More Than Social Networking

Social media is about more than socializing. It is a powerful tool for government to empower and mobilize its citizens.
by | January 19, 2011
 

Stephen Goldsmith is deputy mayor of operations for the City of New York.

Earlier this week on the Martin Luther King Day of Service, hundreds of thousands of individuals volunteered to help their neighbors. This effort was made possible in large part because of a federal agency that recognized the power of social networks.

Say the words "social media" and many government officials will think of connecting with old friends via Facebook or reading a tweet from a buddy at a ballgame. That's unfortunate, because social media is about much more than socializing. The suite of social networking tools now available offer powerful ways for government to transform the way it delivers social services -- and more.

In 2007, Jean Case of the Case Foundation presented to the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) a plan for using social media to mobilize volunteers. It was a transformative moment for CNCS, the government organization responsible for programs that include AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA. Case's presentation showed how CNCS could shift from being a top-down funder of organizations to an enabler of a dynamic network of people interested in helping others.

Prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009, CNCS introduced a simple Facebook widget that allowed individuals to electronically find organizations doing service work in their community to commemorate the day. This simple, inexpensive widget led to far greater service participation than previous, more costly efforts using traditional outreach tools had.

That's because social media enables users to multiply the impact of individuals. In essence, the millions of U.S. Facebook users have become micro-publishers. Each user may only reach a handful of people, but the cumulative effect is remarkable -- roughly one in four page views in the U.S. today goes to Facebook.

Social media allows citizens to coalesce to improve their own neighborhood. In his State of the City address this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to introduce opportunities for citizens to use social media to participate in specific initiatives. For example, citizens can suggest ways the city might reduce stormwater overflows, which contaminate lakes, rivers and streams, triggering EPA sanctions.

Social media allows any government agency to hear from its citizens in real time, however, and that input can prompt improvements beyond the neighborhood level.

When the Transportation Security Administration first set up its blog to allow travelers to opine about their experiences, the results were less than uniformly pleasant. All of us in government experience public anger, but organizing a site that enables the public sharing of negative feedback was an act of bureaucratic courage. Sure the site provides valuable feedback to the agency, but it also serves as an invitation to the media to turn comments into scathing stories.

Social media can help to improve municipal operations. Cities such as Boston use "point-and-click" phone apps to allow citizens to inform them about potholes, graffiti and other issues. New York City recently set up special blogs and Flickr sites asking citizens to share reports of snow removal conditions in their neighborhoods, in essence expanding the eyes and ears of the city.

New York City is also using interactive digital tools to create markets for new ideas and to penetrate bureaucratic layers. To unlock valuable ideas from its workforce, the city is piloting a customized version of a product called Spigit, which captures employee suggestions.

With so much information flowing, however, public officials need a way to organize and analyze it in order to produce meaningful interaction. We are still figuring out how to engage citizens in truly interactive discussions and how to best promote transparency by sharing real-time performance data.

These new social media tools also bring new risks. In the past, a factual misstatement by an official at a neighborhood meeting could be corrected or explained. But once captured on a cell phone, the simplest mistake can become a YouTube sensation within hours. (Candidate Obama's "57 states" video has been viewed by almost 3 million people.) Taken out of context, a casual Tweet can be portrayed as something callous and sinister, and when retweeted by advocacy groups can take on a far different meaning then originally intended.

These events present challenges for a public official. Using social media and crowdsourcing ideas will entail a painful learning curve. The end result, however, should be better government and better communities. With social media tools, government can better position itself as part of a network of providers -- including citizens, employees and vendors -- that participate in the delivery of public services.

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