Friday, October 29, 2010

How can we be knowledge workers without knowledge?

In this post-industrial society many of us are knowledge workers, using information as a key input to create new products, services and ideas.

Particularly in government knowledge is critical. That's why government departments invest a great deal of resources into research, stakeholder engagement and community consultation.

Without a reliable and diverse flow of information government can be crippled. Public servants can become unable to provide the best possible advice, Ministers therefore can't always make the best decisions and departments cannot quickly and cost-effectively track policy impacts and adjust policy delivery over time to address citizen needs.

So what happens if you cut knowledge workers off from important sources of knowledge?

I'd suggest this leads to less considered advice, poorer decisions and therefore worse outcomes. Money is wasted, service recipients get frustrated, citizens end up changing their votes.

In other words, cutting knowledge workers off from important sources of knowledge risks damaging the survival odds of Ministers and the reputation of the public service.

When it comes to online knowledge, government departments are constantly striving to achieve a balance between access to knowledge and minimisation of risks such as hacking, viruses and theft of information.

This isn't an easy balance - and sometimes the approaches to filtering sites can end up with unexpected outcomes.

For example, one of OpenAustralia's founders has just blogged about a department that blocks access to Open Australia - as the outsourced filtering service the department uses mistakenly classifies the website as a 'blog' and the department isn't able to amend the categories (though can make specific exclusions).

There are staff at the department wishing to use the site for legitimate work purposes.

This specific issue (which I am sure the department is rectifying) aside, does it still make sense to block a category such as 'blogs'?

Maybe ten years ago when blogs were new, rare and very, very specialised, they didn't contain much in the way of knowledge that was important for government deliberations.

However this the situation has changed. Blog platforms such as wordpress are now used for websites as well as blog - including by government departments, not-for-profits, businesses, peak bodies, and even political parties.

Also I'd suggest that blogs now come in all shapes and sizes - some are written by teams of experts, others are personal. Many have information and ideas that could help public servants shape their thinking, influence policy deliberations and affect the way services are delivered.

If they can be accessed.

I know that my blog, eGovAU, has been inaccessible to at least two large departments. More importantly, the Gov 2.0 Taskforce's site was inaccessible to at least one department during its consultation phase - I know this because it was brought to the attention of the Taskforce during one of their public meetings.

The APSC is using a blog to consult on Australian Public Servant Values, a blog is driving the APS innovation agenda and AGIMO is making excellent use of their blog for web accessibility, communications and new developments. That's not to mention another 20 or so government blogs I can think of.

Surely just this internal government use of blogs makes it necessary for departments to reconsider the basis for blocking 'blogs' as a category.

And that's not to mention all those stakeholders, individual experts and service recipients whose blogs contain knowledge that may be useful to public servants.

Perhaps there's even a Catch-22 here. If public servants are blocked from accessing potentially useful blogs they can't even assess them for value or build a case for allowing access. The only way they can do this is by taking a personal risk - doing their work at home, outside their corporate network.

So far this has just been about blogs. I've not mentioned forums, social networks and services such as Twitter which can also be extremely rich sources of useful knowledge - so long as they are not blocked.

In the OpenAustralia case, the reason given for blocking 'blogs' was that they posed a security risk to the department's network.

I wonder if this security risk is regularly being weighed against the risk to Departments and Ministers of blocking access to important knowledge.

Do departments need to revisit how they measure security risks and how they protect against them?


  1. Good post. Online video also starting to be a problem. Many presentations on useful topics now published as video and not web pages get blocked. Sometimes hear the "bandwidth is expensive" and "staff productivity" explanations for those.

    But the security one is good. I know security is taken seriously, because the department only allow us to use IE6, one of the most secure web browsers available a decade ago.

  2. I know as a junior employee the embarrassment you have to go through to get a site you rely on for a project unblocked. It was listed as "Gaming, Sports" which had nothing whatsoever to do with IT analyst white papers. Maybe they once wrote a Case Study about a video gaming or gambling company?

    Or the hilarious results of IT consultants (who have unimpeded internet access and somehow manage to still be productive) sending you links to blog posts for solutions to fix critical systems. Asking them to save to PDF, attach and send again ;)

  3. I think we're now at a point, with enough knowledge and expertise across the public sector, with new policies on open government and participation in place, that unfiltered access to the online world ought to be mandated for public sector agencies.

    It's arguably right that material such as pornography should be blocked at work - there are few roles or agencies that would require such access. Beyond that filtering ought to be reversed in practice - whitelist everything until it's proved to be an actual attack vector.

    Of course, there needs to be an education process, and policies tuned to individual agencies where needed (though I'd argue the policy at the whole-of-government level is more than adequate) or better, simply the subject of a "how to" for agency staff.

    We should be well beyond this by now.

    A good piece, Craig.