Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Your Councillor Cannot Hear You Blog

[Update 10:43am: Councillor Hume responded to say that he can see my blog and he has always been able to. Councillor Jellett responded to my e-mail to councillors saying that he had been able to click on all the links in that message (including a YouTube video) except for Councillor Chiarelli also responded, though he did not comment on whether he could access the pages. I phoned up Councillor Holmes' office, and while the staff person I spoke with most recently on the issue was not there, another staff person was able to access my blog. While I still believe there is something wrong, I am no longer able to accurately describe it. Since my councillor's staff seems to now be able to access these sites, I'm sufficiently satisfied. - RG>]

I had a generic rant lined up to post this morning, in response to a number of comments that I did not come across as grouchy, but I delayed it to give it a sobre second reflection.

Good thing that I did, because the present topic makes me genuinely livid: My councillor cannot read my blog. Not even if she wanted to.

As part of City Hall's "responsible use of technology" policy, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, blogs (indeed, anything remotely resembling blogs, such as Globe and Mail pages with interactive content) are all blocked by the City's Internet servers. I had long been aware of this, though not to its extent: a number of people I know at City Hall have told me that they can't access blogs and discussion boards--including those where members of their respective professions collaborate on the cutting edge best practises in their fields.

I was even told on one occasion that the website of Citizens for Safe Cycling--a well-established Ottawa community association--was blocked by City servers. Now that is just outrageous.

The reasoning behind this policy likely stems from the fear of City staffpeople running eBay businesses on the City's time. The eBay example was the subject of a recent Auditor General's report and made some appearances in the news a while back, but the general principle has applied for years in the City of Ottawa as well as in many private businesses. But if a staff person misuses a technology, you reprimand that staff person--you don't take away that technology from everybody. Imagine the inane results if one staff person spent the whole day talking to their boyfriend on the phone, and all of a sudden, nobody at the City would be able to dial a phone number starting with the digits 7-2-8!

You don't overcome bad management with bad policy. Yet it seems to be common practise, as I've found myself repeating this statement too many times in the past week.

Now, while I've known about Staff not being able to access the Internet 2.0, I had just sort of assumed that this ban did not extend to Councillors' offices. Based on my understanding of basic democratic principles, it was beyond the realm of possibility.

But I learned tonight that the impossible was possible. I was told tonight that as a "compromise" with Councillors, one computer is available on the second floor of City Hall that is unfiltered--and this one computer must be shared by the 200 or so people who work there. All internet access in Councillors' offices is filtered.

Councillors and their staff are not hired by the City manager; they are hired by the people. Thus, they should not be beholden to the censorship that is used to "protect" taxpayers from unnecessary staff waste. If my Councillor wants to surf the internet for blogs and porn all day, they should damn well have the right to, and it'll be up to me and other voters to decide whether to re-elect them--just like Councillors have the right to only attend 40% of Council votes and win the next election with 30% of the vote because so many people run to oppose them *cough*shawnlittle*cough*.

Much--perhaps even most--of grassroots community organizing these days takes place in blogs, on Facebook, on YouTube and with similar types of interactive websites. Lots of information gets posted on them which is useful to Councillors, their staff and City staff alike.

By allowing this censorship to apply to them and their political staff, Councillors are not only shutting out their internet-savvy (yet community-minded) constituents, but they are setting themselves up for failure in future elections for being out of touch.

I myself have suffered from this draconian policy. I had long been posting photos of the construction of the now-named Corktown Footbridge on a different blog, In the runup to the opening ceremony, someone from Councillor Holmes' office called me up and said they were making fridge magnets for the opening event, and asked if they could use one of my photos. Naturally I would be granted a stipend for producing the work. I directed them to my blog so they could choose their preferred picture, and when they said they couldn't see the photos there, I directed them to the Picasa album where those photos and more were posted.

At the opening event, I learned that they hadn't been able to access those, either, and someone in the office eventually ran to the bridge and took his own photo which now graced the magnet.

Councillors should have full, uncensored access to the Internet in order to properly, fully, and fairly represent their communities. (Frankly, City management should also stop treating staff like babies, and should remove the ban on their legitimate access to blogs and forums; but I don't elect city staff, so that fight will wait for another day.) It is a democratic atrocity that not only are Councillors' internet connections censored, but that which is and isn't allowed through is decided by the bureaucracy.

I will be forwarding this complaint far and wide--including to Council--and I for one will be grossly disappointed if Council does not respond with outrage and stand up to this backward policy.

If not, well...I'll have no choice but to say nasty things about them on my blog!

- RG>


Anonymous said...

Yes we can.
Peter Hume

Anonymous said...

That's interesting. I've been told that City employees cannot read my blog, which is self-hosted (ie not part of any blog network). I wrote about it here on June 25th and got some interesting feedback from readers.

Anonymous said...

I can see blogspot blogs from work, but I can’t comment on them and I can’t get to any of their links. Wordpress is wide open, though. I like it much better and it seems to be more accessible to more people. Of course that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that the people who should be keeping their fingers on the pulse of the city can’t…