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Moving Forward with New Technologies: Official Languages and Web 2.0
Ottawa, February 5, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,
First, I would like to thank Josette Couture for inviting me to be with you here today. I am pleased to be participating in this workshop on the application of the Official Languages Act at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and, more particularly, to be talking about official languages and new technologies.
New tools in federal government communications—blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds—have their own unique advantages, but they also come with certain challenges with regard to how federal departments connect with Canadians while respecting their language rights. However, it is possible to use these technologies and still comply with the Official Languages Act.
Technology and the development of new methods of communication have significantly changed how businesses operate and how governments communicate with the public. With our smartphones, we have access to anything and anyone at any time, and yet we are not conscious of just how much and how dramatically our personal and professional lives have changed over the past 10 years. According to professor and author Eddie ObengFootnote 1, founder of Pentacle, the world’s first virtual business school, “you are sitting at the headwaters of a global corporation if you’re connected to the Internet. Every time you tweet, a third of your followers follow from a country that’s not your own. Global is the new scale. People think this is a metaphor but it’s a realityFootnote 2.” This was Marshall McLuhan’s vision in the 1960s, and now it is our daily reality.
Of course, these profound changes mean that we all have to change the way we work. And there is no easy one-step solution. Obeng started his virtual business school 15 years ago, when he realized that the world would become increasingly chaotic and ambiguous. Time has proven him right. Since then, he has helped many business and government leaders understand that the world is changing more quickly than people are able to learn, and that we must integrate chaos into our strategies rather than fight against it. “We solve last year’s problems without thinking about the future. If you haven’t understood the world you’re living in, it’s impossible to think that the solution you’re coming up with fitsFootnote 2.” Essentially, we have to accept having to constantly readjust our decisions because of the speed at which changes are happening.
The relationship between government and citizens has also been going through significant changes, not just in Canada, but around the world. Federal institutions have to learn to adapt to new technologies in order to communicate with Canadians. We also have to adapt within a context of restructuring where modern government is quick to question the status quo and change the way we work. Federal institutions are having to deal with budget constraints that could compromise their ability to meet their language obligations, and the ongoing transformation of government is creating a brave new world for Canada’s linguistic duality.
There are good reasons to make greater use of social media and take advantage of the increasing use of mobile applications. Canadians want services that are fast, flexible and easily accessible. Communication is now much more direct between Canadians and their government representatives, which is why we need to pay special attention to Canada’s official languages when we communicate with the public.
The Official Languages Act does not give clear instructions to federal institutions on how to operate in the digital universe. It is important to remember, however, that the world of social media is essentially an extension of the more traditional forms of communication and that federal institutions must therefore ensure that:
- their employees have computer systems in the official language of their choice;
- the public receives on-line government services of equal quality in both official languages;
- there is a balance between the English and French information they distribute to the Canadian public via the Internet;
- they meet their official languages obligations when communicating or consulting with the public through social media.
If federal institutions do not factor in these four conditions, members of the public or employees of the federal public service can file a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. For example, many people have contacted my office to complain about the poor quality of the French version of certain federal websites, a situation that is sometimes caused by the use of machine translation tools.
Using social media for internal and external communications brings new official languages challenges for federal institutions, particularly if they want to take full advantage of the instantaneous nature of these tools.
My office has been exploring these issues for some time, and we are currently working on developing a number of principles. Representatives from all branches of my office will be taking part in a day-long discussion this coming spring to determine our position on how Part IV of the Official Languages Act can be applied to the use of social media in federal institutions’ communications with and services to the public. The main objective of this discussion is to clarify the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages’ position on this issue while recognizing the associated risks.
As a result, my office should be better equipped to deal with potential complaints, promote best practices among federal institutions and, if necessary, review and modify our own use of social media. The Official Languages Act was adopted at a time when lawmakers could not have foreseen all the changes that would be brought about by the rise of so many new technologies. Despite the challenges that these advanced technologies present, the interpretation principles of the Official Languages Act must continue to guide us in taking an official languages approach when using social media. One of the most important of these principles is the substantive equality of the two official languages.
