The introduction of popular social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin has fundamentally changed many aspects of our society. No corner of our society has escaped the influence of social media, including the public sector. While late to the party, the public sector is slowly and cautiously experimenting with social media tools as ways to improve the services they provide and generally to engage and empower citizens in new and innovative ways.
This is no doubt an interesting development because the public sector has features that are fundamentally contrary to the concept of social media. This is in part because the public sector has always been plagued by hierarchical organizational cultures, an antithesis to the open and collaborative features that are characteristics of social media.
Recently, the Canadian public sector has taken major strides to engage citizens using social media. This has led to initiatives from departments like the Canadian Public Service Commission to experiment with using Second Life, a 3D virtual world, to explore the various dimensions of different jobs such as firefighting. There is also the “corrective blogging” initiative by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) whereby a staff can go on popular forums to correct inaccurate postings on Canada Student Loans program. However not all governmental use of social media is benign and without controversies. Earlier this year when Canadian Industry Minister Tony Clement (@TonyclementCPC) decided to announce a new telecommunications policy on Twitter, it created a lot of controversies. The Minister confirmed on Feb 2, 2011 through Twitter that the Tories would overturn the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) decision on the price of Internet service. There was a lot of debate as to whether Twitter was the appropriate channel for disseminating official government policy. In spite of the debate and criticism that this decision generated, it is a sign of the growing acceptance of social media in the Canadian public sector.
Most government agencies now have a presence on a social media forum, and most MPs can now be reached directly through their twitter account, a huge development over the not so distant past when the only way to communicate with the elected or public officials is by mails or telephone calls – systems that are clumsy at best.
In many ways, increasing social media usage in the public sector area is inevitable, however the the rules of engagement are still at a developmental stage and the policies for managing it are not fully formed. Consequently, its full potential may continue to be inhibited until these policies are settled.
*Written by Folushade Oduntan, with contribution from Philip Mai.