Yesterday I had two illuminating conversations, one professional and one personal, that show how people with government responsibilities or aspirations are falling even more in love with web 2.0 and social networks than before.
The first conversation, in the morning, was with a lady who is in charge for e-government policies and programs in a European country. I have known her for quite some time and she is a sharp, articulated professional who combines good vision and a solid sense of reality. We were chatting about our respective views of social networks and, during our conversation, she mentioned that some of her colleagues are now putting more faith in social networks than before due to – guess what? – Obama’s success. She now feels under pressure to deliver something in the area of social networking and she is exploring a number of avenues, although she realizes this is a totally new phenomenon that cannot be faced with traditional public sector planning and execution approaches.
Later in the day, a neighbour came to see me. The excuse was to discuss about some external repainting that all homeowners in our block should agree upon (and many won’t, due to the current economic situation). However the real reason was to campaign for the upcoming local elections. He said he founded some sort of independent group of people who want to solve concrete problems without taking any particular side (right or left or whatever they look like today where I live). Certainly admirable: a former executive who just retired, never worked in politics and now feels compelled to devote his time and enthusiasm to the cause of a more livable city.
Then he handed his business card and, next to the symbol of his newly-founded party, I could read no email address but his blog’s one. Of course I asked him about it and he confessed that his son was pushing for him to even get a Facebook presence for his party. Knowing rather well the demographics and the issues of the town where I live, I asked him why he was giving so much prominence to this. His answer, unsurprisingly, was that Obama had shown how important this is. I did not try to make him reflect about the differences between a fifty thousand people suburb (with many more people spending more time watching soccer on TV than surfing the Internet) and a 300 million people nation.
I do really think people need to step back, pause and reflect about social networking and government. Yes, Obama succeeded in engaging individuals through social networks. And the effectiveness of blogs for political campaigning had been already proven, for instance at the last elections in Malaysia. He has also launched www.change.gov where people will be able to follow the transition period.
However I do believe that one thing is to use social network for campaigning (as Obama did and as – definitely on a smaller scale – my neighbor is doing), and another thing is to use them when in government. Running for office is very different from being in office. The attitude of people does change, and boundaries of accountability change too.
We are very far from being able to articulate the actual value of systematic government-driven social networking. My take, as it transpires from most of my research, is that social networks – in order to be useful to government – need to preserve their spontaneity and bottom up nature. It is very difficult for government to engineer them, which is why governments are better off joining existing networks than creating new ones.
Networks built to support a political campaign are different: they are not created by government but by individuals and they will be compelling to those who share their views.
Do the same success factors apply? Can the lessons learned by a candidate’s network be applied as such in a government context? The jury is still out and even within Gartner we have differerent views.
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