Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Facing Facebook

I pride myself in working for one of the federal public service’s great organizations (bonus point if you can find which one... just don't mention it here). So far I have been relatively careful about not discussing on this blog issues that were too close to me, i.e. directly related to my official work duties (note: what I do with regards to PS Renewal is not part of my “official work duties”).

Today, I have decided to cross that line and share a positive story which will hopefully be beneficial to - and reproduced by - other organizations. (Place your bets now: will I get in trouble for this or not?)

On December 23rd, 2008, just before the holidays, we sent an email to all our staff (close to 200 people – 95% of whom are law enforcement officers). The purpose of the communication was twofold:
  1. Provide direction with regards to the use of social networking websites (Facebook in particular);
  2. Educate employees about the implications of using social networking websites, as ordinary citizens, public servants, and especially law enforcement officers (who are perhaps under closer scrutiny than any other public servants).
In providing direction to staff, we wanted to fill the void that currently exists around the use of social networking websites such as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, blogs, etc. More importantly, we didn’t want do like so many departments and agencies that blocked employee access to Facebook after the mini-scandal at CBSA (similar incidents have also been traced all around the world, in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors).

Our position was simple: we believe our employees can be trusted to behave properly, if only given the information and guidance necessary to exercise good judgement. What follows is an abstract from the email we sent to staff (complete document is available on GCPEDIA):

“As public servants, we spend much of our time at work. Our job is a big part of our life. Many of us are extremely proud of what we do and want to share it with friends and relatives using social networking sites like Facebook. But as public servants, we also have a duty to Canadians, and this is the reason why we are bound to uphold the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.

[…]

With this communication, I don’t want to discourage employees from using social networking websites, quite the contrary. We are increasingly asked to build partnerships and develop relationships with stakeholders. As we all know, the best relationships are not exclusively professional. It is only natural to expect that these relationships may ultimately grow on social networking websites, such as Facebook.

[…]

If we make appropriate use of social networking websites and lead by example, I can see us setting a precedent […]. We could show that not only is it okay for employees to use social networking websites, but it can actually make the program more effective.

In the meantime, I invite you to share your comments, reactions, and suggestions with your supervisors. We probably don't have answers to all your questions, but if there is a need we will create a working group to take a closer look at the implications of the use of social networking websites by employees. Thank you for your cooperation”

We attached to the email a document detailing some of the implications of using social networking websites, focusing on the “grey areas” and highlighting the unique implications for law enforcement officers.

There are three things I particularly like about his email:
  • First, we stated clearly we trust employees to behave appropriately – a sharp contrast with many trends I have observed in the public service, especially since the Gomery inquiry.
  • Second, we told our employees it was okay to be a public servant and use social networking websites – yes, you are actually permitted to do both!
  • Third, we left the door opened and went as far as suggesting that if used well, social networking websites may even support the delivery of the program (now that’s a heretic thought!).
But the real beauty of this communication to staff is found in the last paragraph, where we acknowledge that as managers of the organization, we don’t have all the answers, and we rely on our employees (i.e. those who actually use social networking websites) to help us shed light on those issues. Talk about humility! Is this possible? Public service managers admitting they don’t know? And furthermore, who invite employees to participate in the development of the solution? “Is this really a public service organization?”, you may be wondering…

Admittedly, I was a bit worried about what would be the reaction from our employees to this "progressive approach". A few people later told me that for 15 minutes, this was the topic of discussion in all our offices across the Pacific region... Some employees wasted no time in identifying additional implications we had not originally considered, others were providing suggestions on how to clarify the direction given to staff and ensure appropriate use of websites, others were surprised it took us so long to issue this communication to staff, etc. I couldn’t believe it. It was the world was upside-down!

I keep saying it: public service excellence begins with the excellence of its employees.

1 comment:

Ana Lissansky said...

This is an excellent example of a proactive open approach. I wonder why more departments are not doing this!