Guideline for Digital Oblivion

The Government of Canada has released their long-awaited social media guidelines, titled “Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0“, and oh my god it is a complete disaster. Just like the infamous Common Look and Feel for the Internet 2.0 standards, these new guidelines are so heavy that they handcuff the public service.

Now, I developed the social media guidelines at the Bank of Canada, and was responsible for getting the Bank onto Twitter, Flickr, and such. So I know how hard it is to do this kind of work in these kind of institutions. And while I’m not going to do a point-by-point breakdown of the twelve-thousand word document, we’ll take a look at some highlights.

The language of the document is terrible. Really, totally, inexcusably terrible. A case study in design-by-committee terrible. Let’s take the “Benefits of use” section:

Government of Canada departments are encouraged to use Web 2.0 tools and services as an efficient and effective additional channel to interact with the public. A large number of Canadians are now regularly using Web 2.0 tools and services to find information about, and interact with, individuals and organizations. For many Canadians, Web 2.0 is increasingly becoming a primary channel for sending, receiving and generating information. Because of the participatory nature of Web 2.0, it can help facilitate interactive and rapid communication and engagement between government departments, their partners and their clients, with some common uses including:

  • Recruitment;
  • Risk and emergency communications;
  • Services to the public;
  • Stakeholder outreach and education;
  • As a collaborative tool; and
  • Consultation.

I can feel my eyes sliding off the screen every time I try to read that. For comparison, let’s look at the benefits section of the UK gov’s guidelines, titled Engaging through social media:

Good use of social media can help government to better understand, respond to and attract the attention of specific audiences. It enables real two-way communication with people in the places where they are already engaging with their interests. Social media can:

  • increase government’s access to audiences and improve the accessibility of government communication;
  • enable government to be more active in its relationships with citizens, partners and stakeholders;
  • offer greater scope to adjust or refocus communications quickly, where necessary;
  • improve the long-term cost effectiveness of communication;
  • benefit from the credibility of nongovernment channels;
  • increase the speed of public feedback and input;
  • reach speciic audiences on specific issues; and
  • reduce government’s dependence on traditional media channels and counter inaccurate press coverage.

Look at the difference here. The GoC doc talks about how these tools can help facilitate interactive and rapid communication and engagement; the UK doc talks about helping government to better understand and respond. These are worlds apart.

There’s also virtually no guidance on actually communicating with the public. The UK guidelines list these “basic principles”:

  • Be credible. Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.
  • Be consistent. Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.
  • Be responsive. When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.
  • Be integrated. Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.
  • Be a civil servant. Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your Department or Agency.

From this list, you get a strong sense of what social media communications should look like. You get a sense of the voice that government wants to have, of their desire to respect public spaces. They want to actively encourage constructive criticism, which is mindblowing. The closest we get in the GoC guidelines is something along the lines of

When using Web 2.0 tools or services for official use, compliance with relevant legislation and Treasury Board and departmental policies is required. The appendixes of the TBS Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0 provides specific advice as to how to comply with existing legislative and policy requirements governing interactions with external audiences through Web 2.0 tools and services and should be followed at all times.

Riveting! But by far the worst offenses committed by the GoC guidelines aren’t the pervasive use of unenthusiastic robot language, the craaaazy length, or even the likely-to-be-totally-unmanageable requirements for handling social media use in both official languages. It’s how much work it is to get involved in social media under these guidelines. Here are some of the steps you need to take if your government department wants to use The Web 2.0. I am not making these up. In fact I have edited them down to make them less bulky and crazy-sounding.

  • Develop an overall departmental strategy for social media which takes into account business value, governance structures, recommended procedures, and lessons learned by other departments.

  • Develop rules of engagement which outline moderation criteria, response time expectations, intellectual property, privacy, accessibility and official languages notices (which include links to the corresponding legislation), and consequences for violation of the rules of engagement.

  • Provide legal counsel with information about the proposed use(s) including information about the Web 2.0 initiative’s oversight plan, the particular Web 2.0 tool or service under consideration and the relevant terms of use.

  • Designate a senior official accountable and responsible for the coordination of all Web 2.0 activities as well as an appropriate governance structure. It is recommended that the Head of Communications be the designated official. This designate should collaborate with departmental personnel who have expertise in using and executing Web 2.0 initiatives, as well as with representatives from the following fields in their governance structure: information management, information technology, communications, official languages, the Federal Identity Program, legal services, access to information and privacy, security, values and ethics, programs and services, human resources, the user community, as well as the Senior Departmental Official as established by the Standard on Web Accessibility.

