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Central Government / Citizen Engagement / Feature / Asia Pacific / Innovation / Cities

Should policy be debated in social media?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently appointed 200 people to read through the 50,000 messages he has received from his 250,000 followers since he opened a Twitter account. His critics complain that the rambunctious President should spend less time...

13/07/2010

Haiyan Qian, Director, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs, says that the role of social media in policymaking is contentious. “Policymaking is dependent upon the context of the policy and institutional structure,” she says. “But I certainly see merits in its role in complementing the effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policy.”

Qian uses a real-life case to make her point. A local government had instituted plans to build new bridges, which were long overdue. “The construction process was stalled for no particular reason. A concerned citizen posted remarks about this on social media, and included a photo of the half-built bridges. Her concerns were shared and echoed by more people and public pressure led to the eventual completion of the bridges.”

“It is increasingly useful to debate policy in social media,” she concludes. “There is a real need to address issues such as identity management, privacy, transparency and accountability.”

With this in mind, FutureGov asked senior civil servants in China, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore for their views. Should policy be debated in social media?

Datuk Arpah binti Abdul Razak, Director General, Local Government, Malaysia
First, it is important to understand that Malaysian society is plural in nature and diversity of religion, race, culture and political affiliation. No one is excluded from these values, which have shaped Malaysia’s economic and socio-political landscape. And to a certain extent, policy is already being debated in social media. The public uses it to get heard on policies just as they do in letters to the editor in newspapers. But there are limits. According to the Communication and Multimedia Act, content that causes annoyance or harm, incites crime, leads to public disorder or is a threat to national security is prohibited. So while plurality of views is, of course, very important in Malaysia, in my view debate on policy matters is best left to Parliament, the Senate and the State Assembly, who were elected representatives under the democratic system to do just that.

Zaqy Mohamad, Member of Parliament & Chairman, Govt, Parliamentary Committee Ministry of Info Com and the Arts, Singapore
Singapore’s government leaders have led the way in engaging citizens through social media. The REACH (www.reach.gov.sg) portal, launched in October 2006, is a platform for the government to gather and gauge ground sentiment. Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan has a blog on which he expresses his opinions on policies, and the public is able to give feedback to him directly. Most of the Members of Parliament have a Facebook account with which they engage citizens. Policies can and should be discussed on social media. The question is to what extent do you communicate on policies that are not yet released? And what types of policies are more suitable to be debated on the social media platform? Policies which have a social impact are perfect for open discussion on social media. For example, cost of healthcare, transportation, social welfare or elderly care are close to people’s hearts and they are more likely to participate. The challenge we face is knowing whether it is the majority, minority and the right target group who are participating in such discussions.

Jiang Yichun, Deputy Division Chief, Secretariat of Dalian Administrative Service Centre, China (pictured)
Social media in China tend to be a means for entertainment or making friends. Anyone is free to comment on these platforms. But when it comes to policy, social media are out of bounds - it is inappropriate for Chinese civil servants to be discussing policy on these platforms. China’s Premier, Hu Jintao, launched a blog some time ago, but it soon closed. In such an open environment where anyone can comment, this includes enemies of the state. Such individuals are often looking to spread rumours about the Chinese government, which are usually inflammatory and counterproductive. Such statements could lead to a misunderstanding of government, and undermine peace and stability. Besides, there are many other ways for government to communicate with citizens, such as online public forums, but these are subject to stringent layers of approval. One of the reasons why Google left China is that it could not accept China’s approval system.

Garry Poole, Chief Information Officer, Wellington City Council, New Zealand
In New Zealand, all levels of government are adopting social media. Wellington City Council now uses social media to gather feedback from the community on our annual budget-setting and taxation process. But it is also used to gather opinions on a wide range of other issues - everything from dog-control to a debate about the drinking of alcohol in public places. I also have staff who monitor local blog sites and, if necessary, respond to comments that question and criticise the Council’s policies and decisions. New Zealand is no different to the rest of the world in terms of its adoption of social media and technology in general. The pace of life is quickening relentlessly – and most people just don’t have time to participate in local democracy in the way it used to be done – through meetings in draughty public halls. That’s why the Wellington City Council and other government organisations are moving quickly to social media as a key means of communicating, explaining and debating policy.

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