When Government Agencies Meet Social Media

by librarianincognita ~ July 29th, 2011. Filed under: Blogging, Recommendations.

A part of me thinks government agencies (especially those with higher state functions like defense and finance) and social media is somewhat of an oxymoron. On the other hand, libraries, media, cultural departments and anything to do with the arts and information are perfect matches for social media. However, regardless of the function of the agency, I believe that social media can benefit government agencies.

The first reason would be transparency. Maybe not quite a Facebook account but a blog by the agency explaining policy decisions can go a long way in reaching out to the public as well as getting their buy-in, especially if it is an unpopular policy change. But policy changes do not happen all the time so the blog can be used to, for example, give tips on tax filing, “inside information” on how to get the most out of a call and generic information pertaining to the agency that is useful for people to know. If there is value in the information provided, there will be readers.

The second reason would engagement with the public. With feedback channels that are properly serviced by employees in place – like the comment sections in blogs – agencies appear less bureaucratic and reflect the core principle of the civil service which is to serve the public.

However, if government agencies are going to do this, it cannot be token – there must be a genuine desire to engage the public. The danger of course is that comments from members of the public can easily overwhelm the staff maintaining the blog but done well, it can a long way in getting the people’s support. There is no unreasonable person, there is only an ignorant one.

I remember our former health minister had a blog which he used to explain some policy decisions. It was an unpopular policy but the unpopularity was a result of people not understanding it fully. The blog reached out to those who were social media literate. In turn, they explained what they read to others who did not follow the health minister’s blog. Useful entries were shared on other social media platforms like Facebook so people did not actually have to follow everything that he wrote because the important ones do filter to the community. Eventually, when the policy was approved, there was considerably less resistance than there was at the beginning. But of course, the blog wasn’t all of it. It was a conscious and continuous effort of the health ministry to reach out to the people.

Social media can of course be used internally within agencies for information sharing and to meet organisational communication needs. However, at this point, it seems that it is mostly internal blogs from where I come from, which are primarily for communication. Due to the sensitivity of government information, free social media platforms are not really used and unless these platforms can be commissioned securely, I don’t see it happening as yet.

2 Responses to When Government Agencies Meet Social Media

  1.   rachelbalko

    Blogs from government organizations is one area for which I think the argument can be made that social media should be used for one-way, rather than two-way, communication, due to some of the issues you bring up. I think it would be perfectly fine for a government tax agency, for example, to have a blog solely to “push out” useful information to the public, without a comments feature or a discussion board. The tax agency could post important dates, links to forms, contact information for various departments, etc., and I think this would be genuinely providing a service to constituents even if it didn’t make full use of the interactive capabilities of social media. Moderating and responding to potentially thousands of user comments could be a full-time job, and I think better use could be made of government time and money than “unapproving” user comments such as, “Government sux! Give me back my money, [expletive deleted]!”

    It reminds me of the student store in my undergraduate dorm. If you called after 9 pm, they would answer the phone, “Student Store, we close at 10.” Many callers would simply say, “Thanks,” and hang up. The workers knew that many late-night callers simply wanted to know what time the store closed, so they gave you that information before you even asked. It resulted in a less interactive dialogue, yes, but the relevant information was communicated and everyone’s time had been saved.

  2.   librarianincognita

    Yes… I can imagine what unhappy people will write. But if they had a full time moderator, it’s a good way to reach out to the ground. However it also depends on the country. For us, government agencies are usually accused of being non-consultative, that they don’t listen to the people and given that people are not allowed to gather to protest, using whatever ways there are to reach out can work in their favour.

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