How Should the Government Use Social Media? More Questions than Answers at Social Media Camp 2011

by Nicole Sorochan

Words like “pioneering” and “renegade social media policy” were used by the three panelists in their opening speeches during the “Adapting Social Media in Government” at Social Media Camp 2011 on June 3rd.

On the panel, there were representatives from the Department of National Defense (Canada), the Ministry of Transportation, and the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia. While the panelists were quite enthusiastic and proud of the government’s adoption of social media, the audience seemed less impressed.  Overall, many complex questions were raised about metrics and the practical purpose of social media in government communications--and, for the most part, the audience was left without many clear answers by the panel.

One audience member raised an important question about the specific ROI goals of the government using social media. She wanted to know if the panelist’s agencies had a specific goal such as creating awareness or building trust with constituents. Various responses were provided by all three government representatives, but it seemed that many government agencies still don’t really know why they are using social media, other than the fact that is has revealed itself as more than a passing trend.

Some successes, though, were shared by Russel Lolacher from the Ministry of Transportation. For his ministry, social media has remained primarily a real-time information resource for commuters. For example, during a recent accident on a crowded British Columbian highway, Lolacher was able to monitor the Twitter stream, providing commuters with updates and explanations of the delay. His use of social media took a more practical stance than the other two government representatives, favoring social media as a real-time information hub.

“It’s just information,” Lolacher said in response to a question about whether governments should favor using social media to spread good news over bad news, “There are so many stories--our goal is to simply get information out and be a resource to commuters.”

For Duncan Ayre, a representative from the National Defense, the biggest challenge for using social media as a two-way conversation between governments and constituents is that social sharing puts enormous weight on the traditional government model of cataloging and tracking their communications. “Social media,” he candidly told the audience, “poses a huge problem for traditional bureaucratic communication systems because the government has to track and catalog every blog post, every tweet, and every upload.”

The audience also went on to ask the panelist’s thoughts about whether official government accounts should funnel their communication through a single Twitter persona. One audience member, a teacher from Nanaimo, referenced the Home Depot’s strategy of picking a few store employees to act as representatives of the brand. Duncan Ayre, from the Department of National Defense, didn’t think this was a realistic option. “It isn’t possible,” he told the audience, “to have soldier on the ground in a war zone, tweeting.” The audience didn’t seem convinced. And, in my opinion, it would be possible to have a soldier send a few tweets (even if they are scheduled at night or in the morning). The real barrier though is shifting from the old model of broadcasting and controlled government communications to real-time crowd-based communication.

The take-away from the panel was that while governments are adopting social media, it seems like many government agencies are there simply because they recognize that they must, in some form, come to terms with the radical shift in how information is created, consumed, and delivered.

Transparency, though, can be hard, especially when fringe government social media initiatives are going up against traditional, slow-moving bureaucratic systems. The attending government agencies, it seemed, came expecting to be applauded for adopting social media. But, as the last few years have shown, basic adoption isn’t really good enough. Today, consumers and constituents are demanding, expecting, and pushing for more transparency, shared transmission, and public control of information.

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Nicole Sorochan

Nicole Sorochan

Nicole is the visionary behind EnviroSpeak Media, a socially focused company that builds web tools for environmental change. She co-founded One Net Marketing, an online agency, that specializes in SEO,  social strategy, and online media campaigns. Nicole has 8 years of social marketing and interactive web platform development for companies all over North America. In addition, Nicole is an... more

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