Monday, April 28, 2014

Social Media and Governance

Contrary to what may appear in the first view, social media is not and should not be regarded as an anathema to good governance. Good governance is about creating a public space which lends inclusion to civil society and provides for an effective interaction with the state and its various organs. Civil Society has the potential to drive the good governance agenda through communication, providing a balance between messages that have their origin within and without the government.
Social media has changed the landscape of social engagement. We are now in a hyper connected world - the ICT Facts and Figures (2013) show a continued and almost universal growth in ICT uptake. In 2013, there are almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as people in the world, with more than half in the Asia-Pacific region (3.5 billion out of 6.8 billion total subscriptions). Mobile-cellular penetration rates stand at 96%globally; 128%in developed countries; and 89%in developing countries. In 2013, over 2.7 billion people are using the Internet, which corresponds to 39% of the world’s population. These figures illustrate that online computing and communication have become ubiquitous, this unprecedented connectivity coupled with Smartphones and Tablets have revolutionised Social Media Consumption.
The Arab Spring in 2011 would probably be remembered as a landmark event – a signal of the enormous impact that social media could have by weaving together discrete events into a singular force which shook the middle east and caused long entrenched regimes across the region to fall. There were revolutions before, but this was the one which leveraged the power of new tools and the technology- of the internet and social media. In its most simplistic understanding of the entire series of events, social media helped save time by fostering quicker linkages between thought leaders and ordinary people to create a rapidly growing network of people willing to act.   A paradigm shift has happened since, it is not only the government of the day, or the big money which makes opinions and controls outcomes, but it is the new communities and groups- often linked up across national borders- which are in the position to call the shots as well.
 
The social media platforms are enabling in many ways and they have by making use of highly accessible and scalable communication techniques offered a voice to those excluded from the political discourse- the communication has now turned into an interactive dialogue. There is now a vast amount of user- generated content on social media platforms which express ideas, opinions and share hope in a global way. Many of these ideas and opinions articulate and identify the community’s needs and/ or measure the government’s performance. It helps improve the citizen’s understanding and awareness of their rights and augments their capacity to engage in public dialogue and public affairs. This, hopefully should translate into more transparent and a more responsive governance.
United Nations
The UN E-Government Survey 2012 notes the increasing role of e-government in promoting inclusive and participatory development has gone hand-in-hand with the growing demands for transparency and accountability in all regions of the world. E- government has strongly shifted expectations of what governments can and should do, using modern information and communication technologies, to strengthen public service and advance equitable, people-centred development. This report shows that with the right institutional framework, policies and capacity-building efforts, progress in enhancing the contributions of e-government to sustainable development is within reach. The report also observes that leveraging social media for the benefit of e-service uptake is another area where a greater effort can make a difference since currently only 40 per cent of Member States are using a social networking site.
The communication with citizens on social media platforms could be direct when expressed on pages/ forums owned by the government departments themselves or it could be facilitated through intermediary actors like the professional media on platforms hosted by them, but the latter would presuppose the presence of a self- regulated, active and a responsible professional media sector.
The widespread use of social media and its increasing importance as a tool for communication underscore the need to set up guidelines for social media interaction with government organizations to optimize its use as a tool to connect with citizens. The need to set up key signposts in any such interaction is identified as a requirement for corporations and other entities trying to use the social media platforms as well.  This has led to evolution of social media policies and as the study of one such social media policy database would suggests, there are certain core values like not divulging non-public information, taking non- partisan political stands, expectations of a basic level of civility etc. which find a reflection right through.  
In India too, many government departments like the Ministry of External Affairs, Delhi Traffic Police etc. have engaged on social media platforms with the citizens. With this increasing engagement, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeITY) has in September 2011 laid down the approved social media policy framework  after due consultations. This framework encourages officials while commenting on issues to clearly identify her/himself in professional capacity, refrain from making personal comments or comments about draft legislations/sub-judice matters, emphasise politeness, not to reveal personal details of self or others and be open to both positive and negative comments though it may not be essential to respond to all of them.  
Political processes are, essentially, communication processes, on-going dialogues between people, parties, pressure groups and governments. The political environment shapes the way in which communications work with regard to governance. Providing the right information is the key to fostering social awareness and facilitating democratic participation. However, it is never a given that the right or accurate information will spread automatically. State or non- state actors can as easily monopolise and manipulate communication to spread messages which provoke fear, violence and hinder development. This is latent threat of manipulation exists as much on social media communication as it does on more traditional means of communicating.
 
For the government, social media creates a means to improve governance by allowing information to rapidly transfuse; it opens up access to government officials, creates possibilities for new community based initiatives’ as well as saves time and money. For the citizen, it allows them to better public services and collaborate across government departments to bring change and highlight new imperatives for policy. Social media is not a homogenous, indistinguishable whole- these are user- centred organisations and self- organising networks and can be used to deliver public value effectively. The prerequisite is that the communication has to be put into the right social channel to target the intended clientele (for example LinkedIn will not carry a message to teens).  Social media strategy has to be a part of the overall communication mix and will require some reorientation and attitudinal changes to be effectively used by governments.

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