Posts Tagged ‘Government of Canada’


Monday, October 22nd, 2012

While poring over Government of Canada online public service announcements for a presentation I was working on, I was reminded of one from the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA). This is one online ad government marketing communications shops would do well to look to for inspiration because it highlights that not all online content is created equal.

Legend, an anti drunk driving ad part of a larger road safety campaign originally developed for  New Zealand television, made its mark as a social media phenomenon. The ad, which went viral within days of its launch,  has since logged over 2.5 million views on the Agency’s YouTube channel alone.  Its online success was such that its spun off fan Facebook pages and tribute music videos, and the term “ghost chips” – used in a scene from the ad – became an Internet meme that has since entered the country’s vernacular.

But more than impressive online results, it appears that the ad has delivered where it matters most: changing young people’s attitudes toward drinking and driving.

While the ad was aimed primarily at young Maori males, a study released by the NZTA found more than 90 percent of people remembered the ad when prompted.  Most importantly, three quarters of those who remember the ad said it was likely to stop them from driving under the influence.  The ad is now being credited, at least in part, to the 50 percent drop in young people caught driving under the influence over the last five years.

What distinguishes Legend from the road safety ads we’ve all seen before is that it avoids shock and gore and uses humour instead. It also avoids a moralistic tone or preaching to its target audience. Rather, it  frames the problem – in the words of one of the characters – as requiring “internalising a complicated situation”.

Legend is a perfect example of cross-over content that not only survives the transition from paid TV advertising, but flourishes through social media. It is fresh, funny, and makes a deadly-serious point without being preachy, making it eminently sharable among its target audience of young males.

In trying to understand what content works and what doesn’t in social media, it’s instructive to compare Legend with the more traditional Donna Time, which was released by the NZAT last May. This ad has a more mature target audience and a focus on the family and family responsibility for making the right choices about drinking and driving.

While the message of both ads is virtually the same, the tone is markedly different, as are their online numbers: while Legend boasts over 2.5 million hits, Donna Time languishes in digital anonymity on the Agency YouTube channel with some six thousand views.

While the online numbers for Donna Time may be disappointing, its overall campaign may still be successful as it rests on a large media buy and also plays on a broad number of traditional channels, from television and radio to billboards.

The problems occur when organizations and their advertising agencies try to push content designed for  TV, a 1950’s medium, on 21st century social platforms. It’s like putting a CD on a stereo turntable–it doesn’t work.

This traditional advertising and marketing paradigm remains well-suited to large traditional media buys as ways to frame consumer perceptions, but not social engagement.  It works when you can buy eyeballs and multiple views. It fails miserably when your audience is your medium.


Because effective digital engagement requires content that is sharable. That means content that members of diverse online communities will feel comfortable sharing among their peers.  Anything else misses the point.

It doesn’t necessarily follow in all instances that content designed primarily for television will fail when migrated to the social web. Every year we see dozens of examples of memorable TV ads that become viral sensations. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Whether your target audience is made up of teen-aged males or middle class families, the question to ask when developing digital content is the same: Will my audience want to share this?

If the answer is yes, go crazy. Post it on your YouTube channel and Facebook page, Tweet about it to your followers. If the answer is no,  then there are two options:  back to the drawing board or digital irrelevance.


Monday, December 5th, 2011

The article by Elizabeth Thompson ran in iPolitics a few weeks ago under the headline “Twitter, Facebook and social media ‘critical’ to government, says Clement.” It was one of those stories that sail just under the mainstream media radar–an anodyne little item that didn’t make the grade in the newsrooms of the national outlets. 

Speaking after an appearance before the Senate Official Languages Committee, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told iPolitcs that he wants to launch a pilot project to use social media to consult and engage Canadians more on government policies. He added that he intends to push forward with Treasury Board’s open data initiative where government information is shared openly online.



This is one story with legs. Or at least, it’s a story that should have legs. While it may not be readily apparent, few initiatives now on the government’s drawing board have the potential to transform our democracy as much as this one.

And this is a story that anyone who believes in the concepts and merits of open government or government 2.0 needs to take stock of and react to-now. 

Senate reform, more MPs for rapidly growing provinces, amount to tinkering at the margins of our democratic system when compared to the transformative potential of genuine online engagement and its institutional implications.

