Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The challenge of social media for governments - accepting diverse views

When making major decisions government departments commonly consult broadly to capture the various views of different segments the community.

However when engaging in live or online public discussions, the same departments are often highly concerned about the risk of people expressing strong contrary views.

It's one of the contradictions I've found in government - a desire for consultation, but within a controlled and safe framework defined by the department.

But what happens when government takes a risk and doesn't restrict itself to a framework of its own design?

An interesting experiment in this area is currently occurring in the US presidential election involving the online social tools provided for supporters by Barack Obama's campaign.

Over the last six days a group of his supporters have been upset at Obama's change in stance on spying, to the extent where they created a social networking group within his campaign site to protest.

This group, using the same online social tools as were used to take Obama from 'also ran' to Presidential candidate, is now the largest within the site, with more than 8,900 members at last count and growing at up to 100% per day. It is continuing to use his website social networking tools to organise support and his email service to organise and promote the group.

As part of this group's growth, they have also established a Wiki using the free Wetpaint service (a nice little tool I've used myself) as well as across Facebook and other popular social networking sites.

This has led to media coverage across press, radio and television in the US, as reported within this article in The Nation, Surveillance Protest Group Tops Obama Website.

Obama and his staff have not taken any actions to restrict the growth of the group, although it is in their power to shut it down - at least within the campaign site.

Only a few years ago it would have been unheard of for a campaign to allow it's supporters to take this level of control over an agenda.

One view being heard is that by encouraging his supporters to use online social media to self-organise Obama has created a monster that is as likely to turn on him as support him.

With confidence from their success in the Democratic nomination, many of his supporters are now skilled web 2.0 users as well as activists - willing and able to use the plethora of free online social media tools to organise large protests against key positions faster than ever before.

Another view is that with the internet genie out of the bottle, the best approach is to allow and support these groups to organise and have their say. This view acknowledges that Obama no longer controls the dialogue, but is simply one of the players - albeit a major leading one.

Personally I'm very impressed that Obama and his campaign have taken this second view. His supporters have been allowed to freely organise the protest group using his own social network without any restrictions.

While Obama has acknowledged the view of the group, he has not taken any steps to reverse his position at this time, however I expect that he will commit more time to explaining to his supporters why he had taken this position.

I feel extremely encouraged at the willingness of someone standing for a high office to allow open debate without gags. It's an approach I'd love to see more of in Australia - parliamentarians and public sector agencies being more open to unstructured consultation and more willing to acknowledge and engage in citizen discussions, wherever and however they take place.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Craig

    It's good to see public sector's views and concerns over social media use from an APS official. I have recently started a PhD on social technlogy use in government at the University of Canberra and no wonder having difficulty in finding government agencies using some form of social media for internal staff communication and collaboration. I would like to find out more about your experience and your agency's efforts. Please contact me at