Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a couple of clients from a US federal agency. The topic was how to make the best possible use of Facebook and Twitter to better serve and interact with specific constituencies (mostly businesses).
As they went through their current experience (like many agencies, they have multiple Facebook pages), I could hear their frustration in sharing how their best intention of engaging with the public had turned out to attract mostly negative comments. While they are honestly trying to make an institutional use of social media, they are having a hard time.
They are not alone. There is a big and disappointingly growing distance between the enthusiastic claims of government 2.0 supporters and the real experience of government agencies in the trenches.
All those who believe this just a cynical view should reflect about how they behave on social media in their relationships with service providers, such as an airline, a consumer technology retailer, a bank. We rarely post on their pages to compliment them for their service or product, but we are quite quick in criticizing when something goes wrong. After all, this is not dissimilar from traditional media: an alleged criminal gets his picture and name on the front page when he is arrested, but just a small article in the back pages (if any) when – weeks or months later – he is cleared from all charges.
Government agencies are a big and easy target for criticism, both founded and unfounded. It is questionable whether spending time and money moderating and responding to negative comments on an agency’s own virtual turf is a wise use of public money.
Unfortunately, social media cannot be ignored. It is one of those areas where you are damned if you join, and damned if you don’t. Elected officials and political leaders use social media to connect to their constituencies, so agencies have to. Too late for second thoughts.
However countless examples that I have heard over the last two years seem to indicate that there is little value in establishing an institutional presence on Facebook, Twitter or other mainstream social media platforms, unless there is a narrowly defined purpose to do so, and that purpose is clearly connected to a problem to solve or a mission priority.
Government social media strategies need to be deeply revised, rebalancing the institutional, professional and personal presence, looking at examples of agencies that have taken the right steps, focusing on how to make a social web presence relevant, and using the right combination of tools and approaches.
Gartner clients are welcome to re-read a couple of old research notes (client login required) that may help formulate a more focused approach:
- How Governments Can Use Social Networks (23 May 2008)
- Government Employees on Social Networks: Reversing the Burden of Proof (Sep 19, 2009)