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Social Media and Public Service: Opportunities and Challenges

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sunday Olukoju
December 23, 2014

Introduction

A professional public service prides itself on the values of independence, competence, non-partisanship and representativeness. Its vision and mission strive for excellence, and it is guided by and proudly adheres to the “values” of “integrity” in its actions; “fairness” in its decisions; “respect” in its relationships; and “transparency” in its communication. The public service website in the U.S. boldly invites users to “Engage Through Social Media – Chat with us, get updates on Facebook and Twitter, or post your comments on the USA.gov blog.” Public service efficiency or inefficiency can make or mar a government and governments around the world are beginning to recognize the importance of interactive social media.

The U.S. public service website encouraged users to ensure proper protection by verifying “federal social media accounts; stay informed about scams; find out how to prepare for disasters; and more.” It calls on the public to connect with the public service professionals “by email, live chat or by calling 1 (800) FED INFO (333-4636)” and to “also follow USA.gov on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.” In this information age where influence and persuasion matter so much, the need to strategically position the public service via social media becomes imperative.

Opportunities

Sunday decChristian Fuchs, in a 2014 Triple C (Cognition, Communication, Co-Operation): Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society article titled “Social Media and the Public Sphere” submits that “Social media has become a key term in Media and Communication Studies and public discourse for characterising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, WordPress, Blogspot, Weibo, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr.” For an average citizen, the array of social media could only mean additional opportunities to let out or reach out freely, unlike when “conventional media appear to use the protests of the poor people for making headline, selling their products and running their businesses, rather than communicating the unfettered voices of the majority,” according to Sebola, Tsheola and Molopa, in a 2014 Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology article titled “Conventional Mass Media and Social Networks in a Democratic South Africa: Watchdogs for Good Governance and Service Delivery?” They conclude that social media networks are highly likely to promote the voices of the poor majority for good democratic governance of service delivery. It should be deployed creatively and proactively, with strong emphasis on interactive and resilient platform that will elicit feedback and guarantee openness without sacrificing security and confidentiality.

A two-way communication within the public service and between it and the general public should suffice. An interactive platform will encourage inputs, build social capital, promote community/government engagement and collaboration and inspire exchange of ideas. Across departments within the public service and between the public service and the general public, information shared must be factual, with verifiable scientific evidence where necessary. Information should be personalized, purposeful, open and transparent.

Challenges

The report of a cyber attack by some North Korean-backed hackers has now been appropriately called a “game-changer.” This portends a grave danger to the information held and shared digitally. This could have adverse effect on the economy. A situation where a private organization collaborates with clients to help them become high-performance businesses and governments also raises questions about privacy, trust, patriotism and accountability especially in a century that has witnessed a possible act of sabotage by a national security contractor who was later aided to escape prosecution in the U.S. by WikiLeaks.

Christian Fuchs did express concern over “the colonisation of the social media lifeworld,” proposing that this trend be “countered politically so that social media and the Internet become public service and commons-based media.” ISIS or ISIL is also known to be using social media to recruit gullible fighters from the West. The cost of sustaining a resilient social media platform in an age when cyber attackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and faceless will be a serious issue worth pursuing from now on.

Insight for the future?

Accenture, the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, proposed that public service leaders embrace four structural shifts:—advancing from standardized toward personalized services (using data insights and working with citizens to design convenient, relevant service experiences that reflect how people want to connect in the digital age); from reactive to insight-driven operations (gathering, sharing and analyzing data to produce the insights needed for improved transparency, enhanced collaboration and more efficient public service); from public management to a public entrepreneurship mindset (sparking economic outcomes, maximizing investments and driving efficiency by seeking innovation, inspiration and collaboration across and outside government) and from a cross-agency commitment to mission productivity (eliminating duplicate efforts, restructuring functions and sharing processes and assets to drive back-office efficiency—and enhance front-line service delivery). “By making these shifts,” according to Accenture, “leaders can support flourishing societies, safe, secure nations and economic vitality for citizens—delivering public service for the future.”

Conclusion

If public service leaders embrace the four structural shifts, what are some of the possible implications? How far can they advance in advancing from standardized toward personalized services, given the wide and differing demography and experiences of people? In terms of the shift from reactive to insight-driven operations, how reliable would the data be, and how sincere would all stakeholders be to the call for improved transparency? On the move from public management to a public entrepreneurship mindset, at what point could the drive to maximize investment and efficiency trump social service delivery at the lowest cost to the people? And in terms of moving from a cross-agency commitment to mission productivity, how can one guarantee that self-preservation will not truncate the elimination of duplicate efforts, especially if such move could become a political suicide during elections?


Author: Sunday Akin Olukoju, Ph.D. is the president of Canadian Center for Global Studies, a nonprofit organization and also teaches at Athabasca University in Alberta, CanadaOlukoju can be reached at [email protected]

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