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From Public Servant to Public Insurgent

Cross posted from eaves.ca.

Are you a public insurgent?

Today, a generation of young people are arriving into the public service familiar with all sorts of tools – especially online and social media driven tools – that they have become accustomed to using. Tools like wikis, survey monkeys, doodle, instant messaging or websites like wikipedia, or issue specific blogs enable them to be more productive, more efficient and more knowledgeable.

And yet, when they arrive in their office they are told: “You cannot use those tools here.”

In short, they are told: “Don’t be efficient.”

You can, of course, imagine the impact on moral of having a boss tell you that you must do you work in a manner that is slower and less effective then you might otherwise do. Indeed, today, in the public service and even in many large organizations, we may be experiencing the first generation of a work force that is able to accomplish coordination and knowledge building tasks faster at home than at work.

Some, when confronted with this choice simple resign themselves to the
power of their organizations rules and become less efficient. Others
(and I suspect not an insignificant number), begin the process of
looking for their next job. But what I find particularly interesting is a
tinier segment who – as dedicated employees, that love the public
service and who want to be as effective as possible – believe in their
mission so strongly that they neither leave, nor do they adhere to the
rules. They become public insurgents and do some of their work outside
the governments infrastructure.

Having spoken about government 2.0 and the future of the public service innumerable times now I have, on several occasions, run into individuals or even groups, of these public insurgents. Sometimes they installed a wiki behind the firewall, sometimes they grab their laptop and head to a cafe so they can visit websites that are useful, but blocked by their ministry, sometimes they simple send around a survey monkey in contravention of an IT policy. The offenses range from the minor to the significant. But in each case these individuals are motivated by the fact that this is the most, and sometimes only, way to do the task they’ve been handed in an effective way. More interesting is that sometimes their acts of rebellion create a debate that causes the organization to embrace the tools they secretly use, sometimes they it doesn’t and they continue to toil in secret.

I find this trend – one that I think may be growing – fascinating.

So my question to you is… are you a public insurgent? If you are I’d love to hear your story. Please post it in the comments (using an anonymous handle) or send me an email.

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Rusty Logan

Most definitely an insurgent – however, it’s amazing how many agency offices operate in a manner that is beyond what a typical IT policy outlines – for example, in my current position, IT policy indicates internet usage is appropriate for activities directly related to tasks at hand – unfortunately, many of the administrators from the “old school” take this to mean that internet usage is prohibited and frown upon it severely… which only serves to inhibit processes within the office; for example, I can find contact info on Google much faster than pulling out the ‘ol reliable phone book. However, I’m not entirely sure these behaviors are necessarily malevolent or carry intent to inhibit; they simply spring from a lack of knowledge or understanding.

Michele Costanza

In May, this posting on GovLoop highlighted some stats from a study on federal employees and how well they understood, implemented, or developed secure file transfer policies in their agencies.

The results of the study showed that more than half of federal employees use physical media (CDs, USB drives, tapes), file transfer protocols, and email (gmail, yahoo, hotmail) to transfer files, which is not secure.

This study was interesting to me for two reasons.

1. The study found that 64% of agencies were not discussing file transfer practices.

2. The study implied that with better policy implementation and top-level management guidance, employees would only use secure methods to transfer files.

When agencies don’t provide secure connection solutions, or secure ways for employees to upload, download, and transfer large files in a method easier than offered by Google, will an increase in policies or security training prevent “off the radar” activity?

Often times, upper level management will assign a task, without an understanding of how the task will be completed, the amount of collaboration required, the location and time zones of participants, and the file type and size to be transferred.

I prefer to think of it more as peer to peer collaboration and bottom-up knowledge sharing instead of an insurgency.

Aaron Helton

Rabidly insurgent, but I’ve been that way most of my career, including my time as an IT tech in the Army. I admit it makes me sometimes seem impatient, but I’m not trying to sabotage the organization. I get blank stares at times when I suggest that email is a poor collaboration platform, especially if you need multiple people editing a document, and we frequently run into the problems of needing to share files that are too large to email, but having no place to store and share them (sorry, shared drives don’t cut it).

To Michele’s point, I am wondering why the government can’t provision or create its own secure DropBox clone for use across the entire government. GSA is already working on FedSpace, which would be a perfect platform for something like this, since it is well known how important file sharing is in collaborative efforts; other tools would benefit from this as well, so what’s stopping us?


I feel like I am and I’m not. What’s intellectually insurgent in a government office context is considered de rigeur and boring in a different corporate context. Sometimes, the act of simply being effective and competent is considered threatening by the mediocre. But I can’t bring myself to be marginal at my job. It was bred into me to always do my best. I feel like that’s a professional responsibility – to always do my best. Even if that’s not comfortable or convenient for everyone. If that makes me rebellious, then so be it.