I thought it was a topic worth discussing in this blog.
One of the challenges government agencies face is whether or not to get involved with the discussions already occurring about their programs, activities and actions.
Whether departments like it or not, we do come under public scrutiny in forums, blogs and social networks regarding our decisions and conduct. There are very active discussions on how to correctly engage with agencies and interpret particular departmental policies and guidelines (The Child Support Agency forum at the Family Law WEB Guide is one example).
One result of all of this discussion is that misunderstandings occur. Helpful people offer suggestions and interpretations that are inaccurate. This can grow into misinformation and can spread quickly across social media channels - where it remains publicly findable for years.
This information can even become more findable in search engines than the relevant information in our own agency websites. This can easily lead to people making decisions which later affect them in negative ways.
Traditionally government's approach has been to communicate repeatedly that people need to call us or seek out our official documents and web pages on topics to get the correct information.
However this doesn't reflect human behaviour. Many studies have indicated that people trust information from their peers more highly than information from institutions or corporations.
In my view when organisations chose to not engage in legitimate social media discussions they could be causing damage. Damage to individuals who rely on inaccurate advice from online sources and damage to their own reputations due to misinformation.
I believe that the best way to combat this is to counter misinformation at its source - in this case within the same social media channels. Note that this doesn't mean responding to EVERY comment in EVERY online network (which isn't feasible for any organisation), but it does mean responding to well-trafficked legitimate online channels where the impact is most significant.
Many agencies, particularly service delivery agencies, inform and advise the public every day by phone, email or postal mail, providing one-on-one information to support citizen decisions.
I have come across views that while this is fine, placing the same information in public channels (such as via social media) would create extra legal risks. If an agency representative provides incorrect information over the phone the error (and risk) is limited to that person, whereas if incorrect information is provided in a public forum it affects many people.
I don't agree that it is necessarily true that the legal risk is less via phone conversations (or similar one-to-one channels).
Firstly if information is provided over the phone it can still be shared publicly. People discuss phone calls and letters, sharing the information they have been given. Sometimes they even record and publish them online.
Secondly where a phone call is to an agent such as an accountant, lawyer or social worker the advice they pass on to their clients can affect many people. The risk is not limited simply to the person at the other end of the phone.
Also government already publishes information publicly. It does so in its website, in publications, through presentations and through advertising.
Simply providing accurate information in response to questions in social media channels, or in response to misinformation can go a long way towards helping customers achieve the best outcomes for them.
It also helps others who find the information through searches. They will find the correct information alongside the misinformation and have a better chance of making the best decision.
So where is the real distinction
Someone suggested in the Gov 2.0 Australia discussion that it was between information and advice. It was suggested that much of the risk occurred when people mistook information for advice specific to their circumstances. Several general examples were given where information provided by phone or face-to-face was misinterpreted as advice, acted on and resulted in legal action.
This type of misunderstanding can clearly occur through any channel and doesn't, in my view, mean we should treat social media as a special case. In fact social media may provide some advantages over phone or face-to-face conversations, as in a public forum your disclaimer can be clearly seen alongside the information. In a conversation the other person may misunderstand and there's potentially no record for the courtroom.
However this risk does highlight the need to be very clear in how we are communicating via different channels and clearly differentiate between advice and information.
I believe this can be covered in social media by providing clear disclaimers in messages outlining who is speaking, what is being posted and the terms of the interaction.
I've provided some examples below of what I mean. Please not that the example text below is illustrative only and is not approved by any Australian government department or agency. Please have appropriate disclaimers for any online engagement you undertake approved through your own agency. Please ensure all online engagement is pre-approved by your agency.
- Identify your agency affiliation clearly (and if possible establish an official account to post through): "Hi, I am XXXX from the Dept of XXXX, posting on behalf of the Department."
- Make it clear that you are posting information, not advice: "In response to the comments in this thread/XXXX's comments about XXXXXX, here is some information that might be useful."
- Link to available official information (where it addresses the topic) rather than repeating it in the forum (in case the information changes over time): "Information on this topic can be found in our website at WEBADDRESS."
- Make the nature of your comments clear: "This is general information only, if you wish specific advice on your circumstances, please call us on XXXX XXX XXX or email XXX@agency.gov.au."
- Make the limits of your engagement clear in a standard disclaimer: "The Dept of XXXX monitors this forum and may respond from time to time to provide information to support customer decisions. We do not provide personal advice through this forum for privacy reasons. If you require advice on your specific circumstances, please call us on XXXX XXX XXX or email XXX@agency.gov.au."