Radical transparency in local government – what can you do?

Something like Wikileaks couldn’t happen in local government, could it?

Watching LCC

Well, it looks like something similar is kicking off in Lincolnshire, with the Watching Lincolnshire County Council blog.

It’s a whistleblowing site, where disgruntled employees are sharing rumours, gossip and occasionally confidential details, all anonymously. Collective Responsibility have an interview with those behind it.

Whether or not this is the right thing for those behind the site to do is a moot point. The real issue is that the internet makes this kind of activity easy to do, and very difficult to stop.

All organisations need to be aware of the fact that any of their employees at any time could start something similar. And no matter how sophisticated your information management systems and processes, the fact that it’s human beings behind the controls means that any data can find its way into the public domain quickly and easily.

What can you do about it? First of all, acknowledge your lack of control here. You can’t stop this from happening. All you can do is to try and prevent the situation arising where employees might want to do this.

That means: be open in your communication, and involve and engage staff in any large scale change programme that might be taking place. Examples such as Watching LCC show that staff are increasingly willing to go to the internet to share their concerns – other instances include the setting up of Facebook groups to support staff in similar circumstances.

One way to prevent this is to provide a similar area for discussion within the organisation, such as simple discussion forums, or with tools like Yammer. Ensure staff trust the space, don’t manage it, and hopefully they will prefer to air their issues internally rather than in a public space.

There’s an assumption that face to face communications are always best. That may be true, but the problem is that they don’t scale well. As soon as you are dealing with groups larger than say 25, the intimacy is lost and there are better ways of dealing with it.

I remember being involved in an organisation-wide restructure when working in local government, and most of the communications involved hundreds of people trooping into the council chamber to hear the chief executive tell us what was going to happen to us. There was an opportunity to ask questions, in front of everyone. Unsurprisingly, not many people bothered.

Discussing issues openly and in a trusted online environment won’t be a panacea for employee engagement during times of significant change. But it might mitigate against the risk of staff going elsewhere to have these conversations.

Has anyone else heard of any public sector staff rebellions, using the web? Are any of your organisations actively managing the issue – and is it in a positive, constructive way, or a negative, let’s-shut-it-down way? The latter, of course, is bound to fail.

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Published by

Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

3 thoughts on “Radical transparency in local government – what can you do?”

  1. I feel fortunate to work in a large authority with a big Yammer network, to which our equivalent of Chief Exec contributes alongside the rest of us. I’d love to see more people on it, and would welcome it being used for a bit more challenge and controversy, nevertheless. I actually believe that unless it got spiteful or very personal, we’d handle it well.

    That’s not to say that there would never be the risk of some form of whistleblowing outside of Yammer. However, I suspect anyone so minded would be well aware that in any big organisation, there will be a number of voices whose first shout would be of the “close it all down” denial/secrecy/control nature.

    I’d fear that something like Yammer might then become an innocent victim in the fall-out, because many of those voices would belong to the very managers yet to embrace social media. They are the ones who fear its power, like they fear most things they cannot control or do not comprehend. They are, of course, also the ones to be justifiably afraid of it for the right reasons too.

  2. We use Yammer as well – has given people the opportunity to express views in a relatively safe environment – but of course it is not anonymous, so some people will always want to stir trouble on the web at large!

    As you say, the answer is not to try and shut down all discussion (the ‘how do we get Facebook to delete this page?’ approach), but to recognise that if there are lots of people saying the same then there is a genuine issue to address, and if there is only a lone voice, then the issue may be genuine, but if it isn’t it will attract little attention anyway.

  3. Thanks Dave, I’ve posted a link to this article on our, erm, yammer 🙂 I think those of us who make it our business to gain early awareness of the consequences for public services from wider technological and societal shifts have been expecting a wikileaks style manifestation in local gov was in the brewing. It’s a great argument to make internally, given that there is only more of this to come; do we want to create and own (but not spin and control) the platforms for openness in govt, or do we want to wait until they emerge externally? Our use of the yammer tool is precisely for this reason.

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