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Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

David Eaves

A click heard across the public service Add to ...

Quietly, without fanfare, a small but powerful seismic shift took place in the public service last week. Against the roar of the budget, the rumblings around pension reform and the release of the Fourth Report of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on the Public Service it went virtually unnoticed. But the long-term ramifications of this event could be more significant than the others.

So what happened?

The Clerk of the Privy Council Office - the most senior public servant in Canada - logged on to GCPEDIA, created a page and asked public servants to talk to him directly about renewing the bureaucracy. Although a simple act, it has deep significance. In an organization that has struggled with renewing itself for the 21st century, GCPEDIA represents this single most ambitious experiment for rethinking how the public service conducts its business. Like the now famous Wikipedia, GCPEDIA is a wiki: a collection of pages that any public servant can create or edit. But rather than serve as an encyclopedia, it serves as a creative space, a place where public servants can collaborate, share their work openly with others across government and gather a diversity of perspectives on the challenges and programs they work on.

In short, GCPEDIA and other similar platforms offer one of the government's best opportunities to breakdown silos both within and across ministries.

And this is why it is so distrusted in some quarters. These technologies - increasingly commonplace in the private and non-profit sector for their capacity to improve efficiency and distribute information - challenge cultural norms and processes in hierarchical institutions. More subversive still, at least in a culture that sometimes identifies power with budget or headcount, GCPEDIA costs less than $1.5-million in staff time. It is hard to imagine a tool, service or technology made available to every public servant in Canada in the last decade that's as affordable.

The arrival of these new social media tools is disruptive. Some public servants are keen users, others are confused and uncertain while still others - particularly managers - see the technology as a threat to their control over information. Consequently, while many - including many young public servants or ministries like Natural Resources - have embraced wikis and Wikipedia, others have directly forbidden their employees to share information or work on the platform.

The Clerk's decision to use GCPEDIA is thus an important statement - one he intended to be heard across the public service. He is signaling to others, especially those in senior positions, to look closely at GCPEDIA and other new tools and encouraging them to experiment with how it might transform their work.

Like many public servants, the Clerk knows the status quo cannot continue. As William Eggers points out in his interview with Kathryn May, Canadians are increasingly disillusioned by the gap between what government promises and what it delivers. When asked to name major successful government projects over 90 per cent of public servants surveyed provided examples a decade old or more. Moreover, in a world where more and more activity takes place online an increasingly digital citizenry and workforce is not interested in engaging with, or being served by, an analogue government. If the public service is going to succeed in addressing large problems, or even just small ones that cross ministries, it needs to find new ways of working and collaborating internally. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that it will be able to retain good employees unless it gives them modern tools - tools they use for free at home - to do their job.

Battles over pensions, talk about the budget or reports about changing the public service will dominate the headlines, but a more profound debate is quietly taking place - one that will have far reaching consequences to both the future of our government and the country. The Clerk's mouse click does not end the debate, but it does signal that the leadership is increasingly interested in developing a 21st-century public service and one that is willing to engage in real experiments to achieve it.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

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