Saturday, February 11, 2012

Government Agency? Pause...Before Opening a Facebook Page

While musing recently on the many benefits of social media adoption by government agencies, I thought it wise to devote some thoughts to the downside. Facebook and Twitter have been hailed as amazing tools for government agencies to communicate more effectively with the public, and indeed it is. Before the Mayor of Syracuse, NY can summon the press corps together to announce a new economic stimulus plan, a tweet to all her followers will be instantly retweeted by the several thousand residents of the city who might be following her. Likewise, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ who has made his Facebook page the premier outlet for celebrating the reduction of crime in Newark can attest to the fact that it's much quicker and effective in reaching people without the fear of being quoted out of context.

In spite of the awesomeness of social media, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria will not be quick to celebrate the speed with which he can be reached through his Facebook page. When the government of Nigeria made the decision to cut the subsidy on fuel production in the country on January 1, 2012, thus increasing gas prices by a whooping 150%, he must have regretted not closing down his Facebook page. The barrage of criticisms and insults he received from many of his 696,993 Facebook friends was intensely frustrating.

Beyond criticisms for ineffective policies, government officials are subject to several challenges in the adoption of social media. Firstly, there is the burden of increased expectation for service delivery. When a citizen follows a government agency on Twitter, he assumes that a tweet to the agency to fix the puddle in front of his house will be treated with utmost agency. In stark contrast to the era of Government 1.0, a message sent through social media has very slim chances of getting lost in transit, and is received instantly by the government agency, therefore the regular delay in communication between citizens and elected officials is eliminated. Secondly, government agencies have no control over the design of the social media applications which they are expected to adopt. A government agency might not particularly be impressed with the 'like' feature on Facebook, or might not be excited about the privacy settings on Twitter but has very little control over that. A government agency might also want to include additional features on a design of its own interface if that were possible, but evidently, government agencies are subject to the same designs that all citizens utilize.

Finally, there is the possibility of government social media sites instigating violence. An uncanny citizen might post false or incriminating information on the Facebook wall of a government agency, which might inspire negative emotions in the readers. If that agency does not have an efficient social media manager who can douse the flames before they get started, an entire city might be ablaze before word gets out that the information was false. It is also not impossible that hackers might get behind official social media accounts and broadcast false information that does not bode well with the people, and the disaster management process might not go as smoothly as is preferred.

The moral of this exposition therefore is for government agencies to pause before adopting social media tools, weigh the pros and cons of possible occurrences, employ capable social media managers, prepare disaster management strategies and then open up to the world. A failure of preparation on the part of a government agency will surely be exposed in no time; and hopefully, more than a few jobs can be saved when disaster strikes.

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