“What is it like to be a federal public servant and blog about work?” It all depends on who you ask! My friends at CPSRenewal.ca and I have decided to simultaneously post a column on our respective blogs and answer the question. To make the exercise more fun, we haven’t discussed at all what each other would write. So check out Nick and Mike’s column, check mine (below), and post your comments on either blog!
“Tempered radicals are people who operate on a fault line. They are organizational insiders who contribute and succeed in their jobs. At the same time, they are treated as outsiders because they represent ideals or agendas that are somehow at odds with the dominant culture.”
Why do I blog? Essentially I blog for three reasons:
1. To help me vent my frustrations (the act of venting actually helps me get over my frustrations);
2. To turn the negative into a positive by actually doing something about the things that bother me;
3. To effect change freely and readily as I want, while minimizing the barriers to change so often encountered in large bureaucratic organizations (i.e. political correctness, red tape, etc.).
There is also a fourth reason that is more contextual than intentional: in the absence of a similar mechanism within the public service that would provide me the same degree of freedom and influence, I am compelled to resort to external means, such as blogging.
In a way, I am a public-service activist (although management and organization development specialists may call it “agent of change”). I operate on the fringe of what is considered “official”. The greater freedom this provides me, however, comes with a price. As if using a novel (by government standards!) communication tool such as blogs wasn’t enough, what I communicate falls into a grey area. On one hand, most of what I blog about does not relate to my official duties as a public servant, which puts me on the safe side of values and ethics. On the hand, I am quite critical of the environment and the organizational culture I work in, which puts me on the risky side of values and ethics. It is a fine line to walk, because in the public service breaking new grounds can make many people quite uncomfortable.
This grey area in which I operate as a public servant blogger is paradoxical, because the things that are the most rewarding (i.e. the positive feedback I receive from readers about something I wrote) can also be the ones that test the spirit the most (i.e. the harsh criticism generated by something I wrote). Actually, I have found that the more a negative criticism tests my spirit, the more the positive feedback I’ll get will be rewarding, and vice-versa.
What I have found the most difficult as a public servant blogger who blogs about PS Renewal-related topics, is navigating through the seemingly inconsistent and / or contradictory advice I have been getting, and making sense of it. Consider the following.
If there's one thing that has been made extremely clear to me since I have been under investigation by values and ethics, it is that I should absolutely under no circumstance name my department, my organization, or use my work email address on my blog. That’s easily understandable. It is also absolutely futile, since you need only to google my name to quickly figure out which department I work for. Type "Etienne Laliberté staffing” and you'll get a page full of results of official government website that clearly identify me, my department, and what I do for work. Some sites even feature my picture!
This absurdity aside, the fact that I should under no circumstance name my department or use my work email address on my blog has some deeper implications. For one, it reinforces the idea that my interest and involvement in PS Renewal is in no way part of my work. It also implies that whatever I do with regards to PS Renewal, should be done on my own personal time, not my work time. In a way, this provides me and my department with a safety net when applying values and ethics guidelines – especially those relating to conflict of interest – since there is a clear separation between my official duties as an employee of department “X”, and everything that falls outside of those parameters. But it also presents a problem.
Indeed the clerk himself has sent a public invitation to all public servants to “get involved, speak up, make suggestions, become part of renewal, be proud and make a difference”. This invitation implicitly suggests that my responsibility as a public servant goes beyond my official duties as an employee of department “X”, and that my involvement in PS Renewal is not entirely disconnected from my regular work – quite the contrary.
Hence comes the first set of contradiction: If I get involved in PS renewal shouldn’t I be expected to do it on my work time? If I'm allowed to do it on my work time shouldn’t I be allowed to use my work email address? If I do it on my own time and use my personal email address, which set of values and ethics guidelines should monitor my activities: my departmental values and ethics guidelines, or another set of guidelines? Notwithstanding of which guidelines apply, on what basis would we evaluate a real, apparent or potential conflict of interest: my work as an employee of department “X”, or my work as an employee of the broader federal public service?
I recently launched a few “personal” initiatives (i.e. not part of my official duties as an employee of department “X”) relating to PS Renewal: An Inconvenient Renewal version 3.0 and Bottom-Up Renewal. I developed these initiatives entirely on my own personal time, and I was specifically instructed not to use my work email to promote them. So I used my personal email account and sent an announcement to a few hundred public servants. But here’s the catch: I got most of their email address from the Government Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) and federal government Intranet sites. Strictly speaking, I therefore breached the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service because “I knowingly took advantage of, or benefit from, information that is obtained in the course of my official duties and that is not generally available to the public.” Had I been permitted to do it as part of my work, this wouldn’t be an issue. But complying with the advice I was given put me in a tough spot where I had to choose between sending an announcement about two “personal” initiatives to virtually nobody and therefore guarantee they will fail, and breaching the Code and promoting these initiatives so they can have a decent chance of succeeding. What would you do?
