Most senior civil servants are Baby Boomers or Generation Xers, born at a time without the internet. But does this mean that web communities are too ‘young’ for top officials to operate in effectively? In interviews with FutureGov, government officials from Australia, Malaysia and the UK argue that although civil servants may not feel comfortable using social media to reach young citizens, the rewards are worth the risks.
The average age of a specialist IT developer in the government of South Australia is 58. The state’s CIO, Andrew Mills, says that while the medium does not come naturally to many in the civil service, social media has become “a fact of life” for governments that want to reach out to young citizens. “If you want to talk to people, you need to go to the place where they’re talking,” he said.”
Craig Thomler is the Online Communications Director for the Government of Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing. “Young people are more casual in their use of social media, and are more adept at creating their own spaces online,” he told FutureGov. “For older generations, social media can be like going to another country.”
Datuk Arpah binti Abdul Razak, Director General of Local Government in Malaysia, observes that her younger officers have taken “like ducks to water” to social media. “They are very comfortable with it, and have a natural inclination to use it. The older generation of civil servants still prefer the conventional methods of networking; meetings, business lunches, and so on.”
The generation gap could be less a factor than a reluctance to take risks. Arpah noted: “Some government departments bar their people from using social media altogether. Partly, I think, due to the risk-averse nature of the civil service.” However, she added, if the technology is used properly, and guidelines are adhered to, the risk that goes with using social media can be minimised.”
Glyn Evans, the Director of Business Change at Birmingham City Council in the UK says that age has little to do whether or not a civil servant gets social media. “It depends on whether you are an active participant generally. I’m not, and don’t generally use social media for work purposes. But others do. Is there an age-related aspect to this?”
There is an expectation by the social media community of instantaneous responses and, in general, civil servants are more deliberative, he added. “Also, external communication has traditionally been mediated through communications professionals whereas social media engagement is direct and potentially puts the civil servant personally ‘in the firing line’. I’ve experienced this directly, and it’s not particularly comfortable.”
British civil servants are being encouraged to get more involved online. The greater use of digital technologies was a key part of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent speech, and the Conservative opposition has been making similar noises. With a General Election looming, use of social media by civil servants is “likely to increase significantly,” says Evans.
But Evans notes that it would be wrong to force individual civil servants to use social media if they are reluctant to do so. ”We should ensure that civil servants should be aware of both the opportunities and challenges that using social media present.” Recently published guidelines for tweeting or Facebooking civil servants, are “practical and sensible”, says Evans.
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