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More Excitement About Social Networks in Government: Obama’s Fault?

by Andrea Di Maio  |  November 12, 2008  |  6 Comments

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 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.

Category: social-networks-in-government  

Tags: web-20  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
15 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies strategies, Web 2.0, open government, cloud computing, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on More Excitement About Social Networks in Government: Obama’s Fault?

  1. Here’s a comment I received through email from an Italian friend, who claimed to be unwilling to post a comment in order to resist to all this web 2.0 excitement (isn’t it weird to think about email as vintage?).

    “First of all, your neighbor seems moved by good intentions, is willing to achieve something locally, but may lack concrete social contacts on the ground and aims at replacing those with virtual contacts, which are also so much more fashionable. It is just a guess but if he had a concrete network in the jurisdiction, he’d be much better off cultivating those and remaining pretty much down to earth.
    As usual we take from America what fits best our views. Everybody mentions how Obama used Internet and social networks, but almost nobody highlighted his ability to engage very different demographics through a campaign that has been primarily conducted on the ground, at a very very local level. Actually he acknowedged that in his first speech after election, when he thanked the many elderly people who campaigned for him door-to-door. But, of course, this is not enough trendy to mention.”

  2. Anthony Bradley says:

    You can’t divorce on-line and on-the -ground. They feed and fed off one another. The ground game was scaled in alrge part by the ability to mobilize the on-line community. On line community, of course, doesn’t replace ground efforts. After all, it is the same community. The main difference is scale (mass collaboration). It is simply impossible to shake hands and maintain physical social contact with milions of people. It can be and is done on-line. The question is not the value in general the question is the value in specific meaning exactly how can Obama engage the general value of the large on-line community he has formed to add specific value to his presidency.

  3. Donatella P. says:

    I am referring to Anthony’s comment. First of all, I don’t think this is the same community: the two communities may overlap, maybe in the future may become one, but they are not at this moment. When writing “The ground game was scaled in large part by the ability to mobilize the on-line community”, IMHO you don’t consider Obama’s great ability to involve and motivate people from different generations, with different languages and different ways to act and communicate. Of course it is impossible for ONE person to shake millions hands: the real question is how to organize, as Obama did, on the ground (a huge and diverse territory!) thousands people who have gone door-to-door for months to promote their candidate. A quasi-military strategy, where all the grounds, physical and virtual, have been taken. Actually Obama has had both a wonderful strategist (thanked in his first speech as President elect) and an extraordinary organizational “war-machine” (look at the date of this article: which has been able, among other things, to organize all the “troops” on the ground (volunteers included) and to use different communication tools for the maximum effectiveness. No tool or channel was the best , but each was effective according to the target and when it was used (for example, the Internet has been terrific for Obama fund raising). That’s marketing, baby. Marketing!

  4. Stessa Cohen says:

    I live in one of those key US states that had to turn for Obama for him to win the election. As much as I love online social networks, I have to admit that Obama won because he did use both online and offline strategies in what seems to me to be unique combination to accomplish several things:

    to collect & organize volunteers
    to encourage people to register to vote and to vote
    to deliver campaign messages
    to communicate with non-volunteers and non-supporters
    to bring online and off-line communities together.

    In my community, for which there was a lot of support, it would be impossible to say where the online and offline networking stopped/start. We had a lot of TV & radio ads, local offices, posters, etc. as well as local social networks, emails, etc.

  5. Andrea — interesting question. I think it comes down more to how involved citizens what to be, versus the tools needed. The tools exist, the test will be how participatory the public wants to be:

    Blogged on this recently, in response to Newsweek article:

  6. […] encouraging to see the new US administration breaking new ground. However, as I said in a previous post, using social software for campaigning and for actually governing are two very different […]

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