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BlackBerry Operating Rules in the Canadian Government

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Alastair Sweeny is a Canadian publisher, historian and author. He is best known in the BlackBerry industry for publishing his book BlackBerry Planet: The Story of Research in Motion and the Little Device that Took the World by Storm.

From a published excerpt, we get some insight into how BlackBerry shapes some government institutions. From the excerpt:

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is a political town, chock-full of BlackBerry addicts. Overall, the city shares with Washington, D.C., a kind of frantic machismo about using the device. Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not use a BlackBerry, but his staffers and most other politicians on Parliament Hill are dependent. All members of Parliament (MPs) and their staffs are given four BlackBerrys by the office of the Speaker of the House.

Former Liberal MP and financial author Garth Turner is a self-confessed connection junkie, who sleeps with his BlackBerry next to his bed. Turner particularly hates long flights when his precious device no longer works. “Travelling is hard enough,” he says, “but travelling without your BlackBerry vibrating reassuringly on your hip is absolute digital hell.”

Durham MP Mark Holland says he felt “phantom vibrations” when away from his device for three days, and notes that there is a BlackBerry-driven “subconversation” going on all the time in committee and in the House. There is also an “emergent BlackBerry etiquette,” where it’s okay to use the device, even at a dinner, when everybody else is also tapping away, but it’s important to be aware if there are any-non addicts in the room who might be insulted.

But there are islands of sanity on Parliament Hill. All parties ask their MPs to check their BlackBerrys at the door of caucus meetings, and the Liberal party caucus even went so far as to pass a rule banning them outright. You can also find a few people off the Hill with some decent perspective on RIM’s invention and how it ought to be used.

Dick Fadden is former deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the government of Canada. (In June, 2009, he was appointed head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service). Fadden became a hero to his department and to scores of government employees when in January 2008 he banned BlackBerry use for business from seven o’clock at night and on weekends. Well, not exactly banned. Fadden called the new policy “operating rules,” designed to help “attack some of the stresses around work”:

- BlackBerry blackout between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. and on weekends and holidays;

- Meetings should not be held during the lunch hour;

- BlackBerrys should not be used during meetings;

- Meetings should start and finish on time as a means of managing workloads.

I visited Fadden a year after the famous memo and asked him whether the policy had any effect. Right away he said, “Look, we consider the BlackBerry has great value in the department. It’s a useful tool and boosts productivity. But it has to be managed.”

I asked him whether he had done any analysis of the BlackBerry blackout. He said he brought it up regularly with his managers and found “the main result was a major drop in the amount of e-mail delivered in the department. Although it is creeping up again.”

How did Fadden manage his own personal use as a senior public servant? He said he never uses e-mail on his BlackBerry, but only PINs or sends messages for security. E-mail stays on his PC. He turns his off at 11 at night, but of course he still has to be available for emergencies by phone 24/7.

Fadden says public reaction was mixed to his policy. Some newspaper letter writers said he should “get a life” or “join the 21st Century.” One senior manager sniffed that the BlackBerry blackout was “a stupid decision that pretends to deal with the real issue of workload and stress. So would we have banned telephones on bureaucrats’ desks at the turn of the century?”

But overall the policy struck a nerve.

People in Fadden’s department were clearly suffering under the onslaught of e-mail and the expectation of being always on. They knew they needed to manage their addiction and attack their BlackBerry abuse. One employee told CTV News, “We’re feeling the pressure trying to get a lot of stuff done in a short period of time and the fact that they’re recognizing our families are suffering the consequences of it, I think it’s a great idea.”

I asked Fadden why these kinds of operating rules were not more popular and why they weren’t government policy across the board. He said other departments were bringing in similar guidelines to a greater or lesser extent, but that it was not something that should be imposed from above. Policies had to be tailored to each department, and managers had to be convinced they were useful in their particular cases.

Fadden acknowledged his measures might seem a “bit artificial” to some. Obviously you had to be flexible and recognize that some meetings had to go on longer or you had to keep your BlackBerry on at critical times. But finding ways to respect the needs of employees to balance their work and life was worth it. And the very fact of having a policy — not a ban — still makes people aware of the dangers and time-wasting if they don’t respect others in the amount of e-mail they send.

Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, hailed Fadden’s move as “visionary” since, in her opinion, many people in the public service were too “wired” to do their jobs efficiently and productively. “Good for him, it’s the kind of leadership the public service needs, and this is leadership because he’s doing something that is not easy. The whole public service revolves around the BlackBerry and being available 24/7 and he’s the first to go beyond talking about balance.”