11/22/2011 08:00 EST | Updated 01/22/2012 05:12 EST

Social Media: Canada To Issue Guide For Government Staff

OTTAWA - The federal government has hit the 'like' button on social media, unveiling a long-awaited set of rules for its own use of sites like Twitter in the hopes of spurring modernization within the civil service.

But one open government advocate says the new guidelines around participatory web tools run the risk of civil servants choosing to unfollow instead.

The rules lay out how bureaucrats should use public social networks to communicate with citizens and with each other, be it via sites like Facebook or those which allow multiple users to create and share information online.

The government needs to be active in the social media sphere but also needs guidance to get everyone there, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said in an interview Tuesday.

"This is the way bureaucracy works, if you don't have guidelines they don't do it because they are afraid of the downside consequences," he said.

"We're basically saying it's ok to dialogue with the public, it's ok to open up government information, it's ok to be more productive by sharing information, but there is a framework you are going to have to develop."

Though Twitter may limit itself to 140 character messages, the guidelines use thousands to lay out rules on everything from official languages to the selection of profile pictures and account names.

They also set out steps that staff must take before going online to engage with the public.

When it comes to how civil servants communicate with each other, the guidelines are equally extensive, providing lists of do's and don'ts and reminding them of their public service obligations.

"By virtue of your employment, information shared through Web 2.0 [social media] tools and services may be perceived as an official Government of Canada position rather than your own opinion," the rules say.

"You should therefore clearly state in your account profile that the views expressed are your own and not those of your employer. However, it is important to note that such a disclaimer does not absolve you of your obligations as a public servant, including your duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada."

The new rules were published Tuesday after Clement addressed a group of civil servants at a conference on public sector revitalization.

"These tools help create a more modern, open and collaborative workplace and lead to more "just-in-time" communications with the public," Clement told the crowd, according to a prepared text of his remarks.

But open government advocate David Eaves said the rules don't jibe with Clement's message about improving the flow of information.

"This entire document is about improving the control of information," he said.

There was a time where the only people concerned about government communications were communications staff, now everyone who wants to run a Twitter account or Facebook page for a government program finds themselves facing layers of government policy, Eaves said.

In democratizing the process, it will slow to a crawl, he said.

Meanwhile, there are departments who have public social networking profiles while at the same time don't allow their staff access to the tools.

The new rules are intended to send a signal that in today's day and age, being able to use Internet-based tools is important, Clement said.

But while the rules may help persuade managers to let their employees go online, fear of running afoul of policy will make people's lives more difficult, Eaves said.

"I don't think this document makes anyone feel more confident about social media," Eaves said.

The release of Canadian guidelines follows the development of similar rules for municipal and provincial governments in recent years. Other national governments, like Australia and the U.K. have also had policies in place for some time.

The new rules also encourage departments to write up rules of engagement on what the public should expect when interacting with the government online.

Some agencies already using social media already post those rules online.

Foreign Affairs and Citizenship and Immigration both have polices that include telling the public a response is not guaranteed if individuals share comments or feedback.

"All @replies and direct messages will be read and any emerging themes or helpful suggestions will be passed to the relevant people in the department," Foreign Affairs says of its Twitter policy.

Managing expectations is the biggest challenge for governments hoping to get online, academics say.

On the one hand, failure to engage suggests a failure to understand what the medium is all about, said Mary Francoli, a communications professor with Carleton University.

"If government isn't responding at all then people will just go elsewhere, because they'll realize it's not being used properly. They won't feel like they are being heard," she said.

But on the other hand, governments can't be everywhere, said Greg Elmer, director of the Infoscape centre for the study of social media at Ryerson Universiy.

"This is a larger issue for government: what do you do in an information environment where anyone can provide some kind of response, some kind of feedback?," he said.

"The expectation to be able to respond to or to manage expectations for responses from government poses significant resource issues for government and I think that's part of the dynamic we're seeing coming out with these sets of policies."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Greg Elmer's last name.