Social Media and Public Finance: The Odd Couple
Public finance departments are significantly less likely than government in general to use social media or see its value in engaging with constituents. It might be time for this to change.
Here, you do it. That’s the handoff implicit in much of what many governments aspire to do through citizen engagement. Take crowdsourcing. Seattle recently crowdsourced balancing the budget with a game called Budget Gapster.
Seattle is one of many cities that offer an online budget simulation tool. Like these cities’ games, Budget Gapster challenges residents to close, in this case, a $31.7 million shortfall by setting spending priorities and making tough cuts. But in a fresh -- and deliberately frustrating -- departure from other city simulators, a balanced budget in this game doesn’t stay that way. Before the proverbial ink dries on the paper of one’s balanced budget, real life intervenes -- or at least a simulation of real life -- forcing the player to make deeper cuts to account for say, storm cleanup, damaged bridges and decreased revenue forecasts.
Of course, it’s only a game. It lacks the discipline, scope and stakes of efforts like participatory budgeting in which citizens actually help decide how real money is spent. Nonetheless, the game is intended to inform residents about the budgeting process. At the end, the program solicits the player’s thoughts on spending priorities via an online form. And that’s the disappointment. Newly informed residents can talk back to the city, but not to one another. Social media could change all that. But it’s an open question as to whether budget writers are ready for that broader discussion.
Through our readers’ panel, Governing Exchange, we compared views and practices of public finance workers with those of public employees in all of government. Significantly, public finance respondents were almost twice as likely as the wider group to question the appropriateness of using social media in the workplace -- 59 percent of public finance respondents said social media was a distraction compared to 32 percent of the larger group. Individual respondents thought social media “was a time waster” and posed a threat to the integrity of official government sites with the loss of the “fairness, decorum [and] professionalism that perhaps might benefit government business in the long view.”
Such beliefs may help explain why public finance departments are less likely (35 percent) than government in general (50 percent) to use social media in their work. There was a similar gap in respondent perceptions about constituent demand for social media -- 46 percent in finance thought there was public support for more social media use compared to 60 percent. The larger group was likelier (69 percent) than the public finance respondents (45 percent) to cite a skills gap in their respective departments as a barrier to becoming effective in social media use.
Public finance respondents also said social media was a distant third (15 percent) to public meetings (27 percent) and email (49 percent) in effectively engaging constituents, results that are mirrored closely in the larger group. The other notable area of agreement was that half of both groups conceded that their departments were struggling with how to effectively use social media.
That struggle and an underlying professional disposition are seen in one other finding from the poll. By an 8-point margin, public finance departments are less likely than general government agencies to have social media policies in place. But, by a 19-point margin, public finance respondents are likelier to have actually read them.
Finance officials are good with numbers -- and there are some large ones they must come to terms with. There are more than 150 million Facebook users and 100 million Twitter users in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 64 percent of Americans are going social. It might be time for public finance professionals to go social too.