It’s not just a social network – it’s a public network that’s needed.

Fri, 2011-11-11 19:55

By Anthony Hollingworth MPA ‘05

Contemporary web technologies are changing how government does business. Tools such as the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter along with the myriad of new applications offer great opportunity to governments. The ability to connect directly with citizens, as President Obama has done using a Twitter town hall, is an entirely new approach to civic engagement and public services that governments are striving to take advantage of.

Even so, citizens who are continuously connected and engage compulsively with social media have some demanding expectations. Think of the outrage caused by minor changes to facebook!

If government is going to fully harness social media it must also ensure the reality matches the rhetoric. Unrealistic expectation setting doesn’t help – politicians talk about “Google for Government” or in the case of UK Prime Minister David Cameron  “The Next Age of Government” driven by technology 
(see www.ted.com/talks/david_cameron.html). These are all worthy goals but getting there is the current challenge.  In the interests of continuous improvement here are some suggestions for government social media leaders:

  • Online Presence Doesn’t Mean Online Engagement: It is important that governments have a comprehensive social media content strategy. Sometimes, less is more with online updates; ensure that content is useful, consistent and does not cross the line into marketing or even political messaging. Develop and protect your online organizational identity. (see the Fels R&C 2010 report Making the Most of Social Media at http://www.fels.upenn.edu/news/making-most-social-media)
  • Open up to new ideas and collaboration: Avoid getting into a situation of one-way traffic;  Encourage comments and responses to online content. Wherever possible seek to develop groups both internally for knowledge transfer and externally to achieve the goal of co-production in public services. See the example of companies like Apple (https://discussions.apple.com/index.jspa) and Southwest Airlines (http://travel.southwest.com/travel/community/) for building online communities.
  • Fulfilling Feedback: Citizens really care about service fulfillment – especially on the local level; Take requests for service very seriously and ensure that you can effectively coordinate with backend systems especially if you offer online service requests. This is where Web2.0 technologies meet the mainframes that still run many departments. Apps like ‘seeclickfix’ (http://seeclickfix.com) are a start but without coordinated service fulfillment they will disappoint. Moreover, it’s time to make responding to social media interactions a core competency for government agencies. This will require  dedicated professionals charged with online public engagement just as there are now service and call centers.  Creating a digital version of the “take a number and wait” service center is not an option! 


Ultimately, what governments need to do is build ‘The Public Network’.

This isn’t a new technology but instead it’s government taking a portfolio approach to the available Web2.0 and the social media tools.  The portfolio includes adopting existing social media,  providing open data for ‘apps’, working out where and how to integrate with existing government systems and also investing in new government sponsored tools and technical infrastructure.
 
There’s no free lunch –to fully realize the potential of Web2.0 and social media for government, serious investments will be needed. With the development of a smart public infrastructure that is connected to social media and the ever-developing set of media devices we have available citizens will have more access to data and the ability to influence services than ever before. Citizens will be at the center of ‘The Public Network’ and governments should take steps to be ready for the increasing level of scrutiny and accountability they will face.

For more on this subject by the author see article 
Why Government needs to do better with Web2.0 published in the The Public Manager Fall 2011 (www.thepublicmanager.org) – (also at http://tinyurl.com/44luy6p).

Read about the upcoming Fels Research and Consulting report-  THE RISE OF SOCIAL MEDIA  IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT:
A Promising Practices Report