Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Surprise! Gov 2.0 is about the people

Here is what we learned at Gov 2.0 LA: It's about the people.

Yes. Social media is about the people.

That's the easy part.

The more difficult part is figuring out which people on which topics in which way and who gets to decide how the game is played. Each government department and program has a mandate, a target audience, and certain objectives it is trying to meet. But in the social media world, you don't get to define your community or to direct the conversation. For government, that is scary.

It may be scary, but it isn't new. There have always been conversations about government that it doesn't control. There have always been people criticizing its policies, its programs and its procedures. They did it through the media, letters to the editor, by contacting their elected officials, by venting to their friends or screaming from the rooftops.

The difference now, with social media, is that the government is starting to open some doors that may provide people with the opportunity to engage the bureaucracy directly and to comment on their own home turf. I say *may* and I say it cautiously because what I've seen from government so far via social media is mostly one way communications followed by “talk to the hand”.

That is an unacceptable approach to social media. Social media is not social if it involves one way communications. Social media is not social if it involves the towers of power spewing one-liners onto the Internet, but not listening to the reaction and certainly not responding to the questions. But will people forgive the government? At Gov 2.0 LA, some attendees thought that if the government is honest with people about being a relative social media newbie that the public may give it a break...for a bit...while it gets its feet wet and figures out how to interact.

But this is not a free pass forever. The government has to get out there and try to be social. It may require taking new risks, it may require new policies, it may require creating new types of positions (community managers maybe, but at least people with a mix of government public relations training and social media savvy), it may require inviting the public to criticize the government publicly on its own turf (like the EPA) or another friendly moderated turf (as U.S. Government officials and politicians have been invited to speak with women at blogher.com), but it has to happen. People will make mistakes. That is inevitable. But it is an awful lot better than the much bigger mistake of being an anti-social participant in social media.

There is a lot of work to be done on that front, but I do think it is possible. What worries me more is that the current approach we are taking to social media may create a situation similar to the fragmented Web experience that existed prior to Government On-Line (I'm dating myself) and that still exists to some extent today. I worry that once the government says “we are here and we are listening” that people will not know where to direct their comments, which may result in them being directed to the wrong place. Will each bureaucrat participating in social media on behalf of the government have not only the responsibility of engaging their own community on their own issues, but also have to act as a broker, directing people and their comments to the right place? Will people expect a no wrong door approach to social media or will they take the time to figure out where to direct their comments?

I was encouraged to learn about some services like GovLuv and SeeClickFix being developed to act as a broker and try to direct feedback and concerns to the right place. I hope that these will pick up and take off in Canada too. Many Canadians are engaged and ready to talk to the government. Now we just need to ensure that the door is open because opening those doors will not only meet people's expectations of how you're supposed to act in social media, but it may also provide a cure for voter apathy and sense of powerlessness among Canadians. This may be what is required to mobilize youth, women, and other underrepresented communities and get them interested in politics and in government.

To read some of the great insights coming out of Gov 2.0 LA, check out:


waveling said...

Bingo. I totally agree.

Great minds think alike ;-). See also: "Citizen Voice and Permeable Government" at http://bit.ly/caNFou.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the message we were trying to send.

Thank you for attending!

Alan W. Silberberg Founder, Gov20LA and CEO, You2Gov