Federal departments are taking tentative steps into social media like YouTube and Twitter in an effort to connect with Canadians in ways which could be risky for a government that likes to maintain control of the message.
There is currently no government-wide plan for social media, though the Privy Council is trying to develop one. But various departments have come up with their own ideas about how to use Web technology to reach out to people who need their services.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, a regular Twitter user and a strong promoter of social media, said in a recent interview that it could help government employees communicate better with each other, spurring productivity and a cross-pollination of ideas.
And it could increase the interaction with Canadian citizens, giving the government a "more direct window into what people are thinking and what their opinions are," Mr. Clement said.
As might be expected of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which has kept an iron grip over its communications since first winning government in 2006, all departments that are considering making moves in this direction are required to submit their plans to the Privy Council for approval.
Documents obtained this month by Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin under federal Access to Information laws show that 12 different ministries and agencies have come up with ideas for making more use of social media.
They indicate a strong interest is sharing videos through YouTube and conversing with the public through Twitter and Facebook – but also a wariness of the potential for calamity when communicating through forums that cannot be tightly controlled.
One proposal for the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to put internally created videos on YouTube says the initiative would result in increased awareness of HRSDC programs. But if online comments from the public get out of hand, it says, they could be disabled.
The HRSDC lists several pages of risk to promoting departmental services on the video-sharing site. They include, among other things, the possibility that some Canadians will think it is a waste of money, that people may try to create spoofing or mocking videos, and that there would be a perceived lack of transparency if users are not permitted to post comments.
The other departments share similar concerns
As for Twitter, the HRSDC has come up with a list of possible phrases that employees manning the site could Tweet. They include things like: "Thanks for the response. I'm not sure your facts are correct."
It may seem like an effort to tightly script Web-based interactions, but Sidneyeve Matrix, who teaches courses in social media at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said it is smart planning.
"I think the risks of social media are very real for all of us, whether it's professional impression management or reputation damage we are trying to negotiate," Dr. Matrix said.
Still, there is much impetus for the government to move in this direction.
Mr. Clement said he is most interested social media's ability to "crowdsource" – making an open call to the public for help in determining the direction of government.
"I am hoping that's not pie in the sky. I think that we can set up some examples of that or some pilot projects of that in the future and I would be happy to steer that," the minister said.
"I think it is potentially restorative. Let's not think that this is going to solve every problem we have, but it will, I believe help our democracy have a bit more of a connection with people's hopes and aspirations and that's always a good thing."