Social Media in eGovernment

Authors: John Sheridan (The [UK] National Archives, co-Chair), Kevin Novak (The American Institute of Architects, co-Chair) and José M. Alonso (W3C/CTIC, Staff Contact), on behalf of the W3C eGovernment Interest Group

Berners-Lee's original vision for the Web was "humanity connected by technology" yet it is only comparatively recently that the true potential of the Web for connecting people has come to the fore.

In governments around the world, the capacity of the Web for bringing people together is becoming more widely understood by public policy makers. Government officials see people using the Web to create new communities and to interact with each other for public good, but they are also cautious because of its ability to also serve malevolent purposes and compromise the authority of government provided information.

The W3C eGovernment Interest Group has begun to explore these complex sets of issues over the last six months. The extent to which governments should either encourage or discourage such activities remains unclear given the continuously evolving nature of the technology and the communities formed as a result. Alongside the perceived dangers associated with such a powerful open communications platform as the Web is, there are also enormous opportunities for individuals and societies. New and important forms of social capital are being created using the Web and the products must be recognised for their value and impact.

There is much excitement and energy about the use of social media tools for public benefit, including the use of those tools by governments directly, to engage with citizens. Members of the eGovernment Interest Group expect the incoming Obama administration in the United States to make much greater use of social media - given the success candidate Obama had with using social media tools during the election campaign. Such activity may set the tone and the yardstick against which others are judged around the world. Perhaps Obama's election marks the arrival of a new generation of politicians in power, people who will owe their election precisely because of their ability to successfully use social media tools? Irrespective of their political orientation, this new generation of politicians will naturally gravitate to using the same tools that helped their election to solve public policy problems. Does a new era beacon, with the Web the primary instrument of political, social and economic change?

One of the reasons for the growing level of interest in and exploration of social media is the many challenges confronting governments today including increased demand for online services and information, shrinking budgets, needed efficiencies for communications and outreach, and more and more practical and political priorities. Social media's promise requires changing how governments interact and engage with the citizens of the World while recognising that great change needs to occur internally and operationally. As the Web becomes more integral to our lives, so its capacity to help shape social norms will grow with greater and greater impact on how governments function and operate.

Government engagement with online communities may prove a highly successful public policy strategy. This is a new form of public service delivery, providing services where people are (in online communities on the Web), rather than expecting the citizen to come to the state. A pre-requisite step to embracing these opportunities is for governments to accept that the growth of online communities is not a passing fashion but an important and lasting trend. Only on that basis can the state begin to find the most appropriate means to engage and balance the benefits and risks of doing so.

The eGovernment Interest Group has found some notable examples where this has happened. In early 2007 UK Government Ministers commissioned social media experts, Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, to write the independent Power of Information Review. This looked at two aspects of Web 2.0 - the growth in online communities and the use that can be made of government data. The resulting recommendations stress the importance of the government engaging with existing online communities, establishing a partnership approach, rather than trying to create alternative, competing State provided services. Steinberg and Mayo urged the government to positively support the creation and development of new online communities, where it sees public benefit (for example encouraging the development of a "free legal Web" in the UK). There is even a taskforce pushing the whole agenda forwards, which itself is using social media tools, such as blogs, to engage.

As mentioned previously, the Obama campaign now in transition continues to embrace the communities formed around the successful campaign. On the last week of November 2008, the transition team requested input into the healthcare policies and agenda of the new administration. Thousands in the community contributed their ideas and thoughts and even conducted debates and exchanges among those participating. The comments and ideas were provided to Thomas Daschle, the new head of the US Health Services department for review and ingestion into the agenda and plan formation. Citizens would not have had the opportunity to contribute in this manner prior to Web 2.0 and more specifically, social media and communities.2008-12-03

Whilst the success of government engagement with these communities remains uncertain - and there will be early failures as well as successes - it is indisputable that online communities are being created in many different areas of life - including areas of direct interest and concern to policy makers. Governments should evaluate and recognise that advantage should be taken with those communities that already exist and are growing, there isn't a need in every case to build a silo community specific to government purposes.

The eGovernment Interest Group has identified three broad areas of interaction where the state has an interest in social media:

Government to Citizen

Governments have used the Web as a means for disseminating information since the mid 1990s. Web 2.0 has challenged and is changing what had been an established pattern. In every area where the state touches individuals' lives, there are discussions amongst people in online communities. It is clear that people are supporting each other to achieve public service outcomes in many countries and in many public service areas. One notable example is parents sharing their experiences and supporting each other with the daily challenges of rearing children. Hundreds of thousands of parents regularly use such services to interact and support each other.

In many cases the state already has mechanisms and programmes aimed at achieving, essentially the same set of outcomes, so how do the two interact? One obvious response is for public servants to directly engage with online communities, offering "official" advice and support. This begs several questions: do the participants of such communities expect to find public officials in their community? Is this the state as friend, or is it an overbearing intrusion into people's lives? How should public officials themselves engage - anonymously, with a pseudonym or authentically as themselves? How can others be sure the advice being given, for example about a tax matter, has come from an official? The provenance not just of the information, but also of people, starts to really matter.

Citizen to Government

Governments seek citizens' views, on matters great and small. The Web opens new possibilities for citizens to express their views. One example is wiki-like tools such as the Sunlight Foundation's Public Markup, which lets the public comment on Bills before Congress. In the UK, the Downing Street online petition service lets members of the public petition the government directly, on any matter of public interest that is within the governments' competence. The power of these tools was amply demonstrated in 2007 by a petition against the governments' favoured road pricing scheme, which garnered 1.7 million signatures. As well as attracting considerable attention for the issue, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, emailed all those who had signed the petition to explain the government's policy.

Online tools are also making previously obscured information more transparent. Notable examples and its New Zealand counterpart, as well as and in the USA or, mine Parliamentary information and use heuristics, to highlight politicians voting record and other facts in a more easily digestible form, as well as encouraging further engagement with Members of Parliament.

The eGovernment Interest Group sees a read/write Web opening up a vast range of possibilities for citizens to engage with government and influence policy makers - exchanging views with Ministers directly via comments on their personal blogs or via tools like twitter, bring together large numbers of people to apply pressure on a particular issue, commenting on, or even rewriting, complex statements of public policy.

If accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of good government, then the citizen's use of online tools, to hold politicians and officials to account, or to express their views, may directly improve the quality how we are governed.

Citizen to Citizen

Citizens are helping each other to public service outcomes. For example, there are discussion forums where people are supporting each other, ranging from healthcare information through to giving each other advice about tax matters. Some professional groups, such as lawyers and accountants, are engaging with online communities as a means of showing their professional competence with a view to attracting further paid-for work. The extent to which government encourages or discourages such activity may depend on the nature of the discussions that take place. The state would be concerned, for example, if people were being consistently being misled over some aspect of taxation, which in turn caused administrative problems.

It is also clear that the digital footprints each of us creates can be used or exploited. Although it is possible that data mined from social networking Websites could be used, anonymously or otherwise, for public interest outcomes, the use of citizen-to-citizen information by the government (for example exploiting individuals social graphs, or performing analysis of phatic communication - tweets and Facebook status updates), raises ethical, privacy, trust and consent issues.


Key questions for government


This paper encapsulates discussions of the W3C eGovernment Interest Group. It is not a formally agreed W3C position nor a policy statement by any of the organisations involved.

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