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Government social media use: learning by doing

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to be invited to host a discussion on social media at GovCamp in Singapore. The event, organised by Microsoft, brought together civil servants, bloggers and social activists to discuss the challenges and opportunities afforded by social media.

The session was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: participants spoke in their capacity as civil servants, media professionals, but also as active citizens - there were a refreshing range of opinions represented in the room; the participants were also sufficiently engaged with the discussion to stay with me until 7.45pm on a Friday.

The topics thrown up throughout this relaxed “unconference” discussion were illuminating. Do government agencies know what they are using social media for? If they’ve taken our feedback from social media, why aren’t they responding to our feedback on social media itself? How much failure from governments can we accommodate?

While these questions sound confrontational, the actual tone of the discussion was much more collegiate. Everyone agreed that it is okay for governments to make mistakes in social media, provided they learn from them.

On the topic of strategies, and agencies needing to know what they want to use social media for, the Singapore Police Force was brought up as a role model that knew exactly what they wanted to use the social platforms for—information sharing and recruitment—and used it well.

“You must set the right expectations for people. They must know what they can expect from you if they were to follow you on Twitter/Facebook,” one participant shared.

At the end of the evening, what I took away from the session was that citizens are generally pretty forgiving of their governments. There is an underlying sense of trust that agencies are tapping into social media for a good reason, and there is an understanding that leeway needs to be given in order for agencies to learn and improve.

This echoes what New York’s State CIO, Daniel Chan, said to me in May this year: “Taxpayers have been fair and understand tech pretty well. Its about demonstrating to them that we’re doing our due diligence, we’re transparent and understand the value proposition. Show them our processes and that we are using their money as our own money. Taxpayers will understand.”

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