Let’s assume you work for a government body that is deeply involved in highly contentious issues - issues that are very interesting (and frustrating) to communities both online and offline. Let’s also assume that your organization has very little chance of changing the fundamental policies and procedures that frame these issues in the public’s eyes.The extract above from a article in CanuckFlack titled Is a bad blog better than no blog at all? reflects a decision my agency is grappling with at the moment.
...is it worth the effort to launch a blog or similar long term initiative if your comment fields will get filled with criticism, claims that your social media work is simply parroting or reinforcing your traditional media work, or growing references to critical reports, video clips and commentary that undermines the very point you were trying to make...
Many other government communicators across the globe are facing a similar choice - is it better to join online conversations, or avoid opening a Pandora's box of backlash?
Is this the right question for public servants to be asking?
My view is that we need to revisit the role of government agencies - which I characterise in its most basis form as to carry out the will of the elected government on behalf of citizens and the community.
If a government agency is tasked with implementing contentious legislation or programs then it is the role of that agency to build community understanding and engagement in order to best fulfil the requirements of the government.
This involves understanding and addressing community concerns, communicating and collaborating widely with stakeholders and the community and helping those affected to meet the legislative requirements by providing the tools and support they need.
Citizens need to understand what is expected of them and why, and have avenues to have their views heard and addressed by the agency within the limits of the legislation in place.
This role is not limited to the channels most comfortable to the agency - it needs to reach citizens in the channels most comfortable to them, within the resourcing restrictions placed on the agency.
If we trust the research we find,
- many Australian citizens use the online channel on a daily basis, some engaging with it to a greater extent than any other mass medium, including television - according to Nielsen Online’s 10th Australian Internet and Technology Report (PDF media release).
- Australian citizens would prefer to engage with government online rather than via any other channel, including phone - as found in AGIMO's report Australians' Use of and Satisfaction with e-Government Services – 2007.
So if online is one of the most used medium for Australian citizens, and the avenue of choice for engaging with Australian government, the channel needs appropriate weighting in resourcing and use by agencies.
There are issues remaining to be addressed - the speed of agency change, the scarcity of appropriate expertise and the cost required to implement this engagement.
But these are operational issues, we should have moved beyond the strategic question of whether the online channel is appropriate for government to use.
So my question becomes, not should we open Pandora's box, but rather:
Do we, as government departments, have the right to refuse to engage citizens via the online channel?