Five Mega-trends: How Social Media is Transforming Government

A Facebook site for US government agencies

I’ve had the honor of providing business strategy consultation recently to a UK agency and in the process became immersed in current uses of social media in government. I learned so much that I considered a five-part series on the topic, but one post will have to do for now!

There are unique political, security and infrastructure challenges presented by government applications of social media, but the power and potential is awe-inspiring. Let’s see if you agree. Here are five significant and fascinating trends …

1) The cry for transparency

“This is a terrible time to be a control freak” – Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State

There is a broad recognition that government information belongs to the people and technology is enabling a new wave of sharing.  A best practice is the newly-designed U.S. Goverment Printing Office site where volumes of documents are now available at your finger tips.

Iceland is looking at social media as a method of “sustainable transparency” through a constant flow of information.

Many UK ambassadors are now blogging on a regular basis. Check out this this post presenting a personal view of the situation in Libya. The government also uses podcasts to address foreign policy issues.

Israel Defense Forces has a YouTube channel chronicling its activities.

Both Brazil and South Korea have created national government documentation portals.

Social media will play a major role in ensuring that Nigeria’s upcoming national elections are transparent, many predict. Expectations are that the techno-savvy young Nigerians will monitor the 2011 elections civic journalism-style via their accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blog sites.

A new site, publicmarkup.org, allows citizens to view, and propose suggestions, to specific U.S. federal legislation as it is in process.

A recent Pew Internet study showed the scope of citizen online activities:

  • 48% of adult Internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issue
  • 41% have downloaded government forms
  • 35% have researched government documents or statistics
  • 25% have received online advice from a government agency

2) Beyond transparency – citizen engagement

The opportunity of social media and government is not economic or technological. It’s emotional.” — Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the U.S. Government

I recently had a chance to meet Mr. Chopra, America’s first Chief Technology Adviser to the President, who described his role as a government “convener.” I love that idea. Under his watch the government has crowd-sourced solutions to make procurement more efficient and reduce waste. A new site called Challenge.gov rewards citizens with cash prizes for solving government problems.

Australia is also experimenting with this concept in its “Government 2.0 Taskforce,” which funded 17 projects.

The South African government employed social media to “stimulate a constructive Nation Building debate on values and ethics.” The debate took place last week on the Presidency’s Facebook page.

NASA has a range of programs that encourage active citizen participation in agency projects. You can even customize your own NASA project page.

The Israeli Consulate in New York City has more than 11,000 Twitter followers and a Klout score (social influence) of a respectable 57.

Studies show that citizens who engage with government online have a more positive view of government.  Promoting close online engagement also:

  • Creates better decisions by capturing local knowledge
  • Increases capacity of society to understand complexity of problems
  • Increases public support by legitimizing the solutions

3) Humanizing government

“Social media is not a second website, it’s a community.” — Tristram Perry, U.S. State Department

Governments are beginning to recognize that people are people and take lessons from how brands are engaging and building an emotional connection with stakeholders. Certainly you would expect a clash between the open culture of social media and the button-up culture of government, but I think the areas that can overcome that institutional hurdle will reap benefits.

  • I love that the city of Reno pokes fun at itself with YouTube videos about its problematic, crooked Christmas tree. The city’s communications manager Kristy Fifelski even uses a sock puppet in her videos.
  • The President of Rwanda Paul Kagame is extremely active on Twitter and responds frankly to issues about his country.
  • The U.S. Consulate in Lahore Pakistan is having a Facebook contest and giving away iPods.
  • The Love UK Facebook page has discussions about favorite bridges, natural wonders and people of the nation. They attract hundreds of comments on their posts.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta has more Facebook fans than all other embassies combined. Their best practices:
    • Spark discussion and give people a reason to belong.
    • Know your market and customize your information for your audience.
    • Develop unique, engaging content.
    • Post regularly.
    • Set goals and reassess them periodically.

4) Crisis management

“The Singapore government, as a whole, is not averse to using new media. But we’re not completely sure how to use it yet.”  – Goh Yam Song, Deputy Director, Emergency Preparedness, Singapore

Tragically, our world is always experiencing crises and there are plenty of examples where social media may be the ONLY lifeline available to connect with people.

I watched the US and UK embassies in Tripoli use Facebook to instruct evacuations amidst revolution, connecting its citizens with ferries out of the way of danger.

Israel recently held a Twitter press conference about the situation in Gaza.

Emergency management agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMAinFocus) or state first responders like the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (@VDEM) are active on Twitter, sharing information during crises.

The Canadian Government has set up its own private social network called Connect2Canada to keep a pulse on citizen needs around the world.

5) Real-time response

Democratic governments are here to serve and protect their people, at least in theory.  It is the ultimate customer service organization, right? In the private sector, there are many case studies about companies using social media as an effective tool to solve problems in real-time. In fact, the biggest brands are establishing social media “war rooms” to monitor sentiment and help customers.

These practices are beginning to be adopted by state and city governments. With a tweet or text — potholes, broken street lights and other issues are being reported and fixed. The 311-Twitter service in San Franciso, for example, has answered over 7 million calls and thousands of more requests online.

