OTTAWA – Tony Clement may be king of social media in political circles on Parliament Hill, but he didn’t get to be mayor of his own Twitter town hall.
During an online chat on the subject of open government, the Treasury Board president, who is a prolific tweeter, had a ghostwriter doing most of the work for him.
Last December’s town hall made federal political history as the first live online chat to be hosted by a cabinet minister using the popular microblogging service.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper once took questions via YouTube, but that experiment was never repeated.
The subject of Clement’s town hall was the Conservatives’ recently launched open government strategy, a three-prong effort which seeks to increase transparency around the official workings of Ottawa.
Clement has been a vocal champion of the strategy, as well as for the increased use of social media by politicians to communicate with Canadians.
He’s regularly ranked among Parliament Hill’s top tweeters and lauded by social media watchers as having a natural touch with the technology.
But when it came to formally engaging with Canadians, bureaucracy ground his freewheeling ways to a stop.
An analysis on the town hall obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information legislation highlights the struggle facing MPs seeking to use social media tools in a world of tightly controlled communications.
“Twitter and its applications are in constant evolution, as are the conversations that take place within it,” the report said.
“The trick to successfully using the platform is to allow room for this evolution, all while keeping in mind communications objectives.”
The two 45-minute chats — one in English, one in French — took more than a month to organize.
Three dry runs were held ahead of the main event, with staff even creating bogus Twitter accounts in order to practise using the service.
More than 40 stock responses were drafted so they could be quickly copied and pasted to reply to questions, while a ghostwriter was engaged to get Clement’s responses out faster.
A spokesman for Clement called that a natural practice.
“Use of a moderator (what the department called a “ghost writer”) was a practical decision based on the fact that the minister could respond quicker verbally as the moderator simply typed out the response keeping it within the 140-character limit for Twitter,” Sean Osmar said in an email.
“I should point out too that the minister did take to the keyboard himself for a few responses — he does like to get hands-on sometimes,” he added.
Clement was flanked at the Twitter table by two subject matter experts and two other communications staff, in addition to the one moderating the chat and the one acting as his ghostwriter.
A photographer was hired and according to the report, overstayed his welcome.
“There were too many people in the room,” said one comment in the report’s section on lessons learned.
“Efforts should be made to keep the number of participants to essential staff only.”
The chat didn’t happen over the government’s standard Internet connections.
Staff used mobile Internet technology in order to bypass any possible network filters, according to the report.
One of the sticking points among public servants is the lack of access many have to social media tools, with government servers in several departments routinely blocking blogs, Facebook and file sharing sites.
During the Summer Olympics, one department shut down video sites for fear that public servants would spend too much time watching events.
Other tools are blocked for security risks; Treasury Board and the Finance Department fell prey to hackers last year.
Osmar said the use of the mobile Internet connection was in part to test its capabilities.
“We were also testing the feasibility of using these mobile Internet devices for future tweet chats that may occur from different locations, remote events, and international travel,” he said.
“Departmental employees have all the Internet tools they need to carry out their business on a day-to-day basis.”
Overall, Treasury Board staff considered the event a success and were enthusiastic about doing it again, going so far as to suggest the platform be used for scrums, to consult on draft documents and for program announcements.
“Yes, we plan to host more tweet chats in the future, the minister believes it can be an effective way to hear from and speak with Canadians directly on government,” Osmar wrote.