Here in Canada, yesterday was budget day. This is a major event on the political scene in Ottawa. The leadup lasts for days. The Finance Minister goes to get new shoes for each budget speech (it’s a tradition with unknown origins), and that’s always a media event.

Leaks and trial balloons abound in the media as speculation mixes with officials sliding out ideas to gauge the public’s reception.

And on budget day, dozens of journalists, stakeholders, analysts and generally big-headed people are locked in hotel ballrooms, sans Blackberries and iPhones, getting sneak previews and briefings so they can sound intelligent when the Minister of Finance rises in the House of Commons at 4 pm to deliver the budget.

One of the big storylines this year is that the Department of Finance is using social media as never before. They’ll stream the speech. They’ll have an “enhanced” buget speech with extra features. And they’ll be tweeting the budget.

All of this is great. Except… It’s more than likely just a stunt to  “get the budget messages out.”

The leader of Canada’s Green Party, Elizabeth May, told CBC Radio that she felt federal budgets were becoming “PR documents rather than financial projections.” While I am used to people using “PR” in this pejorative way, I understand what she’s saying.

And the plain and simple truth of things is, that our federal government is lagging badly behind when it comes to truly exploiting the potential of social media.

Why? There are a number of reasons.

The first is a structural fact. In Canada, there is a tradition that governments speak primarily through the elected cabinet ministers. Public servants report up to a Deputy Minister (a professional public servant), and he or she interacts with the Minister and his or her staff.

Sometimes, public servants become well known. David Philips is a meteorologist with Environment Canada who does hundreds of interviews, puts out a calendar each year that sells thousands of copies, etc. A woman named Colette Gentes-Hawn was a longtime spokesperson for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and did countless call-in shows each year to answer questions about income tax. But those are exceptions. Most of the time, public servants work in relative anonymity. That’s a historic challenge that needs to be overcome.

The second is an unfortunate truth — Canada’s federal politicians have for the most part done a poor job with social media and those in positions of power have done an even worse job empowering the public servants who work in their ministries.

Mark Blevis, inventor of the “digital makeover”

There are people at the highest levels of power — most prominently Industry Minister Tony Clement — who have mastered one or more social media tools and used them dextrously to achieve their own ends. And my friend Mark Blevis has made a bit of a splash for himself evaluating the digital performance of Canada’s Members of Parliament.

But Canada lacks a true governmental champion to lead efforts to use social media as it truly can be used. So what you’ll see if you explore social media use of Canadian federal government websites is… a lot of using social media as an add-on to the traditional pushing out of “key messages” that most professional communicators would be familiar with: news releases, Q&A documents, backgrounders…

It would appear that the Prime Minister, as well as his cabinet, are happy with this state of affairs. So that’s what is happening with the 2013 federal budget (or, as the government is calling it, “Economic Action Plan 2013”).

There’s not much more leadership at the top levels of the public service. Here’s a quote from a speech by Daniel Caron, the Chief Archivist of Canada, given in November 2012.

“The Government of Canada now uses social media and websites to conduct its business. It is fair to say that it is taking a measured and sensible approach to adopting these new platforms as part of its communication practices.

Why? Because of the unpredictable nature of technological innovation.

Government of Canada institutions have to provide Canadians with timely, accurate, and complete information about federal programs and services.

This is necessary in our democratic process.

It is also the key to safeguard Canadians’ trust in public institutions.

We must therefore be prudent in the use of new communication platforms to assure continued confidence in these public institutions.

Charged with the responsibility of spending taxpayer dollars wisely, those of us who oversee budgetary expenditures cannot trade off fiscal responsibility for the desire to embrace the latest trend in communications technology just to appear “cool.”

How are these communication technologies, such as social media and interactive websites, changing how public institutions conduct their business? Is the change profound or are we just replicating the use of traditional media on new platforms?

The impact and consequences of this shift are probably profound, but these communication technologies still rely on platforms that enable us as public institutions to exchange information with Canadians.”