Why wouldn’t we expect national governments to do the same?  Unfortunately there are very few examples of this happening so far, but certainly this trend will catch on.

So that’s my take on the high-level trends of government and social media. What is happening in your country, region or city?  Any social media success stories?

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  • Nowhere is a government social media presence more useful than during a crisis. The Christchurch earthquake earlier this year and now the Japan Tsunami have shown how a government can reach its constituents in an effective manner. Heck even FEMA has a twitter strategy.
    Now there is also a dark side, a leaked email recently unveiled plans for fake personas online created by intelligence agencies. I guess the tool can be used for good and perhaps less conventional goals, what really matters is the intent behind the use of the tool.

  • Wait let me get this straight — spies are going to have fake identities? Shocking! : )

    We would probably be AMAZED at what the government is learning about us from our online behaviors! Can you imagine the technology they have? Thanks for this comment John.

  • The problem is local. Nothing is happening locally (for me, at least). I did a recent piece of homework to see what is happening online with my own city’s activity. Among a mayor and four city council members, one, ONE is on Twitter. The websites are satisfactory at best, and there is NO FB. Our parks and rec board has an FB presence. The city? Nada.

    What does this mean? As transparent as we all want to be with our civics, we need to remember to act locally. Just like every other piece of social media, you need to concern yourself with those you can impact and influence.

    Proximity marketing is something most governments could learn from.

  • Exciting to see government reach out and actually engage people! Not something I am used to. It’s progressive and makes a lot of sense. If people have their say they feel heard, even if nothing changes they still feel better. I think fewer complaints, better service results.

  • The real time response is probably one of the ways I think our government is using this social world to connect faster. They know to get info out as fast as they can through site like FaceBok and twitter..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • KamakshiSri

    I really suspect social media to be used the Government except during crisis. We cannot deny the social media’s influence yet I cannot completely take it on as transforming Government. I don’t think that Government really takes into its account the social media influence until and unless a crisis occurs and the Government switches to social media just for information sake.

    Well, I do not have good knowledge about politics and politicians.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    It’s all over the board. I would agree that in general government is behind the rest of the world! Thanks for your observation.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Let’s hope so Jody. While I did provide some interesting examples here, I should emphasize that most governments and agencies I looked into are still doing nothing.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    There is wide variation by region of the world. Obviously from this post, the US, UK, Canada and Israel are emerging as leaders right now, but that reflects how social media is being adopted in those countries too. Thanks for commenting Kamakshi.

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  • Hey Mark,

    I work in Govt IT (Fed, State and Local) and social media is being used with varying degrees of success. I’ll mention three things:

    1) At the Federal level (e.g. DoD) there are ongoing initiatives both internally and externally to use SM. For example, there are internal programs now for closed social media platform to be used for communication among communities for military dependents looking at healthcare delivery. A DC based company called DefenseWeb is a major player here and their approach is highly innovative. You can see more about this project here: http://bit.ly/e48L2h. Also, note that military is actively engaged in a very sophisticated SM campaign using Facebook, Twitter and other major platforms for recruitment. Why? Because that’s where their target market is hanging out.

    2. At a local level there is an emerging realization that governments need to innovate to find new sources of revenue beyond writing more parking tickets. One private sector company that is being funded by VC money seeks to bridge the need for local communities to better support their local merchants. That helps their tax base, economy and local job market. Check out http://www.gotownhq.com to see more. In essence this is like a collaborative “groupon” type of play but local government plays a direct role acting as the central hub for town oriented social media. Very smart and Grow readers should be thinking more along these lines in terms of how they can add value in their own businesses to bring solutions to government and local merchant businesses if they are addressing localized markets.

    3. Finally, while not the point of your article, I don’t think you can have a conversation about social media and not mention government participation (either willingly or not) in the use of the medium without discussing political ramifications. We are watching US budget battles being played at 140 characters or less between the Republicans and Democrats in congress. And, we just saw the power of social media to overthrown despotic regimes in the Middle East, or at least damage them considerably – Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen – It’s literally unprecedented…and while it’s not specifically one of your 5 points above, all of those points summarize something greater for governments everywhere to consider which your post ultimately addresses – use social media as way to engage your community, or ignore it at your own peril.

    Always awesome, Mark – thanks for a thoughtful post.

  • Good article, Mark. I wrote a post on it here: http://www.port25.ca/2011/04/04/beyond-transparency/

    building on your theme of 5 mega-trends, there’s a “Sixth” mega-trend that’s brewing around Open Gov Collaboration, going beyond “basic” Transparency and Engagement efforts. That will require mechanisms for capturing knowledge, powered by aggregating feedback, cleaned data and meta-data generated by citizens in a collaborative effort with the government.

    Today much of Gov 2.0 and social media use by the gov’ts is a 1-way effort, most open data initiatives are the same way. The real change will come when the governments adopt the open gov platform at the core of the government business, and have processes to not only communicate at and share data at citizens, but a 2-way conversation AS WELL AS data re-capture & re-integration to complete the cycle.

  • Thanks for your comment.

