“The results suggest that there is widespread support among Canadians for the Government of Canada to invest in and use Web 2.0 applications to communicate with and provide services to Canadians.”
– excerpt from the Final Research Report Prepared by Phoenix SPI, 2008
Call it the little research project that grew.
In early 2007, Greg Meredith, ADM of communications and consultations at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) agreed to become the champion of the “Leading-edge Technologies” Working Group on behalf of the Communications Community Office of the Government of Canada (GC). The group identified the need to have a better understanding of Canadians’ awareness, attitudes and behaviours vis-à-vis emerging Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, social networking, YouTube and pod casts – social media – to assess their potential use for government communications.
It soon became clear the research was of interest to all departments and agencies, and functions well beyond communications.
A new way to work
AAFC took on the lead role and sought partners to collaborate in a comprehensive study; 23 departments agreed to participate. A steering committee was formed with representatives from AAFC’s Communications Branch, PWGSC’s Public Opinion Research Directorate and TBS’ Chief Information Officer Branch. Research managers from the 23 contributing departments and analysts at the Privy Council Office regularly shared their advice and expertise.
The New Technologies and GC Communications project was a multi-phased study involving both quantitative and qualitative research. It also led to a spin-off survey of cell phone-only households, and an additional secondary analysis of the responses of the Web Generation.
About 80 percent of Canadians reported using the Internet and almost 30 percent said they are online more than ten hours a week. They use the Internet for general browsing, email, obtaining information, seeking out news and weather information, banking online, shopping and playing games. They also use the Internet to keep informed about government – 80 percent of Internet users had visited a federal government website at least once in the past year.
But what about new social media? The survey showed that Canadians are aware of most Web 2.0 applications, though they are less likely to report using them than the Internet. The Web Generation (aged 16 to 24) are more aware of social media – and twice as likely to be using some of them. Youth are clearly “there” already.
Although Canadians reported recognizing and using these social media, they did not recognize the term “Web 2.0” – which is the way many in government and in the private sector refer to these new Internet-based applications.
A portion of the survey was dedicated to asking how they would feel if the government started using applications such as YouTube, Facebook, or blogs to communicate and deal with Canadians.
The main benefits cited by respondents related to accessibility – namely, using these applications would result in convenient and faster access to government information and technologies. Canadians also felt the applications would be effective in reaching younger people and those in rural or remote locations.
Even though 37 percent of the respondents said they had no concerns about government potentially using these social media, some respondents worried about privacy and security issues, the reliability of the content, and the possible unfairness or inequality of a government using these technologies when a portion of the population is still without Internet access.
When asked to consider specific ways that government might use social media, the respondents showed strongest support for:
1. Websites where government scientists or experts could answer the public’s questions
2. Websites that would allow Canadians to express their views on different issues
3. Audio tours or pod casts of historical and natural sites across Canada that could be downloaded.
Eight-seven percent indicated their support for GC investment in Web 2.0 technologies to communicate with, and provide services to, Canadians.
Conclusions and implications
In reviewing the data and the focus group results, the following general conclusions come to mind.
1. The public is open to government investing in and using social media. This support exists across all groups, even among those who are not currently using the Internet or Web 2.0 technologies.
2. The reasons identified for adopting Web 2.0 include: being more responsive, being less remote and keeping up-to-date with new technologies and the Canadians who use them.
3. Government will need to determine what shape its Web 2.0 adoption should take. Canadians don’t appear to have any specific expectations at present regarding the use of social media in government’s outreach and communications activities. That said, when focus group participants were shown some specific examples of how other governments in Canada and around the world were already dabbling in Web 2.0, the reaction was, in all cases, positive.
4. Connected to the previous conclusion is the consideration that Canadians may need a little encouragement to actually use any future GC Web 2.0 offerings. Thinking about the government is not generally at the forefront of most Canadians’ minds when they use these Internet-based social media.
5. Government should adopt social media where it makes most sense in improving communications and service delivery. The focus group participants cautioned against using Web 2.0 just to be “cool”; its use should be based on a sound analysis of matching the right audience with the right subject matter and the right medium.
6. Canadians trust the federal government’s presence on the Internet. Care must be taken not to harm this reputation through any potentially inappropriate use of social media.
7. Government will need to invest resources and dedicate policy work to this emerging form of media, as it is an integral part of the future of the Web. That said, those in focus groups adamantly expressed their view that these new social media should complement and supplement – but not replace – traditional GC communications and service delivery channels.
8. A repositioning of the existing policy suite will likely be needed to address current gaps, and to ensure that the GC can begin using Web 2.0 as part of its suite of tools for interacting with Canadians.
9. Finally, the use of social media represents a significant opportunity for greater creativity in interactions with citizens. While some focus group participants were a little concerned that the government may be treading into their “entertainment” space, they did nonetheless recognize the potential of these social media to increase Canadians’ direct participation in, and connection with, their government.
Cathy Ladds is a communications strategist and public opinion research specialist with Treasury Board Secretariat. She also manages the Government of Canada’s Internet Research Panel. Nancy Pawelek is the manager of public environment research and analysis at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The final research reports are available at www.porr-ropp.gc.ca (POR 130-07 and POR 300-07) or by contacting AAFC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Qualitative: 12 focus groups across the country, designed to ensure a mix o