I understand why my department is really cautious about any association with my “personal” initiatives. If I say something really stupid or controversial, what manager would want to deal with yet another crisis? But if my “personal” initiatives draws a lot of positive attention and gets praised by the most senior people in the public-service, who wouldn’t want to be associated with the success? Hence comes another contradiction: Is it right for a department which initially didn’t want to be associated in any way with the “personal” initiative to piggyback on the success of the initiative once it has received widespread approval?
Conflict of interest, as defined in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service, is a one-sided concept. There is real, apparent or potential conflict of interest when a public servant does something as part of his official duties that might benefit him personally. However, the opposite, i.e. if he does something personally that might benefit the public service, is called volunteerism!
My experience as a public servant blogger has been very exciting, yet at the same time somewhat stressful. Every time I post a new article, I wonder if it will get me suspended or fired. I wouldn’t be the first corporate blogger to face that faith, but the prospect of being the first federal public servant of Canada to set an example doesn’t exactly appeal to me either ;-)
I think one of the greatest challenge of values and ethics in the public service is that people can spin things which ever way they want. If someone, let’s say my manager, wants to make the case that what I did was right, worthwhile and supports PS Renewal, he would be able to make his point quite strongly. By the same token, if someone would set out to prove that I did something wrong, he could just as easily build a solid case. That’s the inherent difficulty of operating in the grey area. Consider the following example, which happened to me in 2003.
I had attended a free seminar in Ottawa with a colleague. At the end of the session, the company that delivered the seminar did a draw and gave away a $500 certificate applicable towards one of their product (i.e. training courses). My colleague won the gift certificate. When we got back to the office we made a few phone calls to verify whether she could accept the gift certificate or not. We spoke with two different advisors in values and ethics. Here’s their interpretation and advice:
The invitation you received at work made it clear that the event was free and was open to public servants and private sector employees alike. Therefore you can accept the gift certificate.
Since you received the invitation by email at your work address, it can be assumed that you got it as a public servant. Therefore you should not accept it.
You can accept the gift certificates because only 80% of the people in the room were public servants. You therefore won the prize as a participant who simply happened to be a public servant.
You can't accept a gift certificate because 80% of the participants were public servants, which suggest there was a pre-selection of participants based on the fact they worked for public service.
It's okay to accept the gift certificate because you attended the session during the day as part of your work and the prize will be used for your work.
It's not okay because you attended this is part of your work and therefore you won the prize as a public servant, not as an ordinary worker or citizen.
Had you attended the seminar after work, it would be subject to scrutiny and you would be better off not accepting the gift certificate.
You would have been better off attending the seminar after work, as it probably would not be subject to scrutiny.
Since the training will be relevant to your job and make you a better public servant, and since it will save taxpayers $500 you could accept it.
If the gift certificate was for a dance class, it would be easier to accept because it bears no relation to your job as a public servant.
Again, what would you do?
How can I challenge established norms and at the same time uphold them?
This is the question that is always in the back of my mind when I blog. The answer never comes easily, because I feel a responsibility to do both, but challenging and upholding the norms are sometimes mutually exclusive choices.
I would much rather blog on a government-sponsored site than do what I do now, provided I could retain the same freedom of expression. I like to think that in doing so, I would get a bit more credibility from my readership, who might consider me as some sort of authority rather than a “maverick” as some people picture me. Just this week, after I sent from my personal email address the announcement for my two initiatives, I got this email: "Good morning Etienne. I am [an employee from your department] in St. John's, NL, who has received the following email. I would just like to verify the validity of the email as it refers to a Gmail account, i.e. rather than a gc.ca email address. It kind of threw me off so I [don’t] want to click on any of the links without checking first." This email came from someone who knew me. I wonder what the people who don’t know me did with my email…
I have the luxury of having a tremendous supervisor who understands what I'm trying to achieve when I speak up my mind through my blog. If I can give one advice to future public servant bloggers, it is to get the support of your supervisor. If it wasn't for the support of my supervisor, I don't know if I would still be in the public service…
On a final note, one of the great joy of blogging, is connecting with other fellow bloggers. First because we share a common interest. Second the postings of other bloggers, for instance on the topic of PS Renewal, stimulate my own thinking. Their postings make me want to write and post more articles on my blog. It's a very neat dynamic where we feed on each other’s energy and ideas.