Governments on social media: as deficient as ever!

The latest report by Hootsuite on use of social media by governments gives me a feeling of déjà vu [= what I've seen  before]

Five years back I had published an article in the Indian Journal of Public Administration, titled 'Social Media: Are Governments Using Its Potential For Citizen Engagement And Socio-economic Development?'. Over years, I have been watching governments of different countries and at different levels, and have mostly been finding my initial observations getting validated again and again.

Many things have changed in the technological scene in the last five years, e.g. mobile phone has  become the preferred device to access the web, leave alone the social; video has become much more important; internet has penetrated the globe much more; social media is being used for spreading hatred and fake news and crimes; new social media platforms have arisen and all including the old ones have come up with new features. Yet, most governments have changed little, and when some of them have changed, they rest on their laurels and convince themselves that this is the maximum they could achieve!

Social media and Governments: are they poles apart in the way they work?

Hootsuite study on governments' use of social media in 2018  tells in detail about the failings of governments when it comes to engaging with citizens. I have summarized here the salient observations of the report. Forgive me some tinkering here and there just to align it with the flow of arguments here.
  • Governments have failed to use social media for improving efficiencies and service delivery. The traditional call centers in the US, for example, cost the exchequer billions and yet government offices do not use social media effectively to redress grievances.
  • Much of public budget on outreach goes to traditional media: traditional PR, issue of releases, press trips, traditional advertising. This happens in the US even when 42% Americans say that Facebook is their first source of news while just 20% depend on the traditional media for news.
  • Quantity is taken as the proof of social change. A million messages bombarded through SMSs and chat messages are taken as proof of reaching the masses and engaging with them. 
  • Governments do not care to leverage the demographic targeting that is possible through social media. If they do, that is for political/ propaganda reasons, not for taking services to citizens.
  • Not many governments are meaningfully engaging with citizens to understand their problems and seek suggestions. 85% of time, government agencies treat social media platforms as 'notice boards'. Governments and their agencies come at no. 3 from the bottom when it comes to social media engagement!
  • Most people are always connected and regularly get useful messages and offers from savvy companies. Governments do not bother; at best, they make some announcements. Thus, they hardly come up to the expectations of citizens who are used to better communication from companies.
  • People's trust in governments has been declining; it is found that people trust their peers much more than governments. The trust goes down further when government communication does not look authentic.
  • Governments lack transparency in their communication. That also leads to lack of trust.
  • Government media functionaries are unsure of their communication. Their response mostly is like recorded messages. Informal communication - which moves social media - is discouraged in governments. 
  • Government are not doing enough to adapt to the fast changes that technology brings. If a social media initiative is taken, that remains there even though the technology has changed by leaps and has become much more efficient.
  • Governments do not have the culture of promoting good Samaritans among the public and employees, and using social media to amplify the goodness.
social media and governments
A government cannot expect people to blindly trust it
and be swayed by its tunes on social media.

When governments try to make the best use of social media, sky is the limit! 

We hear stories of effective use of social media by a city police office, a local government, a health or agriculture department, a social security office and so on. These are often due to the zeal of one or a few committed persons, and the zeal fizzles out after the initial high or when the leading person/ group takes some other assignment.

We also sometimes hear how social media saved many lives during a natural calamity. This usually happens spontaneously because citizens have the tools of mobile phone and social media. Governments chip in with some information, but not as the torch-bearers of a well thought-after and rehearsed social media strategy. The report gives an interesting comparison: The Federal Emergency Management Agency of the USA had, before hurricane season in 2017, just 634000 Twitter followers while Kim Kardashian had 54.8 million!

I had earlier argued why top brass of companies must blog. This report also underlines the importance of social engagement from the people who run a company. This applies to the government even more than a company for more reasons than one: some services are available only from government agencies, governments are elected entities, government agencies use public money and are accountable to every citizen, government actions have far-reaching consequences, many government actions have legal weight behind them. Yet, not many at the top of governments engage with citizens; most of those who are active on social media post their engagements, speeches etc - well, that is better than no communication, but is that the best use of social media for public good?

It is often said in defense of governments not being proactive on social media, that all governmental actions are open to public scrutiny, at least in functioning democracies, and this makes government functionaries prone to one-sided criticism, ridicule and legal complications even at the slightest mistake or even for taking a stand. A recent American judgement forcing a government official to unblock her Facebook page to critical visitors is a case in point. The information law (e.g. Freedom of Information Acts of Australia, UK and USA; Right to Information Act of India) can be used to ask uncomfortable questions to a public functionary who might be active on social media for public good. But are these not part of the game even in traditional media and other public discourse? These cannot be the excuse for not harnessing the full potential of social media for taking the government to the people. 

A proactive government is expected to remove impediments in the way of better use of social media, for example by making its conversations transparent, training functionaries to respond correctly, and being large-hearted enough to respect genuine feedback.

The low quantity and - more important - quality of social media engagement by governments has one big lesson: there is a big potential untapped. Governments and their agencies that have lagged behind in adopting social media can jump to a good level with very little effort. Those who have social media entities but have been using them for one-way communication and have been dealing with public criticism high-handedly have a chance to humanize their  communication. Those with successes worth sharing need to keep innovating and making the engagement more effective and result-oriented. 

There are countless ways social media can be used for checking corruption, efficient service delivery, spreading social messages, cautioning citizens against social evils and fake news, giving information on welfare schemes, real-time communication during calamities, and so on.

That takes me to one earlier article on the subject: the main reasons for poor social media effectiveness of government efforts is lack of intent rather than  lack of technical capabilities or imagination. The Hootsuite report is a testimony to that: governments remain what they are: not willing enough to change enough.

If you are a civil servant dealing with social media for governments, do read the report in full as it contains many practical ideas.

1 comment:

Manoj Pandey said...

Adding to the article: a report on how the blog 'Pushing the Envelope' by US Postal Service shows how a quiet blog can help communicate with stakeholders.

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