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Archive for October 2012

Open Up and Build Trust – Or Else

As a communications professional, my role has always been to share information with customers, residents or any other affected audience. I can remember a group of us joking about what happens when you have a communications person and a lawyer in the same room giving advice. The communications person says: “Tell them everything!” and the lawyer says: “Tell them nothing!” We usually met somewhere in the middle.

These days, there is a growing shift towards sharing more information. It’s difficult to pinpoint the drivers behind this trend. There seems to be a general lack of trust in governments and accusations of them hiding things or doing secret deals at the expense of taxpayers. Elected officials have increasingly proposed that the electorate should have greater input into decision-making and the words “community engagement” are becoming a common part of the government vernacular. When you factor in social media, electronic content management systems and other online tools, it’s become significantly easier to share information and generate discussion. The result is tremendous potential for communication and consultation in communities.

The challenge with all of this “openness” is the corresponding requirement to protect personal information. Government is tasked with privacy laws and Freedom of Information requirements that put it in a difficult position when trying to meet the demand for being open and sharing information more readily. File storage for social media platforms is in the United States, which does not meet the more stringent criteria for privacy protection upheld in Canada.

And some of the “Wikileak” incidents have resulted in the release of confidential and/or compromising information. There are other considerations as well: competitive information, details from closed meetings and preliminary discussions that many feel are best kept behind closed doors until there is some definitive decision to move forward as speaking too soon may raise unnecessary concerns or otherwise undermine the project or process.

Open government practices are designed to find a balance in this mix of information demand and privacy requirements. Technology is making it easier to share open data that has been stripped of personal information. Mobile apps and other software are being developed to apply data in a way that makes it useful as a customer service tool and easily searchable as a resource. Social media platforms are assisting with community engagement by building online communities for information sharing and increased collaboration.

The concept of open government and the new tools and approaches like open data and social media are still relatively new. Their potential is largely untapped, and the risks are largely unexplored. In the September edition of Exchange magazine, the story Building Trust Through Transparency highlights the progress being made in open data projects and provides a guide and resource for local governments across the province. Similarly, Successes in Social Media are case studies highlighting some best practices in how these new tools can be applied effectively. It is evident that early days or not, there is a shift underway in B.C. local governments as organizations strive to meet demand for communication and community engagement in a responsible manner.

As a communicator, my philosophy remains vested in the idea that sharing information and being more open is essential to building trust and establishing relationships.