Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Should Public Servants or Public Administrators Even be Allowed to Use Web 2.0 at Work?

I just read an interesting post by recent "unofficial" public servant blogger Laura Wesley. She wraps-up her post by asking if public servants should be allowed, or even encouraged, to blog.

A similar question was discussed at a conference for government communicators I was attending yesterday: "How should we handle the resistance to Web 2.0 in the public service?". Despite the fact the audience was composed of communicators and IT specialists who obviously embraced technologies, the relatively young age of the crowd, and the near absence of senior executives in the room, I was amazed by the level of risk-aversion and the arguments raised by the participants. Instead of finding solutions to address the resistance towards Web 2.0, it seemed to me that most comments favoured extreme prudence.

On the surface, I would describe the problem around the use of Web 2.0 technologies in the public service as follows:
  1. The people who know best how to operate Web 2.0 and draw the most value from it are, generally speaking, not the decision-makers.
  2. While most people recognize the potential benefits of Web 2.0 for government, no one wants to be the first to make a mistake.
  3. (Loop back to #1)
If you dig beneath the surface though, the REAL problem emerges. The next time you sit in a meeting or attend a presentation about Web 2.0 and the discussion (invariably) shifts to the risks of using these technologies in the public service, I challenge you to find a single argument that is not based on the assumption that employees can't be trusted.

In order to break the cycle, decision-makers should rely on the people who know best how to operate Web 2.0 to set positive precedents and ensure that whatever mistake is made (because there will invariably be some) is small enough (as to not cause a crisis), done early enough (so that it's seen as a necessary part of learning), and detected quickly enough (so that we show we're on top of things). This is more a less the approach taken by my organization with regards to the use of social networking websites (i.e. Facebook) by employees.

Failure to trust employees to behave properly or make appropriate use of Web 2.0 will result precisely in the kind of situation a risk-averse public service is most afraid of: employees who are ill-equipped to exercise good judgement because they've never been allowed to exercise good judgement! It's yet another manifestation of the downward spiral Barry Schwartz warned us about just a few weeks ago.

I don't know about you, but personally, when someone - especially a boss - put their trust in me and give me freedom to act, I don't want to disappoint them and I do everything I can to meet the expectations and keep that trust and that freedom. It would be nice if public administrators and servants and the entire public service as a whole would take a similar approach with regards to the use of  social networking websites by employees.

1 comment:

usability4government said...

Thanks for posting on this topic Etienne. I think you're right - those in the best position to blog are perhaps not yet at the level of decision-maker, therefore we have the responsibility of demonstrating good judgement so that our employers can place their trust in us.

I have had the good fortune of having excellent work environments that have allowed me to thrive, and yes, I would say that is in large part due to relationships with colleagues at all levels.

When considering how to affect change around me, I always like to think about what is in my realm of control, thanks for reminding me what is important so I can make sure those two circles overlap.