The good news is that the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of utilizing modern communication technologies. Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government committed departments to use social media and government web 2.0 tools to improve their engagement with citizens and businesses. The Clerk’s Twentieth Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada affirmed that new linkages between social media and public policy were to be explored. More recently, the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service has made social media a key issue and is exploring how these new technology tools can best be used for both public engagement and internal communication purposes.
The enduring obstacle is not resistance to social media, but a communication culture that has yet to adapt to new ways of organizing, collaborating and delivering a message. Layers of process governing how a communication officer responds to a comment or a question online prevent the free flow of information between departments and citizens. Obviously, there are risks involved that need to be managed, but instead of bubble-wrapping itself in approval processes, the public service needs a strategy so that communication can be streamlined.
Some departments are showing the way forward. Through its different social media channels, Passport Canada’s service presence on social media supports passport application processes and in addition, promotes the responsible use of Canadian passports.
Passport Canada responds almost immediately to questions and provides a personal message to customers. Passport Canada has also modernized its communication process by developing internal coordination and collaboration with subject matter experts in their department and with other government departments that share similar information. It has established a direct link between communication officers (the men and women who actually respond to comments and questions online) and subject matter experts and eliminated several layers of approval process. As a result, this has accelerated the communication process and provides (almost) real-time information to customers.
Every department is different, so there is no “one size fits all” approach. Each department must address their own communication challenges and administration complexities. A social media strategy can help departments plan how they can modernize their communication process in a way that helps make public services more accessible and responsive.
One approach is to have a selection of messages, such as a tweet or videos, correspond with an overall brand strategy. It can also be about building communities online through followers, retweets, engaging citizens by mentioning their handle, and using multi-site management tools and social relationship management analytics to help understand and manage target audiences.
One good example is Blueprint 2020’s social media strategy. As a bottom-up, government-wide reform initiative, the small Blueprint 2020 secretariat team understood that for their brand to grow it had to build a relationship with public servants instead of pushing information onto them. To do so, the Blueprint 2020 team established a strong presence on Twitter. It created its own hashtag to mark the brand, built an online community of followers to promote it, and engaged with users by responding and retweeting their messages. Blueprint 2020 also employed the use of analytics to understand how its target audience reacted to its messages and how it can identify opportunities.
The continued success of Blueprint’s 2020 social media strategy is the result of a message that is consistent, relevant, and aligned with its strategy of public service reform. More often than not, strategy is knowing what not to do. Avoiding scope creep and adopting continual learning processes helps ensure the success of social media strategies.
Passport Canada and Blueprint 2020 show how government departments can leverage the use of 21st century communication tools.
A large opportunity exists for social media to improve trust in government institutions. Citizens are increasingly demanding more of an open and participatory government and social media can play a role in changing the relationship between citizens and government. Social media, by its nature, is a collaborative and inclusive tool designed to connect people and destroy institutional barriers. A citizen who gets a personal reply about a government initiative on Twitter or who receives an answer to a question on Facebook is no longer a passive recipient of government services. He or she becomes engaged and personally involved in the operations of government. The potential outcome is a decrease in apathy towards public institutions and the strengthening of trust towards the public service. Might social media be the key to ensuring government’s legitimacy in the 21st century?
Jeffrey Neto is a graduate student of public administration at Dalhousie University and co-founder of Active Citizens Foundation. He currently works as a junior analyst for the Canada School of Public Service. The views expressed here are entirely his own.