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?

In the trenches

Just came back from PodCamp Toronto, where Audra and I gave a presentation on Social Media in the Public Service. It went over really well, and it’ll be up on SlideShare once the video/audio archives are up at PodCamp so I can stitch it all together.

I spent a fair amount of the trip feeling ill, and to my horror, I’ve realized that I always started feeling sick about twenty minutes after having a few cups of coffee. Caffeine is one of my most treasured addictions, and I don’t know how easily I would be able to function without it. I don’t think there has ever been a period in my life where I was caffeine-free.

I’d like to go back and spend some more time wandering the city once it warms up a bit. I think I’m slowly coming to terms with my relationship with Toronto. We’ll never be what we were, but I think we could learn how to be friends.