I was having lunch with a colleague of mine today and I was talking about the first results of the three studies I am working on to understand how public managers are using social media application. One of the findings is the surprisingly low number of followers and friends government agencies have on social networking sites, which means in turn, that it would be interesting to understand what incentives citizens need to participate and network with government online. Another finding in my wiki study is, that it is unclear how public employees can be incentivized to extend their current obligations and daily tasks to include additional activities using collaborative technologies, such as wikis to help their colleagues in other departments by sharing their knowledge. How do we get quality contributions from those employees in the agency who have enough institutional knowledge that would help others with unsolvable questions to find a solution? Beth Kanter points in her recent pdf talk to the fact, that Nonprofits should not leave the social media work up to their interns – just because they are tech savvy enough and are quick in handling and understanding social media doesn’t mean that they know the substance of the organization.
In trying to find a solution or approaches on how to solve these two problems, a colleague pointed me to Titmuss’ work on human blood banks: 1970, Richard Titmuss published his seminal work “The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy” in which he described that economic analysis has its limits when it comes to rare exchanges and gifts, such as blood. Titmuss showed in his work that in crisis situations (or shortages of human blood) the prize for blood goes up: blood banks are willing to pay or raise the prize they pay donors to give blood. This attracts those people who don’t necessarily give blood for the purpose of serving a higher good (and who are usually donating), but those who otherwise don’t donate and are desperately attracted by the additional income. Which in turn means that those are people with a diet that might not include expensive whole foods, but a rather high degree of processed foods and who are therefore prone to have a lower blood quality and potentially diseases. The result in short is: The quantity of new blood supply rises, but the quality overall is lowered.
The connection I see between the blood bank insights and incentives to network/share/collaborate/engage using social media is, that while it is really helpful to show that a specific government agency is able to attract a significant number of followers or friends on a social networking site, the mere quantity and even the measurement of hits won’t deliver the insights that are necessary to understand if we are making a (quality) difference using social media. We want to reach those citizens with valuable insights, who don’t have the time to come to town hall meetings because of their family status, work schedules, kids, etc. and not only the usual suspects who always show up but don’t deliver additional insights. Social media channels might help to reach those who are unreachable through traditional forms of engagement.
We will need to design incentives in ways that help to attract those public employees who have insights that are valuable, give them the time and acknowledgment of their expert status so that they are able to squeeze the time in to help others and make it worth their effort. I have been thinking a lot about personnel evaluations, but I believe that indirect incentives might do the trick: free up time to collaborate and share knowledge by hiring additional help, giving people an extra day off (without a pay-cut of course), etc. It seems as if a lot of Gov2.0 folks are also thinking about games, such as incentives that flow through the social network and build participation pressure, such as Zynga’s Farmville or Foursquare’s badges.
I don’t have a fully thought-out solution to offer at the moment, but am in the process of developing a framework to measure trust, impact, reach, sentiments and quality of contributions on social networking sites in the public sector. Stay tuned for updates!