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.

Themes for 2011

2010 has been an interesting year for the internet. Where will 2011 take us? Here’s a slightly apocalyptic set of thoughts.

Wikileaks, privacy and security

Anybody who has thought for even a moment about the implications of the internet and the web will have known that something like Wikileaks was always going to happen. It was a case of when, not if.

What Wikileaks tells us is that the internet makes information free – as in speech, not necessarily as in beer. When the tools for publishing content to a worldwide audience are free, and the channels for promoting it as fast and efficient as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it becomes pretty clear that something significant has changed.

As John Naughton wrote recently,

The only rational attitude to online systems is cautious scepticism about their security.

It forces us to question how we define security and privacy online. My take is to assume you have none, and proceed on that basis.


A further theme, in addition to questions about security, privacy and identity will be culture and the sociological effects of the information revolution.

There are a couple of elements to this. One is the idea of cloud culture, which Charles Leadbeater explored in his pamphlet. The other is along the lines of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, based on his idea that Google is making us stupid.

I already outsource an awful lot of my memory to the internet. My dad asked me the other day if I was ok with some plans we’d arranged. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But I emailed you about it the other day!” he exclaimed. Because I had an email, I’d forgotten all the detail within it.

Is this any different to outsourcing arithmetic to pocket calculators? I’m not sure. But when the cloud could disappear at any time, it’s good to have a backup of your online memory somewhere.

Cloud culture will continue to have an increasing role in our lives, whether we notice or not. Books are moving to the cloud, whether we read them on Kindles, phones or tablets. Services like Spotify mean we don’t even bother downloading music tracks any more.

Where next? Particular set in focus next to the cuts, where do libraries and museums fit into all of this? Can they be moved into the cloud? Sure, seeing a painting or a sculpture in real life is a better experience than seeing it on a screen, but is it so much better that people will pay for it? How do we feel about our cultural heritage being managed and curated by Amazon, Google and Apple rather than governments or charities?

It ties in neatly with one of my favourite, if very short, bits of writing about the internet and culture by the late Gordon Burn, in his book Born Yesterday:

…an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now.

(This post gives a little more context.) Are we really only collections of shards of personality and culture? Does it matter? Even if it doesn’t, it’s good to be aware of what is happening to us.


The cuts brings me onto my third and final theme. What do the cuts and the internet have in common? They question relevance. In a world of instant publishing, limitless availability of content and always-on connectivity, and where budgets will be cut wherever not cutting them cannot be justified, how do you stay relevant?

The circle closes here, because the Wikileaks story is a great example of how the internet reduces the cost of the distribution of information to zero, which has a significant impact on those organisations which depend on information distribution as their raison d’ĂȘtre.

Think of newspapers, television, and record labels. They thought they made news, programmes and music. Actually, they were in the logistics business.

The same is true of a number of roles and functions within public services, who will see a twinned and overlapping attack as a result of both the internet and the cuts. If the internet can do what you do cheaper, why are you needed?

To stay relevant, in 2011 public servants will need to reassess what they do and why they do it. Learning and Development people, for example, might currently spend a proportion of their time training people – but why, when all the information anyone needs is online? Why do we need communications professionals, when, with the tools at our fingertips, we are all communicators now?

The same could be said for an awful lot of roles within councils and other organisations. It’s going to be up to individuals to start defining their relevance over the next few months, to become facilitators and enablers, not merely doers.

Those that successfully figure this one out will come out on top, I think.

Bookmarks for December 12th through December 30th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for October 30th through December 10th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Wikileaks and radical transparency

The one thing that the internet does more than anything else, is that it brings the cost of distributing information to zero, no matter how far you are distributing it. We’re only now, I think, starting to be aware of the consequences, let alone learn how to deal with them.

A great example of this disruptive power of the net as a publishing platform emerged this weekend with a further release of confidential communications from US Embassies, on the website Wikileaks.

Most of the damage will be in terms of embarrassment and in personal relationships rather than security threats. Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced of the worth of this activity by Wikileaks – although I suspect that the interest here is less in the message and more in the medium.

One thing that struck me when listening to some of the commentary on the television news yesterday was how many times it was said that there was nothing new here, that everyone within diplomatic circles and the attendant press knew all this stuff anyway, it just wasn’t reported on.

That really annoyed me.

It goes back to the point that the blogger Paul Staines, AKA Guido Fawkes, often makes about lobby journalism and its negative effect on our democracy. I’m sure we all have our own views on Staines’ work and his politics, but I totally am behind him in his efforts to report on what used to be the unreportable. The idea that there is a cosy club in Westminster that decides what we proles can and can’t read really gets my goat.

It turns out the same thing was happening in the world of international diplomacy too. ‘Everyone’ knew that the Saudis hated the Iranians, apparently, but nobody thought to write about it in case somebody got upset.

In steps the internet, and now any can publish to a massive, world-wide audience. People without the bonds of whatever gentlemen’s agreement exists can get hold of information and put it into the public domain – then sit back and watch the crisis unfold.

It is in this radical transparency that I think the effects of the open publishing and data movements will be most keenly felt. Not a state-sponsored publication of how much a government department spends on paper clips.

I’m not saying that this will always be a good thing. Indeed, for government to work effectively there must be, where appropriate, methods of working in an environment which protects secrecy.

Incidents like this will also result in governments shutting down even more, becoming less open, and locking down their communications channels to prevent similar incidents.

But if there is one thing that is becoming abundantly clear, security will always be breached, firewalls hacked, data leaked. Computer security is an illusion, and a potentially dangerous one.

A quote I find myself repeating over and over at the moment is from Scott McNealey, who in 1999 when still CEO of Sun Microsystems said “You have no privacy. Get over it.”

Act like you have no protection and you’ll find that is the best protection you can get.