  • Develop a plan with input from departmental communications advisors which outlines:

    1. Business drivers
    2. How this use is aligned with overall project objectives
    3. Delineation of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities;
    4. Considerations of the target audiences
    5. The authorities for project ownership and approval
    6. A risk assessment and management plan;
    7. A communications plan to:
      1. Outline the expected nature of the interactions;
      2. Respond to stakeholders when responses are critical
      3. Ensure that messaging aligns with GoC themes
    8. Allocation of appropriate human, technical and financial resources
    9. Training required to ensure that personnel understand how to use Web 2.0 tools within the government policy framework
    10. An approach for program evaluation
    11. A proposed timeline for evaluation
    12. A continuous improvement process


  • …and in case you’re thinking about paying a few bucks to get that Flickr Pro account up and running, a contracting risk assessment must be undertaken for each initiative that has a cost associated with it.

The amount of work you need to do to open a Twitter account is unreal. It’s enough work that you will need to spend time and money to figure out how much time and money it’ll take to do. You can’t try out a YouTube account to see if it’s useful for your content, or put up a Facebook page to see why people are interested in your project. This process is so heavy that the only initiatives which will make it to production are the ones that the public was already tired of five years ago.

Canada is so far behind other countries in our use of web technologies and social media that it is actually embarrassing. How long will it be before we have something like 10 Downing or We The People? And how can we expect to grow web expertise within our government when we’re making it impossible to experiment with social media tools?

5 thoughts on “Guideline for Digital Oblivion

  1. the canadian version wins, because inherently ugly stupid and worthless things ought at least to wear their ugliness stupidity and worthlessness on their figurative sleeves

  2. wow. just wow.
    That’s a lot of paperwork to fill out just to make a post.
    I think the idea of guidelines makes a lot more sense.
    Outline best practices and guiding philosophy, values, goals… and then review shit if it gets a complaint.
    good god, you gotta write a business plan to justify any expenses… these people are in the public sector, what do they know from business plans?
    The return on investment is intangible: it’s communication with citizens; answering their questions, informing them of important information. We are the taxpayers after all.

    Why are bureaucrats so heads-up-their-asses backwards?
    I think the discordians were right… and that the Illuminati runs on confusing everyone with bureaucratic discord. Either that, or the first online church of “Bob” [via modemac] was correct in its position that the only true global conspiracy is vast human stupidity.

  3. Jairus,

    Thank you for your interest and thoughts on this issue. We think it’s great that the Guideline is generating discussion on how the Government of Canada can take advantage of social media and collaborative tools to engage with Canadians.

    On behalf of the Treasury Board Secretariat, I would like to offer three clarifications related to the new Guideline for External Use of Web 2.0.

    First, the Guideline is intended for use by departments. It was not designed as a handbook for each employee.

    Second, the Guideline does not create any new burdens on departments or public servants. The Appendix of the Guideline simply provides a social media lens to help departments apply existing obligations when engaging with Canadians using Web 2.0 tools and services.

    Third, the publication of the Guideline is a starting point, not the end of the process. The Guideline will be reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis to reflect the evolution of the use of these tools, and will be bolstered by the guidance that Departments and Agencies develop to assist their employees.

    Your insights, as well as feedback from public servants gathered through our internal wiki, will help inform the process going forward. All comments are welcome.

    Ryan Androsoff
    Senior Policy Advisor, Web 2.0
    Community and Collaboration Division
    Chief Information Officer Branch
    Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat

  4. Dear Ryan Androsoff:

    Learn how to write.

    A key part of writing is clarity of information; the post you made was incredibly stiff and dull and riddled with official sounding jargon that made your post read like an automated response, a routine that a machine could have done, rather than a person seeking to engage with other people, which is the key to using social media properly, by connecting with other people in a human manner.

    Let’s take a look at how your post might be altered so that it looks like somebody human might have wrote it, hmm?

    Ryan Androsoff hypothetically posted:
    Thank you for your blog essay on Canada’s guidelines for using Web 2.0, this is exactly what we’re looking for when we say we want to reach out to people using social media for ideas on how we can improve our government.

    To continue this discussion, I’d like to address three points that you may not be aware of.

    First, the Guideline is intended for use by departments, not for every individual within a given department to follow to the letter.

    Second, the Guideline is not a law, meant to be followed to the letter, but instead is a Guidebook on how each department can make the best use of Web 2.0, to help them understand what social media is and the advantages it has to offer.

    Third, this is merely the first draft of the Guideline. Changes to how it is used and rewrites for how each Department and Agency can make the best use of it are constantly evolving as we find new and better ways to make it all work.

    Your insight and ideas, along with those of our public servants as organized through our internal Wiki, is vital to helping us shape the way our government can adapt and use Web 2.0 now and in the future. Please take part in the discussion at [insert official Canadian website for promoting Web 2.0 here]

    Ryan Androsoff
    Senior Policy Advisor, Web 2.0
    Community and Collaboration Division
    Chief Information Officer Branch
    Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat

    Not a masterful rewrite, but the point was to make your message easier to understand.

    You cannot reach the average Canadian with lawyer language, and reaching out to the average Canadian is exactly what you should be trying to do.

  5. Friends or an artist shouldn’t get his money until his boss gets his.
    The final test of your leader is always that he results in him in other men the conviction as well as the will to carry on.

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