2011 was a year of turmoil. Internationally, economic meltdown deepened and continued, massive earthquakes struck New Zealand and a tsunami hit Japan. But 2011 will be also remembered for a different type of earthquake – the Arab Spring – an event that shook the Middle East, causing regimes across the region to totter and fall. Unlike other revolutions, this one used relatively new tools and technologies – networked or social media.
Much has already been written about the Arab Spring but what is already clear from the current body of work being produced is that it was the use of social media that acted as the catalyst for change in an already unpredictable environment. The use and availability of social media easily created connections between prominent thought leaders and activists to ordinary citizens, rapidly expanding the network of people willing to take action.
Although the true impact of the Arab Spring is still playing out in Egypt and beyond, the events of 2011 created a new paradigm shift that governments must now consider: That society is no longer dominated by government or the market, but by the power of communities and groups. The way in which social media works means that information is porous. National borders, government structures or even languages are no longer relevant in this new environment.
The changes wrought by the use of social media in our daily lives have, for the most part, not been mirrored within government. Social media in these spaces remains more of a tentative relationship than an ideal marriage. An oft heard argument by officials is that benefits of using social media remain unclear. Yet there are obvious upsides to its use.
Using social media in government:
- Creates the means to improve governance. Social media provides easy publication and rapid spread of information. By doing so, it creates transparency that can strengthen citizen goodwill towards government. For citizens, by embedding government information in social media provides hitherto unimagined access to government and the means to connect in real time. For government, it offers the ability to rapidly poll public opinion and perhaps more importantly, forecast broader, societal trends.
- Opens up access to government and government officials and create new possibilities for community driven initiatives. It makes sense for government to enable and facilitate a partnership culture for this to occur. (Does this perhaps, mean a new era of Public Private Partnerships?)
- Saves time and money. Providing information through social media channels offers real efficiencies in creating faster, easier and cheaper access to information, particularly to younger voters who tend use, read and operate in social media spaces.
- Creates new ways of working. Online collaboration across government departments and with citizens could force change on the way government operates and develops policy.
These are only a few of the benefits that the use of social media offers to both governments and citizens. This is not to say social media is the only answer – obviously, it’s not. As with every government activity, channel choice should be based on audience segmentation and research. For example, Linkedin, a professional networking social media channel, is clearly not the right social space to access or engage with teens. However, it is these user-centered and self-organizing networks that create value in our society, including public value. Governments should (must) consider the use of social media as part of the overall policy and communications mix.
The real challenge for government is behavioral change, opening up the culture within government structures and in the behavior of its officials. There is, of course, some risk operating in social media – messaging can’t be easily controlled, reputations need to be strongly managed and the right information needs to be provided at the right time. Every official should be prepared to work in these online spaces. However, the even greater risk to governments is not being involved in social media. And unless government understands the possibilities of social media, educates and allow their officials to use social media in their working environments, opportunities for real engagement, innovation, change and transparency may be lost.
Share your insights below. How does your government use social media? What has worked for you?
Photo Credit: kiwanja on Flickr