Clement, who is one of the most active MPs on Twitter, is quoted in the article as saying that the opportunity “to use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens…is a big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government. It is very important for the future.”

He’s right. The problem is that there have been no conversations on what that conversation could or should look like.

The absence of a public debate on the merits and implications of using technology to open government up and engage more with citizens means that what has the potential to transform our institutions also runs the risk of being used to shore up the status quo.

The problem is that our system is built around incrementalism—small cautious steps that don’t rock the boat are what garner promotions in Ottawa, not proposals for sweeping institutional reform.

And citizen consultation is nothing new in government. There are well-staffed units in most federal departments that do nothing but consult and engage with citizens and interest groups. 

But using new online tools to make these consultations easier does not mean we’ve embraced Government 2.0. Giving outdated concepts and approaches a fresh coat of paint will only hide the rust and cover up the cracks.   

One of the challenges is that our current system of ministerial and bureaucratic accountability is not designed to easily integrate solutions that run counter to formal advice.  Alternatives or contrary opinions tend to be relegated to the public environment scans of memos to cabinet, not recommended action.

Designing new government online strategies to operate on the old institutional and accountability platforms would be like putting a Ferrari body on a ’72 Pinto drive train—it’ll look nice in the garage, but don’t take it for a spin.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks. It would also amount to a dramatic re-think of our democracy.

But without a compelling main-street narrative to create political space and demand for real change and without any obvious external champions for this cause the prospects of a transformative open government agenda being implemented any time soon are dim.  

Open government is not a bureaucratic issue–open government is all about politics.  And political leadership and decisions will be what make it happen…or not.  

It’s not enough for techies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves about the virtues of new digital technologies in opening up government. It’s time for Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and kick-start the debate, explain why open government matters and what the cost of half-hearted reforms would be.

A few weeks ago, Treasury Board President Tony Clement hinted at his vision: a connected more collaborative government, a bureaucracy empowered to engage directly with Canadians, the sharing of data to foster innovation. He also said Treasury Board officials were now busy developing “guidelines” that will frame this vision.

The first Treasury Board installment on that vision was released last month: a rule-bound straight jacket of a social media policy to govern public service online activities. Not an auspicious start.

Anyone that wants to see government open up better grab the perch offered by the minister now, before government’s blueprint is fully set and reputations become wed to it.


Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the Government of Canada has issued a request for proposals inviting firms to bid for the opportunity to lead a “whole of government” re-branding of the federal government’s image in everything from newspaper ads to  its Facebook pages. The government is looking to refresh its brand to better compete ” in a crowded market of images and ideas”.

Good luck to the winning firm.

Anyone who has been involved in these exercises will tell you that effective branding needs to be more than skin deep and has to reflect an organization’s true culture and values. And when an organization’s struggles reflect an out-of-date culture and values, a sound branding exercise will create a forum for hashing out a new vision.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is covering up problems with a fresh coat of paint.

Unfortunately, in many cases that’s exactly what happens as changes to an organization’s visual and audio identity become a proxy for real change, and are often designed to resonate more around the boardroom table–where decisions are made–than among its audiences.

Given the complexity and scale of the organization involved and the multitude of audiences-domestic and international–it engages with daily,  it is difficult to see how the current project will come even close to creating a synergistic and truly fresh “whole of government” Canada brand.

That’s where the boardroom (cabinet) table comes in.

But while the exercise may result in understated changes more than radical re-engineering, it merits monitoring for the lessons it will provide.

Notably, it will be interesting to see how this re-branding exercise affects the federal government’s approach to social media,  which can now best be described as cautious. It will be particularly interesting to see if it affects how content is generated.

One strategy the government could take from the playbook of many of the world’s leading brands is encouraging community generated and inspired content.

These brands know that good social content is what brings people to your site; jump starts conversations and amplifies messages. And they know that effective social media engagement is a bottom up process that starts with listening to your community.

If the Government of Canada wants to truly revamp and make more relevant its online brand it has to take the lead from its communities and generate content that resonates with them, meets their needs, is fresh, and–dare I say it–even a little bit edgy.

Fundamentally, it will require a new take on social engagement–now that would be re-branding success.


