No Government Department Will Ever “Get” Facebook

Here’s a question for those of you who use Facebook: do you ever use it to look for government departments?

I see a few hands up out there, and to them I say: okay, now put your hand down if you actually work for a government department. Be honest now.

Uh-huh — I thought as much.

Which is why this Ottawa Citizen story about Environment Canada’s Facebook page doesn’t surprise me.

According to Environment Canada, the change is a result of the government’s web renewal initiative to consolidate 1,500 government departments onto the website by the end of next year.

“Environment Canada is a theme-led department, responsible for the Environment and Natural Resources theme on The changes to Facebook are reflective of a theme approach rather than a departmental approach,” wrote Environment Canada spokeswoman Jirina Vlk in an email.

Environment Canada will continue posting content on the newly named Facebook page but will be “working more closely” with 17 other “environment and natural resources theme” partners to include their content, according to Vlk. Those departments include the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Public Works and Government Services Canada.

And yes, quite a few people say it’s going to be a disaster.

“There’s natural change and there is good change and then there is crazy change,” said [digital public affairs strategist Mark] Blevis. “It’s confusing. It’s trying to turn a government department into an action-based community. I think it is trying to be the hip social media destination that other social media destinations are that government usually is not.”

When the administrator of the Conserve, Restore, and Connect with Nature group asked visitors what they thought of the new name, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

“Please change back to Environment Canada. This new name is a real mouthful, and needs to be disposed of,” posted Matt Williams.

“I absolutely don’t like the new name. What was wrong with the actual name of the department, and presenting actual information about and by the department? People want information on policy, not just weather and pretty pictures. Please rethink this ‘theme account’ idea,” added Gabriela Rappell.

I think you understand the problem here. Government consists of public servants, and public servants by definition cannot be “cool,” which is what Facebook is (or was, depending on your generation). It’s sort of like watching Peter Mansbridge try to perform Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines in public: the default form is dull, but the attempt is infinitely worse.

Mind you, there are some corporations that have perfectly fine Facebook pages. Look at them closer, though, and you’ll realize that they benefit from narrow focus: they’re done by one person or a small team, for example, or devoted to one particular product. Environment Canada’s super-broad mandate doesn’t really let them follow this model. Add to that the natural inclination to be all things to all people, and there’s your recipe for Facebook fail.

About phantomobserver

I'm a professional librarian currently working in Ottawa, Ontario.
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