Sunday, March 4, 2012

Unanswered Questions about Gov 2.0

As the conversation about improving government services through social media networks deepens, there remain a few questions on my mind about the prospects of a whole new mode of citizen engagement through these maverick websites. Having interacted with Bill Greeves in a Government 2.0 class, I was glad to hear someone address the truths about the several impediments to successful citizen-government interaction through social media. 

The first question I've had centers around citizen trust in government. Historically and in contemporary times, citizens and government officials have been on opposite ends of the social interaction spectrum, and there seems to be mutual distrust between both. Popularity ratings of government officials typically nosedive in crisis situations and hardly stay above water when 'all is well'. Interaction between citizens and governments have begun to increase in recent times; obviously the advent of social media has helped, though it might not be the direct causal factor, yet it has undeniably aided the bridging of the gap. The question therefore is "Will social media usage significantly increase citizen trust in government?" I haven't yet found a convincing answer to the question; my country, Nigeria being a case in point: the presence of the President on Facebook over the last two years has not done significantly much to increase trust in his government. While certain personalities take to routinely praising the President on his Facebook page, the page has granted citizens a more direct platform to rain insults on the President (whether he manages the page personally is another issue). Will an under-performing government save face by its constant presence on social media or will social media serve to expose the government's weaknesses? 

My second question is about adopting the proper social media strategy by government: "Is every social media site appropriate for government?" Understandably, the purpose of Government 2.0 is for government agencies to be where the citizens are in order to engage them there and meet their needs, but the question still lingers: "does government have to be EVERYWHERE citizens are"? Aren't there some spaces reserved for citizens to just be themselves without having the government interfere and attempt to show that they care? Facebook started out as a hangout spot for kids until parents and governments showed up; Twitter was an alternative to paying for text messages and broadcasting the messages to several followers at once until government showed up; Youtube was for watching cool videos until government showed up; LinkedIn was for networking with potential employers and colleagues until government showed up; Flickr was for posting pictures of parties and pets until government showed up and now government has shown up on Pinterest again! Can't people just post pictures for fun without government trying to prove to be cool? Does government have to be on EVERY social media site? 

Finally, the link between Gov 2.0 and policy implementation seems to be unclear to me. As Bill Greeves rightly noted, there aren't any specific case examples of government implementing policies based on the feedback generated from social media networks. The Obama administration has made a lot of talk about crowd-sourcing ideas through but the question remains "How soon until citizens feel the direct impact of their feedback on government policies?" Since social media sites can serve to open up new channels of communication between citizens and government, is the communication just a means of keeping citizens silent, assuming that their contributions are welcome while the same old agenda is implemented? Or is there really something to it? It won't take a long time to fool citizens: if an administration assumes that posting cool pictures on Flickr will suffice or tagging postcards on Pinterest will quieten citizens, it will have to rethink that thought. If anything has been learned about citizens, it is that they will always find means of channeling their grievances as soon as they realize that they've been fooled. 

These are only preliminary questions and obviously, more questions are bound to arise over time as governments establish a clearer presence on social media sites.

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