As governments seek transformational change to shift from austerity to agility, there is much enthusiasm for social media as a platform for renewal. Yet despite lofty objectives and genuine experimentation, any objective assessment of social media’s public sector impacts thus far would be decidedly mixed. We’ve arrived at a place described by one leading Danish e-government expert, Jeremy Millard, as “Gov 1.5.”
What explains the limited progress? Traditional government and democracy have long been predicated on stability and methodical structures, resulting in a pace of change intentionally more guarded than in the marketplace. Moreover, historical research on information technology tells us that those with power tend to utilize IT in efforts to reinforce and expand that power, rather than relinquish or share it.
Both factors explain how social media has come to be embraced primarily as a communications medium rather than a participative platform. This holds true internally within the executive branch and public service, as well as externally in terms of the citizenry and outside stakeholders. Across both realms, social media channels remain much more about informing than listening, more about execution rather than engagement.
Those at the top set the tone. Despite some notable exceptions, the Canadian political class remains highly tepid in its social media usage, perhaps especially true of ministers both federal and provincial. While Australia has seen several high-profile digital initiatives in recent years, including a ground-breaking Web 2.0 task force established by the federal government, nothing of the sort exists in this country (perhaps since the ground-breaking but evermore distant Crossing Boundaries initiatives).
Instead of cultivating democratic innovation, social media has instead augmented the visibility of a select few politicians, further accentuating the concentration of power that has become the hallmark of the Westminster model. Intense partisan spin further reinforces this adversarial, communications-centric mindset.
Within the public service, senior officials face two constraints: first, a career shaped by elected officials acting in an aforementioned manner; and second, their own challenges in adapting to social media and Web 2.0 tools in genuinely transformational ways. A recent graduate thesis (available online via Ryerson University) by Anne Bermonte, for instance, examined individual capacities of senior managers within the government of Ontario: she found many significant hurdles including training and organizational culture, as well as a constraining policy environment emphasizing control.
Of course, demographics matter here: while age alone cannot explain aptitude for new digital devices and social media deployment, nor can it be ignored. In a recent online class of my own, for example, one ADM from another provincial government marveled at his creation of a Facebook page as one element of a Web 2.0 group project; other mid-career managers in the same class worked collaboratively on a wiki for the first time (impressed, as it turned out, with the workflow and results).
The impacts of younger generations remain largely stunted. Despite thoughtful contributions to this publication and various bodies informally enjoining new voices, the public sector as a whole languishes behind industry in reverse mentoring and other techniques to embrace the collaborative and innovative potential of social media. All too often, new recruits are instead the recipient of lectures as to what they must never tweet, rather than being invited to partake in widened and novel conversations about doing things differently.
The control-laden apparatus of social media usage internally, indicative of a deeply engrained aversion to risk, correspondingly shapes external interactions and mindsets. Despite lofty rhetoric of service co-design and “prosumers” in recent years, efforts to involve the public in genuine processes of engagement remain exceedingly rare.
But they are also expanding. A recent issue of the European Journal of ePractice, for example, explores the usage of social media by governments around the world, most notably in Europe. Among the many insights, Greek researchers effectively synthesize some of the prerequisites to meaningfully engaging social media strategies capable of leveraging collective intelligence for the creation of public value.
Two notable conditions include: the creation of a new organizational unit devoted to social media methodologies and analytics and the fostering of an alternative, government-wide human resource culture to shift away from the traditional command and control mindset of government bureaucracy and begin to embrace employee engagement. The resulting conundrum, however, is that any such lead unit will require strong political support, but all too often such support translates into the inward and cautionary tendencies described above.
In other words, organizational transformation is impossible without political innovation and more open and collaborative forms of democratic engagement than our present Westminster model is able to provide. Such was a key conclusion of the Australian 2.0 task force and similar findings flow from numerous other studies. A splashy homepage and a few ministerial tweets cannot suffice…
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).