  • Excellent contribution Marc. Man, where were you when I needed you? You could have written the article!! I avoided the political aspects of this because that is a whole other subject but interesting and relevant in its own right! Thanks for this great comment!

  • Yes, there is so much more to be said on this topic. As I said I opted out of the five-part series idea but certainly there is still a lot of ground to cover! Thanks for adding your wisdom to the discussion Nik!

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  • Great thoughts Mark. I was impressed by how easy it was to have interaction on Twitter recently with @UN Very friendly and “real”. Certainly are some big changes going on! People Power!

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  • That’s an interesting observation, Michael. Can you imagine having a dialogue with the UN even two years ago? Very cool to see. Thanks for passing that along!

  • Great Info Mark! Never had the opportunity to venture into that niche. Amazing to know that SF twitter service is actually using reports from tweets to fix potholes and such.

    I’m also wondering if politicians should be using SM more effectively…to do their duty….serve the people. Its election time in Canada and many candidates are on twitter. As I scan through their feeds, I can see that there is very little engagement. Perhaps with good reason given the huge number of followers.
    Nevertheless, It would be great if they could find a way to engage directly with the people even as part of a schedule…one hr every week.

  • Thill

    Hi Marc! My name is Talisha, and I have a Digital Marketing called The Hornet Group. I recently relocated to DC to catalyze my company and help Government agencies adopt Social Media, and various Internet Marketing practices. I was looking to the Military as my first target audience, as you said, they use SM a lot for recruitment. Any ideas on who to talk to within the agencies to learn of Digital Marketing contracts out for bid?

  • Can’t help you there. Sorry : (

  • In the U.S., social media is being broadly used by politicians, and in some cases effectively. Not a tremendous amount of engagement, but in some respects they are at “celebrity” level so that might be OK. I think that example I used about the president of Rwanad ais pretty remarkable!

    Thanks, Jacob. Always nice to hear from you!

  • Kathy Snavely

    You continue to amaze me, my friend. I will be using your blog as a great example of what is possible in my blogging class tomorrow, and passing this information onto folks at the political candidate training school I run in a week.

  • Wow. What an honor! Thank you, Kathy.

  • Very nice article, well-done. I am going to scroll through this when I guest lecture at Georgetown this very night!

  • Hi Talisha, I am not sure if you were directing your question to Mark Schaefer or me, but here is my two cents to help you:

    1. For published RFP’s go to http://www.fbo.com (Fed Biz Opps). However that won’t help you get into any specific branch of the military.

    2. Each military service (e.g. Air Force, Army) runs their own recruiting so you will need to find the “CMO” for each service. An initial way to do this is to simply look at each service branch’s website and look at the organization chart to see if you can find a head of recruiting or public affairs.

    3. As you are in DC however the best thing you can do is to start good old fashioned networking, and I am not talking about Twitter. You need to get out and meet people F2F. DC is town that thrives on who you know and where you are connected. Find networking events through http://www.meetup.com as a starting point. Also, google “Women In Technology” for DC, a powerful group that is connected in the region (may be based in VA but crosses over to DC).

    Hope this helps,

    Marc

  • From here, i gained a lot of data about social media is transforming government. Great one 🙂

  • Interesting to say the least; social media is definitely here to stay so might as well get on board.

    I would say the opportunities are limitless, but a little scary having ‘government’ in the mix. Ultimately however, so much more good can come from it; it’s just a matter of getting everybody up to speed.

    If it can create effeciencies in operations and maximize how ‘our’ money is being spent; that alone it ‘priceless’.

    Deep but good; you presented it very well.

  • Thill

    It was to you, Marc W. Thanks for the advice. Digital Marketing services doesn’t seem to be the most popular thing that Government agencies procure, so FBO hasn’t been as helpful as I’d like. I like the idea of reaching out to the CMO’s individually though, I think I’ll try that. I also hadn’t thought to find networking events through http://www.meetup.com, so I’ll be sure to monitor that. Again, thanks so much for your wisdom and insight.

  • Awesome. Let me know how you lecture went Mark.

  • Thanks for taking the time to say so!

  • I actually quite optimistic about what I see happening. Hey, it’s political — can’t escape that. But some of these ideas are exciting. i was pretty impressed with Mr. Chopra. He has a real zeal and vision about where this can go and has taken some huge steps to streamline processes. Love the idea of involving citizens in solving problems. Tehcnology can be a huge enabler! Thanks for commenting Bill.

  • Loved reading this. Was just guffawing the other night on a comedy central show about the “transparency” of government paradigm. My initial reaction to my thoughts on your post is – I don’t think much will change at all. However…it does open the doors slightly to the average individual, learning where (online) to go to learn more about agencies they’ve perhaps never heard of before, etc. But then again…that assumes the average individual gives a *** and will do the oh-so-difficult legwork of clicking a link here & there, using a search box, etc. And unfortunately I’ve realized most are lazy and will continue to just eat what they’re fed.

  • I guess what gives me hope is that people have new expectations of openness and communications from their social media experience. I don’t think they will let government off the hook and the agencies that respond will flourish. I hope any way : ) Thanks!

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