of how public servants talk about what they do. I don't think a broad policy is going to capture all of that - I don't think it can. But this is probably something that shouldn't be done on the fly - its not simply a matter of updating the current policies and codes under which public servants conduct themselves, but requires pretty much starting from sratch. Creating an entirely new framework for managing public servants as private citizens, and an environment where the overlap between the two is growing ever larger and more confused.


  1. Very good post, and you did not even touch on what if someone uses a different identity online.

    Fortunately the situation is not unique to Australia. Every jurisdiction in the world is struggling with the same issues. Even those that restrict the media and internet such as China and Iran.

    The issue also extends beyond government into the business world. Corporations do not want their secrets outed in a way which would allow their competitors know their plans too early.

    Fundamentally there are two solutions.
    1) Ban the internet - this has not been very successful so far.
    2) Embrace a new approach to working - look to the benefits of crowdsourcing ideas, sharing information and creating new insights.

    Right now we sit in the middle - unable to go back to an internet-free world and unwilling to fully accept the consequences of our digital society.

    Will we survive it? I think so.

    We managed to survive when the atomic genie was let out of the bottle and, sixty years on, a wholesale nuclear war is no longer considered a high probability. Allow another thirty years and there will be few living humans who remember a pre-nuclear age.

    It may take us another 10, 20 or even 40 years to fully accept our digital world, however we will get there and there will be new benefits, challenges and issues for society and individuals to experience and explore.

  2. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for the comments. You make some good points there. As you say, the option to ban the Internets isn't successful, or even feasible, given the ubiquity of mobile access. You'd have to ban pretty much every electronic device - from phones to gaming devices to watches. An that's only going to stop people for a few hours at best. Realistically, there is no choice, people are just going to have to deal with it.

    When you say we'll survive, I'd say yes and no - and that's a good thing. I think there's a fundamental shift coming in the way public servants think about sharing information. Ordinarily, governments restrict access to all information, except what they are required to release, and most long time public servants are cool with that.

    What's changing is the need to reverse that, to go from releasing information by exception, to withholding by exception. All public data is available unless you can justify why it shouldn't be. I know that that is a way of thinking that many public servants frind VERY confronting. Many just aren't going to respond to it (and politicians even less so). But it shouldn't be particularly scary. And it WILL happen, like it or not.

    The private sector can have very different issues with social networking, though. I was working on a project last year that was using social networking sites like LinkedIn and facebook to build up reports on the key capabilities and deficiencies in our competitors, which could be used in pitches for business. Nothing new there, but LinkedIn in particular can give you a lot of information on competitor strengths and weaknesses, just by looking at employment histories.

    Again, the need to define the relationship between employee and person is there. To me, the ironic part of my work is that it was seen as a great way of gathering competitive intelligence, but very people stopped to think about what sort of information we were giving out. I figured fair was fair and had a profile that was at least as complete as all the ones I was looking at. I got the impression that noone was asking the question after I left, either.

    I very much hope it doesn't take as long as you suggest to accept the new world. Then again, I've always said I'll probably be in the queue to be on of the first to get my nerual implant (iBrain? iPlug?). I'm happy for the machines to take over, as long as my Matrix world includes me being married to my wife AND Eliza Dushku. (Though, she's already made it clear that's not an option, and if I were a betting man, in the fight between the machines and my wife, I would seriously put my money on my wife. She really can do that stopping-the-machines-at-will-just-by-looking-at-them thing, and that's without any major motivation!)