Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can the government do social media?

I've had the opportunity recently to both participate in and follow a number of government departments that are dabbling in social media. The question that invariably comes from those who have been in government for a while is:

So who approves your tweets?

...or some other similar question.

The bureaucracy and its communications machine has traditionally been a fortress. While politicians and political aides get to take risks here and there and are sometimes unceremoniously shown the door for their mistakes, bureaucrats are both kept from and protected from ever being able to say or do something that may embarrass the government. Bureaucrats who want to communicate with the public need to go through layers and layers of approvals.

But does that work in the social media world?

Not so much. If a tweet, a blog post, a facebook update, a LinkedIn connection or otherwise had to be approved by senior staff in three different branches and possibly multiple departments before it saw the light of day, it wouldn't be very social, would it?

But still people ask: who approves that?

I think the solution to ensuring that the use of social media in government remains agile is to consider it service delivery, not communications. When front line staff, whether in-person, by e-mail or on the phones, are dealing with the public, they are governed by their training and a set of guidelines that sets out what they can and cannot do. They are expected to use that training and those guidelines to the best of their ability to provide the highest quality of service possible.

I think that in the vast majority of cases, social media should be treated the same way. Sure, it is a communications channel, but it is a channel that is used to serve the public. To put information in their hands when they need it. To respond to their questions. To meet them where they are. To interact. To connect.

That won't happen in the fortress of government communications. But in the world of government service delivery, perhaps it has a fighting chance.