Canada needs a more open, networked model of government fit for the digital age.

The CBC has followed the lead of a number of previous articles in exposing three deeply concerning realities at play in the federal public service.

  1. Public servants are humans.
  2. They use the Internet.
  3. They take breaks.

I’m referring here to an article which exposes the fact that public servants are editing Wikipedia pages on subjects that have little to do with the business of government, including articles on sex positions and sports teams. These edits were revealed by a Twitter bot—@gcaedits—an account that automatically publishes anonymous edits made to Wikipedia pages which originate from government IP addresses. Similar bots exist for other governments, including @WhitehallEdits (UK) and @congressedits (US).

Outrage over public servants’ Wikipedia edits is at one level entirely silly. We have no reason to believe that this isn’t a small group of people amongst the roughly 260, 000 public servants that access the web from government IP addresses. We also have no reason to believe these people weren’t editing these articles on their breaks. What’s more, these edits might not even have been made by public servants, as the bot also catches edits from political staff in ministers’ offices.

Most importantly, when we’re hearing stories about how new government IT systems are failing to issue payments to people, and given ongoing issues with the government’s current major IT project, Shared Services Canada, “Wikipedia-gate” seems a grand waste of time and attention.

But more fundamentally, we need to challenge outrage over public servants’ Wikipedia edits because this outrage is entirely at odds with our need for a more open, networked model of government fit for the digital age.

If we want to build a public service that keeps pace with the digital age, we first need public servants who are comfortable being open and engaging with the technologies and networks that define the digital age. The kinds of people who make Wikipedia edits for personal reasons on their breaks are also likely the ones who are comfortable making Wikipedia edits that do have value for government. These edits don’t make the news, but they include edits made from the Department of Canadian Heritage to the Wikipedia page on Canada’s 150th Anniversary, or edits to the minister’s bio on a department’s Wikipedia page following a cabinet shuffle.

If you find yourself thinking “Hang on, why is it relevant for government to be publishing information on Wikipedia?”, consider that over 500 million people visit Wikipedia monthly. The site is now deeply integrated into Google’s search function, meaning that when you ask the Internet a question, Wikipedia will likely be the source of the answer. If government wants to make sure Canadians get the information they need, they need to go where we are. Editing a Wikipedia page is a fabulous example of the open, networked model of information sharing that digital era governments need to embrace.

In the 2015 federal election, it was precisely this brand of openness and digital era innovation that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised, and for which they were rewarded with a majority government. Yet, when the media and the Canadian public indulges in outrage over a few Wikipedia edits, we risk creating a chilling effect that inhibits public servants from engaging with Canadians online even when it is entirely legitimate to do so.

The @gcaedits bot is just one example of the technologies that now allow us to peer into the workings of our governments. Transparency is a good thing, but if we really want an open, networked government fit for the digital age, journalists and everyday Canadians need to be more thoughtful about the messages they send when they uncritically evaluate what these technologies expose about our governments. As with most things, when it comes to the public service, you get what you ask for. Outrage over Wikipedia edits asks for a brand of closed, analogue government that none of us really wants in practice.

Photo: chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com


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