Monday, December 06, 2010

What's the risk for government agencies of NOT engaging via social media?

If you do not embrace social media soon, the digital divide in your country will be dwarfed by the divide between your country and the rest of the world.
Chris Moore, the CIO of Edmonton Canada, as reported in FutureGov Magazine.

When people ask me to consider the risks of government agencies engaging with audiences via social media, I often respond by asking them if they've considered the risks of not engaging.

This often gets blank looks; many people don't often consider the risks of not doing things, even though it is a normal part of life.

For example, who today doesn't understand the risks of not wearing seat belts? However, only 15 years ago there were plenty of concerns still raised about the risk of wearing them.

Here's a list of some of the risks highlighted by the US anti-seatbelt movement:
  • Wouldn't you rather be thrown through the windshield of your car to safety than trapped in a rolling vehicle? And after you are thrown through the windshield, how can you jump out of the way of your rolling car if you're all tangled in a seatbelt?
  • As much as one tenth of one percent of auto accidents involve sudden fire or plunging into water. If everyone in the United States takes part in an annual auto accident, that's 23,000 people who run the risk of being trapped and fatally killed by a seatbelt each year!
  • Psychiatrists say that exposing young children to practices such as bondage from an early age can cause confusion during puberty.
  • A section on seatbelts in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site's FAQ says (when edited for clarity): "Wear ... a seatbelt ... and ... you will ... died."
  • Even the statistics of the pro-seatbelt Automotive Coalition for Restraint of Freedom proves the case of their opposition. The Coalition says that seatbelts cut the risk of serious or fatal injury by 40% to 55%, but even if this number is believed, it means that seatbelts are potentially deadly in the remaining 60% to 45% of cases!
  • Seatbelting is related to the hideous ancient Chinese practice of foot binding.

I expect, over time, that many of the risks of using social media will become normalised and accepted or explained away as myths, whereas the risks of not using social media will become more acute.

A good case in point is an article from The Australian published on Thursday 2 December, DFAT the dinosaur needs to find Facebook friends.

Besides the actual article appearing, which could be seen as reducing faith in the capability of DFAT to effectively carry out its duties, the article highlights the level of online activity by foreign services in countries like the US and UK, compared to the level of activity from DFAT.

For example, the article states that:
The [US] State Department operates 230 Facebook accounts, 80 Twitter feeds and 55 YouTube channels and has 40 Flickr sites. And the story of e-diplomacy doesn't end here. Other governments are experimenting with dozens of other innovations and the pace of change is rapid.
Notwithstanding the need to run quite so many accounts, the US State Department is becoming an astute user of social media to reinforce US foreign (and domestic) policy goals. This supports the US government to project its power globally and influence world opinion in its favour.

The expertise the State Department is building puts it far ahead of other nations, although the UK is doing an exemplary job with its diplomatic blog network. For example:
Digital tools would also allow DFAT to play in spaces it is cut off from at present. Take the blogosphere, for example. The US, Britain and Canada have all entered this space. The US maintains nine full-time Arabic-language bloggers, two Farsi bloggers and two Urdu bloggers while the British Foreign Office also has two full-time Farsi bloggers.

So, what is the risk to Australian government of not using social media, or of entering the space late (a position some Departments already face)?

Departments may become less effective at informing or influencing public opinion, locally and abroad. Our governments will be less able to compete diplomatically, both overseas and locally against social media savvy interest groups, corporations or even individuals.

As other nations continue to develop and exercise their public sector social media 'muscles', by institutionally blocking Australian public servants from using social media in their jobs we could be allowing our own government's 'muscles' to become increasingly flabby and weak.

Therefore, if public servants are not able to learn how to effectively communicate via social media now, we will be at an increasing disadvantage as others pull further ahead of us.

This loss of effectiveness could take a very, very long time to redress.

Next time you consider the risks of social media engagement by your department, consider the risks of not engaging for yourself (your career), your department, the government and Australia as a nation.

You might find that the risks of not engaging vastly outweigh the risks of engaging.


  1. Craig, I have used this post now on more than one occasion to illustrate the point that Web 2.0 technologies are here to stay! Thanks for this. Maria

  2. This often gets blank looks; many people don't often consider the risks of not doing things, even though it is a normal part of life.