Sunday, November 9, 2008

Government takes to 'that Internet thing'

Web access can lower barriers and appeal to younger people, officials say

Vito Pilieci
Canwest News Service
Sunday, November 09, 2008

After years of banning access to blogs, YouTube and Facebook, it seems the federal government has figured out that maybe that Internet thing isn't so bad after all.

In fact, it might even be useful.

At the annual Government in Technology conference, federal officials took the wraps off the government's internal version of the popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which it calls GCpedia.

The service will allow federal employees to post, comment and edit articles placed on GCpedia by their peers.

By doing so, the federal government hopes it can make its processes and decision-making much more transparent. It also allows departments to share information better and catalogue policy developments or new services.

For example, information about climate change policies could be posted and commented on by scientists and bureaucrats from National Resources Canada (NRCan), Environment Canada and Industry Canada. The concept may help break down walls between government departments that have traditionally been stingy when it comes to sharing information.

"This way, not one person owns the information," said Brian MacLeod, chief information management architect, Canadian public sector, with Open Text Corp. "GCpedia proves that they (government) get it and they are using the tools available."

MacLeod spoke at the conference about the benefits of collaborative Internet technologies, which are called Web 2.0 technologies. He said to understand the benefits of new social networking technologies, all a person has to do is look at e-mail.

Most messages could easily be posted in a blog, or as short "yes" or "no" responses. Attachments could be shared on a GCpedia-like website, as opposed to blasting it to an entire mailing list, he said.

The worst part about sharing information through e-mail is that most of it gets deleted.

"As people engage in the community, you are capturing it," said Macleod. "You can record all of the dialogue, know how it evolved. All of the changes and all of the opinions. You acknowledge that these people exist and you can connect with them."

Macleod said adopting Web 2.0 applications will also help the government appeal to younger people, a priority for the aging federal public service.

The federal government is lagging behind other countries that have actively pursued collaborative technologies.

GCpedia emerged from an obscure National Resources Canada initiative called the NRCan Wiki. The department created the Wiki a year ago to better network its 5,000 employees. To date more than 1,900 are actively using the service.

"It's not just about gathering information, it's about collaborating," said Marj Akerley, chief information officer of NRCan. "Anyone coast to coast can contribute, we don't have to have meetings where we all get together and brainstorm."

Akerley said the NRCan Wiki worked so well that Treasury Board decided to use it as a template for a government wide version they called the GCpedia.

Still, it may be a while before GCpedia, or something like it, is opened up to all Canadians to allow them to comment and debate on federal government policies and initiatives.

"It is a culture change. People are very risk-averse within the government of Canada," Akerley said.