Friday, May 20th, 2011

One test of the significance of the appointment of a new federal Cabinet is the amount of time in which the personnel choices and portfolio alterations remain newsworthy.   By that measure, the announcement of a new Conservative Cabinet really only lasted one news cycle. The media attention during the build up lasted longer than the interest shown after the fact. 

In large part, the Cabinet did not really change all that much and the changes that did take place were largely predictable once the election results were known.   For example, the sole Conservative MP from Newfoundland, a credible First Nations leader, was a pretty much a given to make the Cabinet cut.  To not make a bad situation worse, Quebec was certainly going to receive additional Cabinet seats as was British Columbia.  Ontario had to be rewarded in much the same way it used to be under Liberal governments.  What does the lack of surprises tell Canadians about Prime Minister Harper’s current assessment of the situation and his intentions moving forward?

A first observation is that the PM probably correctly assessed that the current composition of House of Commons still remains only a minority Conservative government, despite a clear seat majority.  The dramatic rise of the NDP at the disproportionate expense of the Liberal Party represents more of a sudden hail storm rather than a more profound result of “climate change. “  Minority governments one would guess face a risk in any major Cabinet upheaval of creating too many questions as to new faces, new agendas and new potential leaders.  In other words, the Cabinet announced was largely the one that the PM would have announced if he had only won a minority.

The benefit of caution and minor tinkering is the ability to send the message of stability, “business as usual.” For many Canadians that approach provides a level of comfort.  They can rest assured that not much will change for good or for ill.  Given the history of the unintended consequences of government ambitions for “change,” a small “c” conservative approach will likely keep the Harper Cabinet from becoming much of a topic of political let alone public discussion.

Yet the “steady as she goes” approach does have risks. It may potentially be interpreted as complacency and a lack of new ideas to face new challenges.  With the exception of Maxime Bernier in the small business portfolio, it is hard to think of a new Cabinet minister bringing any new ideas to the table, or at least any new ideas with any lasting impact.

John Baird as Foreign Minister will do what he has done well in previous portfolios – slap down the opposition attacks and keep repeating the mantra of the government’s basic competence. 

Ed Fast, the new Minister of International Trade, will almost certainly not address the fundamental weaknesses in Canada’s trade agenda, agricultural, communications, procurement and transport protectionism,  that has left officials to over-negotiate bilateral trade deals of questionable significance at least when compared to the stalled Doha Round, the talks with the European Union and the newly emerging Pacific Trade Talks.   Whatever vision the Prime Minister has for the next four years remains in his head and not expressed by any endorsement of potentially transformational cabinet ministers.

The reason for such an approach lies with the priority given to returning the government to a balanced budget.  For Stephen Harper a balanced budget must be achieved by the time of the next election or he will have failed his own criteria.  If he balances the budget, he can rightly claim to have brought Canada out of the worst recession of recent memory and left the country stronger.  If he fails to balance the budget, Canadians will have a right to ask, “Just what have you achieved over the last almost ten years?” What is at stake is not just the Conservatives’ fate in the next election but also Stephen Harper’s legacy.

It is no coincidence then that the Prime Minister has turned to two Harris Ontario stalwarts, the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, and the Treasury Board Minister, Tony Clement.  They may not be terribly exciting political leaders but they have proven over their respective careers to deliver what their leader wants and to make sure he gets the credit.  Money is policy and right now Flaherty and Clement are the two most significant policy leaders in Ottawa other than of course of Stephen Harper.

What may surprise some in the years ahead is that Harper will leave much of the financial detail to Flaherty and Clement while he himself concentrates more on international affairs using Baird as his interlocutor.  Harper knows that whatever international capital Canada has gained in Afghanistan, Libya and the G-8 Maternal Health Initiative will simply dissipate without forceful interventions as once more the United States of America under the activist leadership of President Barrack Obama looks to likely once more re-order fundamental global relationships in the Middle East, Asia and Europe – even as the US economy struggles to improve.

Harper needs a balanced budget and a clear presence of Canada on the world stage in order to ensure the Conservatives win a majority in the next election based on a fundamental shift in voter alignment.  He needs both to prove his leadership mattered to the future of Canada.  Ultimately he knows history remembers Prime Ministers and only rarely Cabinet ministers.  And history sometimes is only one news cycle.