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.

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Eric Cavanaugh

Now putting whistle blowing in local government on par with national government is probably not the right thing to do as local government isn’t dealing with things like foreign affairs and homeland security.

Is it not? Consider what some have alleged happened with local Govt in NYC, telecom contracts, NYFD, and NYPD disparities during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This arguably could have been not AS bad a situation had their been more transparency. It is easy to second guess a horrible situation. Also, local government officials can be promoted up the ranks into National office. Look at former NYC Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who almost became the DHS head. Excepting for the indictments for mail fraud, conspiracy, wire fraud, lying to the IRS, using Police to do his personal business etc… It would have seemed that the ethics violations, the NYC Admin Code violation, the City Charter violation, would have cast more light on a potential candidate.

Jim Moore

When trying to decide if a minor ethical infringement was justified, my attorney gave me some good advice–When you’re unsure of the ethics of a decision, imagine your local newspaper running a front page article about it. If your comfortable with that, then its probably OK.

If your behaving ethically, you don’t need to waste time worrying about local wikileaks.

Stephen Peteritas

This is the general problem with the internet is that anonymity is extremely easy to obtain. Think about how much we could clean stuff up with a universal internet number for every person… like a drivers license for the internet. Something more specific than an IP address

Joey White

I don’t think New York is a very useful comparison given that on its own the city would be the 12th largest state – just ahead of Virginia. In fact, you could easily argue that New York’s problems are far more complex than those of much smaller states, especially given its national and international economic (and even entertainment) importance.

By contrast, Lincolnshire is a county with just over a million people, which ranks it 18th in England. The county has no major city, with its largest city at a population of 100,000. This lines up much closer to the vast majority of local governments out there and I think it’s fair to say most of these local government entities aren’t typically dealing with foreign affairs and homeland security, and if they are at all it’s at a far more limited level than the national government.

Of course, being a Charlotte guy, you’ll get to deal with plenty of homeland security in 2012. Good luck with the DNC!

Jeff Ribeira

I completely agree with Jim. I was always taught that your integrity is defined by the choices and actions you take when you are alone and you think no one is watching. Like you said, if you knew before hand that what you were about to do (as an individual or an organization) would be printed on the front page the next day, would you still do it? Definitely a good way to keep your ethics in check.

As for transparency, I’m all for it, but for the whistle blowing groups out there, the rules of ethics should still apply, no? Anonymity and the internet can be a dangerous combo, and tend to bring the nihilist out in each of us if we don’t check ourselves.

Corey McCarren

This is the first time I’ve ever heard about imagining the story in the headlines the next day, which is an idea I really like. It’s easy to put something out there if you are frustrated, upset, feel unheard, and aren’t considering the consequences. I think another good thing is always to take a step back before doing anything out of frustration, such as submitting confidential information to someone.

As far as face-to-face discussions are concerned, I feel as if with the rise of technology people are finding it a little bit more difficult to confront problems in that manner. In order to fully adapt, the internet space provided for “healthy” discussion would need to be anonymous. On the other hand, with anonymity provided, the discussion could quickly degrade anyway and people wouldn’t find it useful.