Romanian Journal of Public Administration: Interview on social media in the public sector

Ines Mergel, social media specialist: „Government agencies are not used to liking, sharing”

In order to highlight a few of the major aspects regarding the use of social media instruments at the level of public administrations, we tried to obtain a specialist’s opinion. Therefore, we talked to Ines Mergel, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs, and a Senior Research Associate in the Center for Technology and Information Policy, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

In the next lines, you can read about Ines Mergel’s advice regarding the use of social media instruments.

1. What could be the main advantages and risks, for the public administration, of using social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter?

Generally, I would say that government has more to gain from the use of social media than to lose. However, the problem is that government agencies are not used to ‘friending’, ‘liking’, ‘sharing’ or even just proactively pointing citizens to government content. The information and communication paradigm in the public sector is usually limited to low frequency of information sharing. That means in a press release-style an agency shares information when it actually has something to say. The fast and furious online exchanges on social networking sites are oftentimes very challenging to the bureaucracy: government officials are bound to their internal policies and regulations, have to keep the hierarchy in mind and get confirmation before they share information.

The advantages are pretty clear – not just to me – but for government organizations. In the U.S., 90% of local government agencies have a Twitter account and 94% have a Facebook account. Many also maintain other content creation sites, such as Instagram accounts or blogs, so that citizens are notified in case there is new information. On the federal government level all agencies maintain a presence on social media and they “want to be where the people”: To represent themselves, but also to reach citizens where they prefer to receive their information. Social media channels have become an important part of the communication tool kit to test the ‘temperature’ (how people feel about policy changes), increase public awareness for programs and pull people in to government information on an agency’s website. Another important part is that government does not always have to be actively involved in online network exchanges, it oftentimes helps them to listen in and share correct information in case people are spreading rumors.

The risks are unfortunately always present and every time something goes wrong on social media, internal policies are tightened to prevent missteps in the future. I believe the greatest risk is over-communication and not understanding the individual culture of each social networking site. Oftentimes, government agencies simply replicate their standard communication to Web 2.0 applications, completely ignoring citizens’ needs. This is certainly a reflection of government employees’ digital literacy. But also a function of the fast changing nature of the sites. People can’t handle the amount of comments they receive once the floodgates on social media are opened and tend to ignore comments – a practice that can backlash as well. The result is that citizens see a confirmation of their bias that government is slow to respond and might even make fun of agencies. Another huge risk is to abandon social media sites or not moving on when a social networking site clearly does not attract the stakeholders an agency wants to reach. A great example is ironically enough the FBI’s Facebook page. There is no moderator, no commenting policy enforcement or active responses to citizens.

2. What kind of resources does an institution need in order to benefit from the advantages of social media?

I believe the greatest challenge is cultural and not so much monetary. First, an agency needs to understand the new information paradigm and get top management buy-in to allow employees to experiment with new technologies. My main concern is always that agencies might leave it up to the interns, the young guns who grew up with the technology and know where to click. However, they don’t know what is appropriate to share or how the agency prefers to communicate.

There are different models out there. Some agency make social media part of the public affairs or communication responsibilities and they quickly share their once created content out to social networking sites. Others decentralize the efforts and let teams or campaigns create their own social media channels. I would always advocate for a dedicated social media person who bridges the organization’s members and the public and sees herself/himself as an advocate for both. Start with a task force and include those who really want to innovate, legal counsel to be sure you are covered, and create a business case for your top management to get the resources you need.

3. Can institutions use social media for communicating information in the case of emergencies (natural hazards for example)? Can you provide such an example?

One of the most interesting applications of social media is during emergency situations. Even during power blackouts, cellphone towers are still sending signals to wireless cellphones, because they are operating on a different power grid and usually don’t go down during an emergency situation. Here in the U.S. the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an extremely social media-savvy director who included social media use into the first responder instructions. Citizens are seen as “first first-responders”, those who are at the scene first, even before the actual first responders show up and they help to inform both authorities as well as other citizens by live-tweeting or sharing their photos, impressions of severity and impact. Social media has become a true resilient digital infrastructure, when the actual infrastructure, such as phone lines, TV networks, and power grids are not available.

Excellent examples include the earthquakes in Haiti, where cellphone coverage was restored before any other government service, such as hospitals were back in place. Another recent example here in the U.S. is the government information sharing before, during and after the super-storm Sandy. NYC mayor’s office sent break-through messages to those citizens located in the evacuation areas. While it is difficult in this case to say whether lives were saved, government has truly embraced new technologies to inform the public.

The U.S. Geological Service now uses citizen Twitter updates to measure the impact they feel during earthquakes and posts them on an Internet Intensity map. The information from citizens is now used in combination with scientific information collected by the agency and helps to coordinate government responses.

There are many less tactical or less intrusive emergencies that citizens experience on a day-to-day basis where social media platforms help out. For example, the U.S. experiences unforeseen amounts of snow fall currently, and volunteers create online support groups to coordinate volunteer snow crews and help each other out. New social interaction platforms are used to coordinate these responses. SeeClickFix.com is one of these remarkable platforms.

4. Do you have a prediction regarding the future of social media in the public administration sector?

Predicting the social media future is difficult. The tools are not designed for day-to-day governance and citizens main purpose to use social media tools is not to stay in touch with government. I would even say on the contrary. I believe we have another 2-3 years with new tools constantly popping up and government’s changing ability to use them for their own purposes. For example, I believe that content curation tools, such as Storify (n.r. social network which was launched in 2010, it allows its users to create stories using sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) are very helpful for agencies that are running temporary campaigns and try to gain attention of the public in a very short amount of time. These tools help to pull together information from across different social media platforms. Government has an opportunity to innovate, but it needs to let the public in.

Quotes used in the article:

  1. ‘In the U.S., 90% of local government agencies have a Twitter account and 94% have a Facebook account’.
  2. ‘My main concern is always that agencies might leave it up to the interns, the young guns who grew up with the technology and know where to click. However, they don’t know what is appropriate to share or how the agency prefers to communicate.
  3. ‘Here in the U.S. the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an extremely social media-savvy director who included social media use into the first responder instructions. Citizens are seen as “first first-responders”, those who are at the scene first, even before the actual first responders show up and they help to inform both authorities as well as citizens by live tweeting or sharing their photos, impressions of severity and impact’.
  4. ‘Another recent example here in the U.S. is the government information sharing before, during and after the superstorm Sandy. NY city’s mayor’s office sent break through messages to those citizens located in the evacuation areas. While it is difficult in this case to say whether lives were saved, government has truly embraced new technologies to inform the public’.

Box:

The work of Ines Merges is also focused on using, within public administrations, of innovating methods and new technologies, such as the social media component.

You can find more articles published by the researcher on her blog: inesmergel.wordpress.com.

Also, there can also be mentioned other important articles, such as: Social Media in the public Sector – A Guide to Participation, Collaboration and Transparency in The Networked World; Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide: Designing and Implementing Strategies and Policies, A Manager’s Guide to Social Media Strategy, Working the Network: A Manager’s Guide for Using Twitter in Government, Using Wiki’s in Government: A Guide for using and maintaining wikis in the public sector.

Here is the original version in Romanian:

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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