A chat with Canadian Senator Elaine McCoy, Social Media in Canadian Politics

I had the pleasure of chatting via e-mail with Senator McCoy about the power of social media and open government. If you do not yet follow Senator McCoy on Twitter, you should. She is refreshingly approachable and someone from whom you can learn a lot.

Q. From a high-level perspective, what are the reasons that you make use of social media tools like Twitter?
A. From my perspective, engaging with people on social media tools like Twitter and blogging offers a chance for parliamentarins to dialogue with citizens in real time …. in a venue where they are comfortable. And it goes both ways, we learn about each other on a wide variety of issues. It really is quite democratic.

Q. Are you unique in the Canadian Government or do other officials leverage social tools in the same way?
A. No, our Governor General, Prime Minister, and Leader of the Opposition all have staff doing some form of online communications. A few MPs and some Senators are also blogging and tweeting, or at the very least maintaining websites.

Q. How has the use of social media benefited the citizens that you represent?
A. Senators, while appointed by region, are accountable to all Canadian citizens. I would like to think that social media is the antidote to political apathy, and benefits citizens by giving them hope that they can affect change, be heard and participate in the progress of our country.

Q. Are there social media usage policies that you follow?
A. Authenticity, honesty…I like good debate, clean, non-violent communication. Expectations – as a parliamentarian I cannot be online all the time; social media cannot replace the work that I do, but it can certainly enhance interaction with Canadians.

Q. In your opinion, what government agencies or officials are leading the charge in this area?
A. Our Information Commissioner is doing exceptional work trying to advance our access to Information regime. Our Parliamentary Budget Officer, amidst controversy, is doing his best to monitor the government’s fiscal accountability. Then there are public servants, many of whom are engaged in social media and gov 2.0 who are attending workshops, hosting events and even successfully teaching their employers about the opportunities that are out there.
Not to mention the cities of Toronto and Vancouver and the province of Ontario who are all dabbling in Open Government and what they can do to get there. The patches of the quilt are there, now we just need to connect them.

Q. When you think about Open Government, what does it mean to you?
A. Mash ups immediately come to mind. I envision citizens grabbing information and data and putting it together in new and interesting ways as a means of advancing knowledge and understanding. I also envision a free sharing of skills. You know, and we’ve all heard stories, of people who show us new ways to link and interpret data in ways that show us a whole new meaning. Mind you, in Canada our government is obliged to provide information in both official languages (French and English). Sometimes this cause a publication delay …. but wouldn’t it be great to be able to put the data up immediately, then some citizen who is a keener could freely grab it, translate it and re-post it llike a wiki or google doc?

Q. Do you have any success stories, based upon the use of social media, that you could share?
A. I don’t know if you would call it a success story, but it’s a moment we are proud of…. Our government put through an omnibus tax bill that contained a film tax credit that would significantly reduce Canadian film makers’ access to funding … it was effectively censorship … the bill literally went through the House of Commons in less than 60 seconds. When it came to the Senate, this flaw was found. Citizens learned of it and they started emailing, then calling and finally creating a Facebook group that grew to something like 40,000 members (that’s big in our country, which has about 10% of America’s population). An online community was created and they pushed against the bill. The Senate Committee held hearings and prominent Canadian actors, film makers and others testified. The Senate was accused by the government of delaying legislation; it was a tough battle. But citizens persisted. While the bill was in the Senate we went to an election, which meant the bill died on the order paper. During the election the government promised not to re-introduce the flawed legislation.

If citizens did it once, they can do it again…. Since that time, Canadians are increasingly approaching Senators and their voices are being heard.

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