Political leaders, senior government executives, consultants praise the virtues of social media as a new means to engage or re-engage citizens, to become more effective and efficient, to attract digital natives to the public service, to transform government by bringing it closer to people.
However the examples that make the news and most of those that I hear from clients have a negative connotation. From Wikileaks to the role of Twitter and Facebook in the upraises in Tunisia and Egypt, from crowds griping about education commissioners in Florida to people coalescing against the indicted politicians in Europe, from students disrupting the teaching and evaluation processes in schools around the world, to patients challenging doctors by socializing information with other patients, most uses of social media cause trouble rather than help government solve problems.
Of course there are the countless good examples that I find in traveling around the world. Vibrant communities who are passionate about solving resource, environmental, social problems. Employees who find smart ways to be better social workers, teachers, nurses, purchase officers by using social media, often walking on a tight rope between professional and personal role, between established processes and innovative approaches. Enlightened political leaders who understand the potential of order-of-magnitude growth in openness and engagement.
Unfortunately most good examples either do not make the news or do not make enough noise. There are many reasons for this:
- Bad news are always juicier for news professionals, especially when it comes to government (when is the last time you read about an incredibly successful government IT program and how many times do you read about failures?)
- Most people tend to use social media to complain rather than to offer solutions (just looks at what people do on various airlines’ Facebook pages).
- Some good examples from the people’s perspectives (such as knowing about some secretive wrongdoing or organizing protest against a regime) are pretty bad from the (ruling) government perspective.
- Many of the attempts that government organizations are doing to reach out to people through social media do not go beyond a simple revamping of their web presence, and these turn to be either disappointing for people.
- Government 2.0 and Open Government remain jargon for experts within agencies and lack the momentum to gather enough interest both internally and externally.
Many of us try to help strike the right balance between managing risks and creating value, but in most cases it is a long and bendy road. Business cases are elusive, existing policies are often inadequate, technology and behavioral changes are faster than governments can deal with. So why should government organizations pursue this? Aren’t those who still deny Facebook access to their employees or those who look at tweets as a threat rather than an opportunity, fully justified? In a battered economy, should government spend money on seeding value in social networking or on reducing risks by a combination of blanket prohibition and monitoring?
Ironically, the same tools and approaches may be used to either detect threats or hunt for opportunities. Listening rather than talking, being guests of people’s conversation rather than hosting dialogues, analyzing and predicting rather than publishing. On the other hand, if all governments did on social media were “listening”, people would accuse them of spying and behaving like a Big Brother.
Is there a way out by rebalancing the government role on and use of social media from risk to value and from talking to listening? This is the real issue at the heart of social media success or failure in government, but I am not sure it is being asked as often as it should.