Last Wednesday I spent a full day with an Australian jurisdiction discussing about Government 2.0. We started with a general session, which was very well attended, and then specific sessions for agency executives, HR professionals and communications officers. This gave me a unique opportunity to look at how different parts of government organizations look at the same issues, as well as to appreciate where priorities are set.
Like in other cases, people working in communications seem to be the most directly concerned. Like in other cases, their interest is a consequence of senior management’s request that something must be done to engage with people. They are definitely looking at the right issues while they develop a social media policy. However they expressed concerns about two aspects.
The first one was the balance between a whole-of-government communications strategy and an agency-by-agency approach. Clearly, while there are certain common principles that need to be applied across all agencies, it is arguable that social media allow to segment target audiences much better than with more traditional “broadcast” media, and this is probably best left to individual agencies to determine.
The other concern was indeed about the cultural shift required in communications to deal with narrowcasting and two-way communication. The job of a communication professional is to package messages in order to be effectively consumed by a target audience, but is less about listening to what people think, how they feel, and identify virtual or physical places where people are more inclined to have conversations about certain topics. Communication is more about talking than about listening.
The problem with social media is that those who should listen and understand where constituents are, are not the communication folks, but people in the business. Public safety or law enforcement officers, tax agents, teachers, social workers, and so forth. There are the ears of their agencies, they establish and manage daily contacts with constituents, know what are the relevant communities that citizens make reference to to share issues or look for help.
This implies that communication officers should not be in the driving seat of a social media strategy: they can follow what the rest of the business does and articulate the “official” agency voice on social media, if and when this is required.
As a consequence, their colleagues working on public sector management, or human source management, are those who need to step up and address the issue of how to allow employees to use social media in ways that are useful to contribute to the agency outcomes.
When I met the HR professionals though, they felt they were not supposed to lead the charge. I found that they are doing some quite interesting activity on transforming the workforce, and are certainly looking into social media as an important tool. But they also expect not to be in charge of their agency’s overall social media strategy.
It was interesting to observe, as we were touching upon the usual question of why should employee even care about social media, that most of the comments were about a vague necessity for engagement with the community. But what community are we talking about? Citizens are at the same time taxpayers, recipients of benefits, parents, workers, patients, voters. For each role they join different communities and exhibit different community behaviors. In some cases government employee can create value by joining those community, in other cases they are better off just knowing those communities exist but staying away from them, and in other cases there may be a good reason for them to create a community to respond to an emerging need.
It is quite clear that HR professionals and agency executives need to take more direct responsibility for social media policies and strategy, and make sure that whatever initiative is taken does obsessively link to the creation of value in the context of each specific agency mission. Communication officers can follow suit but definitely not lead.