Not exactly a passionate advocate. Another of Caron’s speeches, at the Canadian Library Association conference in May 2012 was the subject of a firestorm of negative reaction from conference delegates on Twitter. One of the things they found most outrageous?

“Back in 2008, LAC launched its Flickr account. It provides thematic image sets about the institution and from the collection, and to date has had approximately 400,000 views.

 Our Twitter account was launched at the end of February and now has over 600 followers. It provides information to stakeholders and citizens, allows the organization to reach new audiences, and facilitates access to LAC’s services and collection.

This week has also seen new forays into YouTube and Facebook.

We have integrated the content from our four YouTube channels into a singular departmental channel, organized by themes in order to raise awareness about LAC’s holdings and activities.

And our official Facebook account has just been launched. In addition to institutional messaging and news about launches of events and new products, LAC will initiate original features to engage with Canadians, such as “Today in History” and “What do We Have Here”? 

Finally, our LAC podcasts highlight significant collection items, share expertise and specialized knowledge that will facilitate discovery, access, and engagement between Canadian users and LAC’s collection.

This will be done through a variety of technical podcasting models, including audio, audio with images, and video. 

Each podcast episode will feature different content and, will maintain a common focus on engagement with the collection, accessibility and client autonomy.

LAC has launched two podcasts so far, Project Naming and Canada’s North and The Lest We Forget Project. Upcoming podcasts include the War of 1812 and the Double Take travelling exhibition.” 

They’ve gotten up to seven podcast episodes since they started, in February 2012. Their follower counts for their bilingual accounts total about 3200 now.  I can’t verify their claims about the Flickr stream. But when it comes to updates, there’s nothing since January.

The third thing is related to the second. Over the last couple of years, I’ve taught a fair number of public servants while doing social media courses at Algonquin College or at Eliquo Training & Development. Those two organizations are far from the only ones — there’s even social media programming at the Canada School of the Public Service. The people taking these courses are not stupid, they don’t lack motivation, and they show up on time. But they feel that there’s no room for them to really “do social media”: to engage with the citizens who pay their salaries, to get problems solved in the ways that you’d expect someone at Dell or Zappos to, and as a teacher, I sense their frustration.

The hard part for people like me is to find ways to teach them about social media that they can actually put into practice and use.

So what would make it a LOT easier for both public servants learning about social media, as well as those who teach them? Some real leadership from those at the top of the federal government.

I think it goes without saying that government organizations tend to be cautious. Most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. One legendary example of incautiousness was John Manley proudly announcing that he, as Minister of Industry, now had an e-mail account, and that he would answer his emails PERSONALLY! That lasted less than a week.

What has become more common is federal internet thinking that lags the “real world” by months or years. One particularly glaring example was the November 2012 ceremony in which Canada’s Governor-General (the Queen’s representative here in Canada — we are a constitutional monarchy) welcomed a number of Canadians into the Order of Canada, our highest civilian honours. The GG’s office webcast the ceremony — great! But it was only accessible via Internet Explorer, a browser used by less than one in five people, and one that the German government had recommended the public stop using due to security issues two months earlier.

To this rather depressing state of affairs, take a look at the Government Digital Service in the UK.

Where we have  tons of policies and guidelines written in impenetrable prose, they have plain language, witty writing, and accessible policies. (NOBODY in Canada’s government would write a blog post and title it “Widgets, badges and blog bling.” Trust me.)

Their Foreign Office has hundreds of bloggers (literally, hundreds) of bloggers. Many departments have effective and well-written blogs that are tied to people. Sometimes the head of the agency, sometimes not.

There are people and organizations trying their best within the Canadian government. There’s a site called “GCPedia” — an internal wiki for public servants. Organizations that have a level of independence from the government, such as the Privacy Commissioner, have done some innovative and well-received work. And individuals like Nick Charney with his CPSRenewal blog are tireless activists.

But the sad truth for Canadians is that we don’t have a champion either at the political or public service level who is willing to carry the torch for the EFFECTIVE use of social media. And until we do, we will have government social media that reflects the PR strategies of the 1950s.

Pass on the flacklife:
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