Wednesday, June 27, 2012
How social media can be used for public participation in government: first step - inform.

There are many roles for social media within government agencies.

Joshua Joseph of the Partnership for Public Service is spearheading research into one area: improving operations.  We had a lively, discursive conversation yesterday not only about how social media can be used at various points in an agency’s project life-cycle, but about how the Partnership can use social media in the creation of the report itself.

There’s one aspect of government activity that calls out for a deep dive on the thoughtful and comprehensive application of social media: increasing public participation.  I’d like to be the first to fill my tank, check my regulator, and step into a wet suit.

Citizen Engagement vs. Public Participation

A few weeks ago, I wrote this, as a preamble to my current series


The goal of the [IAP2] spectrum--and of this series--is to help government agencies develop, implement, evaluate and iterate citizen engagement programs.  [Citizen engagement]  has been an explicit priority in the current administration, but it has also been an implicit priority since our nation's founding.  The spirit to participate in government ranges from people joining hyper-local neighborhood associations to attending million-person marches, to visiting their elected representatives in their Washington, DC, offices.


But before we can talk about how to improve engagement, we have to define what engagement means.  Fortunately, the International Association for Public Participationhas provided an excellent framework, which will serve as the foundation of this series. 

The First Step: Inform

The most casual kind of public participation is simply sending and receiving information.  For the government, it means communicating what is happening, or what is about to happen, and for citizens it means reading or hearing about it. 

Though this is the most basic kind of public participation, it is also the most essential to get right.  For people to be able to work their way up the participation ladder—to consult or collaborate with governments, or to get involved in government activities—they first have to know what their government is doing.

Using Social Media to Inform

Perhaps there was a time when “informing the public” was as simple as holding an event, inviting the media, issuing a press release, and/or calling prominent members of the community.  But if there was, it is long gone now.  Newspaper circulation is diminishing, even as dailies ranging from the New York Times to my own hometown paper, the Lakeland Ledger, are on Facebook and Twitter

And for good reason: two years ago, the Pew Internet and American Life Project  conducted a study that found “37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.” This was 2010—think how much more prevalent that is today.

Governments are facing the same trend: if they need to let people know what’s happening, they need to do it not just online, through their own Web site, but through the social media sites that people visit, that newspapers publish to, and (most important) through whose auspices citizens share information with one another.

More than Copy/Paste

The line that social media professionals use to describe sites and tools like Facebook and email is that they’re “free like puppiesnot free like beer.”  Newsletters, Facebook Timelines, Twitter feeds, bulletin boards, online event calendars—all these “free” tools require constant attention not only to update with new content, but to remove old content and to monitor discussions as they progress. 

Informing the public—the lowest level of “engagement”—is still not a matter only of broadcasting information, it is also a matter of paying attention to the conversation as it develops.

Informing is also not simply about putting a message out on a single place in a single platform.  To cite Facebook as an example, there are many groups within Facebook that agencies should join if they are trying to reach specific audiences.

The key to using social media effectively, for informing the public and every step up the participation latter, is having as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the three irreducible elements of public participation.  In my next post, I’ll detail those  three aspects that every social media professional needs to know—and that her managers will take for granted—if she is to succeed.