Facebook, despite its many failings, does some things very well. Things that if governments also did well would help them be successful in the 21st Century.
Consider if Facebook was a country, with 500 million citizens - what lessons could other nations learn?
- Hold citizen attention
Facebook is used on average six hours per month by its citizens. This is achieved by providing reasons to give the site attention, such as personalising news and information to be relevant to an individual citizen and providing various ways to get engaged.
This compares to under 30 minutes spent on all government sites each month by individuals, according to my figures from Hitwise.
Consider how much government spends on television and radio trying to get our attention for a few seconds each day. How much could be saved if government spent money on building and operating websites that truly engaged and informed citizens rather than attempting to push out the views of agencies and providing generalised information which cannot be personalised to an individual's needs?
- Design for individuals in a scalable way
Facebook is designed for individuals, with the central component being individual profile pages. These pages contain all the information an individual citizen has shared with Facebook and can be modified to share or not share each piece of information with others.
If governments allowed individual citizens to have all their information pertaining to government aggregated in a single (secure) place online, we'd be moving towards a citizen-centric government.
Individuals could self-managed their information, controlling which agencies could access which pieces. These profiles could also scale to contain as much information as was required (but no more) as government offered new services or benefits.
- Connect 'like' groups
On top of individual profiles, Facebook makes it easy for citizens with similar interests to connect in groups. These allow individuals to discuss news and events, share ideas, research, learn and debate. They engender the best of democracy - forums where each can provide their views as part of a group discussion, moderated based on individual group rules.
Governments around the world are starting to form citizen groups to discuss and debate issues, provide suggestions and submit ideas - however the machinery of government isn't designed to help citizens to form their own groups, it's the government's way or the highway - individuals are left to their own devices.
If governments began creating the environment and providing the tools for individuals to form their own groups - as President Obama's website did through his campaign - this could be a powerful way to spread an understanding of democracy, promote engagement and deliver real results over time.
- Monitor behaviour and trends in real-time
Facebook is constantly studying how its citizens act, group and behave in its site, giving it a continual flow of information on trending interests and issues. This allows the website to identify key topics and address them early, supporting its citizens and preventing some potential issues from blowing up.
This type of ongoing monitoring is also highly important for government. We've seen many calls for government to monitor social media channels to understand community sentiment and keep a finger on the pulse in a way that previously was impossible.
However many governments still rely on traditional gatekeepers - pollsters and lobbyists from interest groups - to provide them with insights. This approach can be prone to distortions, deliberate or otherwise, as few people are able to be truly objective - particularly when they are tasked with pushing specific agendas important to those funding their lobby groups. How representative of the community these groups may be can also be questioned.
- Respond quickly to citizen criticism
Facebook recently came under a lot of criticism for its privacy controls. Did it study the situation carefully for twelve months? Hold a royal inquiry? Label those raising concerns as a small group of lobbyists misleading the public? No.
Through monitoring its citizens Facebook was already aware of and working on the issue. It was in a position to respond quickly to the criticism, rolling out a set of simplified privacy tools which addressed many peoples' concerns.
Government can often be slow to react to criticism - or react by attempting to close it down rather than hear it out. This is partially due to having to study situations first - whereas Facebook's continual research keeps it aware of trending issues.
Governments can also be slow to take action, requiring layers of approval and bureaucracy to be observed before making even simple and commonsense changes. Simplifying these processes and keeping a closer eye on the pulse of the community will help any organisation to reduce the effort required to manage and address issues, saving money, time and reputation into the bargain.
- A platform for others to build on
If you're a Facebook citizen than you'd be aware of the thousands of applications built on top of the service - from games to business applications. These applications rely on Facebook to provide the platform - data, commands and systems. In return they significantly increase the use of Facebook and the value of the information it holds - a win-win-win for Facebook, the application developers and Facebook's citizens.
Government needs to similarly move towards becoming a platform, opening up its data and systems to allow others to develop applications on top.
Imagine opening up government systems to allow an organisation to develop an end to end business registration system which allowed a citizen to register a company, get an ABN, register for state licenses and apply for development grants. The tool would help many people to start their businesses, provide an application developer with revenue and simplify the administrative burden for agencies at the same time. Similarly imagine being able to incorporate geospatial mapping data from multiple states and ABS statistics to allow a business to decide where to place its new offices.
If government is able to make the public-owned data it holds more accessible online and open appropriate doors into key services tremendous value will be created for the entire community.