Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Social media is now normal - so why do government agencies persist in treating it as an edge case?

As this article in Fast Company illustrates, social media is now normal, an integrated set of tools for ongoing human interaction.

We've known for several years that Australians are enormous users of social media, with Nielsen research indicating that the average Australian Internet user (and 95% of us are users based on Sensis figures) spends upwards of 7 hours per month actively using one of a range of online social networks - and this doesn't include the full range of online participation possible via forums, blogs and comments.

We've also known for several years that the community's number one preferred channel for engaging with government is via the Internet. AGIMO's research in this area has seen a steady (and predictable) upwards trend in the desire for greater online contact over the last 4-5 years.

So why do government agencies, by and large, still treat social media engagement as a fringe case, with access to these channels often restricted to a few people in the communications area and senior executives often still wary or debating how to monitor or support online contact (while enthusiastically supporting their phone-based contact centres)?

It has been interesting to watch agencies attempt to shoehorn social media and online engagement into the traditional models they are used to - one-to-one communication, with the timing and extent carefully controlled by the agency itself (and look how positively the community has regarded this form of engagement with government over the last ten years). Clearly control is an issue, as is budget and the exact context and content of messages.

However the world has moved on and agencies have to recognize and adapt, not merely tweak the corners or treat social media engagement as an edge case, for use by small groups under tightly controlled 'laboratory' conditions.

It is evident overseas how other western governments are beginning to accept these channels as core - with, perhaps surprisingly, the US armed forces serving as a good object example of how every soldier, sailor, pilot and support crew member is now regarded as a public engagement officer.

By taking the step to recognize this, then putting appropriate policies in place, the US armed forces have done an excellent job of managing the landscape changes, steps that Australian governments have, for the most part, been very slow to accept.

Today every government agency, at every level of government, needs to start by accepting that their staff, for the most part, are active online participants in their personal lives. They need to acknowledge that online channels are increasingly the source of public views and policy ideas from the community and must be accessible for staff to mine for intelligence, use to identify interesting and influential people and viewpoints and to engage actively in "robust policy conversations" (to quote APSC guidance on the topic).

Agencies need to recognize that social media and online channels are integral to their public reputation and the reputation of the Ministers and governments they serve. A view, complaint or compliment placed in a social network is equally valid to one made directly to an agency via their 'controlled' communications channels - and may be significantly more influential (or damaging) due to its public reach.

Certainly there are risks in online engagement - as there are in all communications to and with the outside world. However failure to engage online also bears risks, often much greater, of being seen to be irrelevant and ineffective, reducing the credibility of agencies and the Ministers they are required to serve. Failure to engage actively online can damage recruitment, procurement, policy development and program or service delivery outcomes in measurable and unmeasurable ways.

So agencies are really reaching a crunch point for their reputation and relevancy. Do they choose to continue to treat social media as an 'edge' activity, carefully quarantined from their everyday business, and risk becoming edge organisations?

Or do they choose to state a commitment to the use of social media and other online channels as a core aspect of their interactions with the outside world, and with their staff, then move to implement these commitments (taking the precautions necessary to make the change a pragmatic and well managed process rather than a headlong rush to catchup and survive).

This decision (integrate or quarantine) should be on the agenda at the highest levels of all government agencies in Australia today as it will soon begin to shape career prospects and even the long-term effectiveness of public organisations.


  1. Great post Craig.

  2. Excellent points. I think it's about building their self efficacy in relation to online engagement - that they can do it, and successfully. The QLD Policy are a case in point during the floods.

  3. Social media = progress, rapid evolution & non traditional.

    Government = traditional, conservative, slow evolution.

    Government's are therefore trying to play catchup in a world that they do not in reality understand, one that requires trust in employees, empowerment and delegation of responsibility all difficult in organisations that are essentially about control, control & more control.


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