Federal institutions that have already integrated linguistic duality as a value will know how to adapt their practices to the Web 2.0 universe. If an organization knows why it communicates in both official languages, it will know how to do it in the virtual world. For example, it could have two versions of the same social media—one Twitter feed or Facebook account in English, and another one in French. The advantages of having an account in each language are clear, but the practice requires a bit more work so that everyone can take part in the conversation. We need to take the time to consider a wide variety of possibilities before making a decision, and to not be afraid to make changes later on if needed. The world of social media is constantly evolving, and the only thing that remains certain is that our communication strategies will have keep up, and that means that they will have to keep changing.
The public expects federal institutions to respond to their questions more quickly on Facebook or Twitter, but this should not affect the quality of service. It is an opportunity to use your organization’s bilingual capacity to deliver quality service, simultaneously, in both languages. And for that you need language professionals or, at the very least, good tools such as Termium and those available through the Language Portal.
As long as the public looks at social media as just another way to communicate with the government—and not the only way to communicate with the government—the risk to official languages will remain relatively low, assuming, of course, that the work is done well.
The presence of your organizations in the regions is still a fundamental element of public service. For example, if, as part of the budgetary restructuring process, your managers decide to close a regional office and replace it with social media in some communities, you will be losing a whole perspective, including the ability to listen.
Do the solutions you are proposing take into account the reality of your communities and the various population categories within them: youth, seniors, workers, the unemployed? You need to talk to these communities to find out what they need before you take any action. Using new technologies can be a good way to make your services accessible to a wider audience, but federal institutions must also be careful not to lose touch with Canadians who are not comfortable with these new technologies, whether because of technological problems, geographical remoteness or illiteracy. Therefore, before closing offices and replacing them with new technologies, a thorough evaluation needs to be made. Service Canada, like all federal institutions, has a duty to serve all Canadians, not just those with access to social media. Taking the more vulnerable members of society into consideration and allowing for the modernization of service delivery, while valuing our clients and both official languages, is a winning formula that is respectful of all Canadians.
As federal employees, you are expected exemplify public service values and reflect them in your work. Linguistic duality and cultural diversity are important values and symbols in Canadian society and should therefore be intrinsic in public service best practices, even when we are talking about social media.
Creating a public service that genuinely respects linguistic duality is a considerable challenge. I am not sure that government leaders realize how much their attitude towards linguistic duality influences their organizational culture.
Since the beginning of my mandate in 2006, one of my most important objectives has been to send the message that linguistic duality is truly a Canadian value, not just an administrative requirement. It is vitally important that the government show leadership when it comes to protecting our language achievements, especially if we say that they are an essentially Canadian value. Our presence in social media must reflect the values of our organizations and those of the public service. Our actions speak volumes.
Today, through Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, conversations are happening in real time all around the world. And those of us who are involved with the development and vitality of language communities need to understand the transformative power of these new technologies. They have to be included in the linguistic landscape of these communities.
Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan was prescient 50-odd years ago when he wrote about communications and technology. Just as printing changed how humans communicate with each other, technology is changing how humans relate to each other. It is now within the realm of possibility that, someday, language will be neither obstacle nor advantage to world communication, because technology will allow people to interpret text or speech in any language.
But that is still a long way off.
Until then, it is important that national conversations, whether in social media, traditional media or in person, take place in our two official languages, English and French.
With regard to the regulatory framework, I encourage you to talk to the Treasury Board Secretariat, which is working on developing guidelines for federal institutions in their use of social media in the workplace and in communications with the public.
By the way, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is on Facebook and Twitter—please feel free to follow us and join the conversation.
Thank you. I would now like to answer any questions you may have, and hear about your own experience with linguistic duality and social media.