Thursday, June 3, 2010

Social Media in Governance: Like It or Not, It's Here

Democracy is a system of governance that, simplistically put, gives power to the people. The power to decide the way their nation is run, the way it interacts with other nations in the world, the way it governs those who make it a nation.

Social Media gives the same power to the common netizens who, for years have only been the recipients of knowledge and information online. With the increasing proliferation of Social Media over the past few years it can safely be assumed that Social Media is here to stay. Social Media cannot be wished away as it will only evolve further as it has been doing over the past few years.

What started as initiatives from members of the public, like Tom Steinberg’s fixmystreet or EveryBlock Chicago has now steadily crept into the mainstream. With the UK government stepping into the Social Media sphere with twitter and friendfeed accounts for the Parliament and 10, Downing Street, Digital Britain and their High Commissions and Consulates around the world.

This is a realization that has dawned upon quite a few Government agencies around the world, the heaviest user of Social Media in Governance is the United States of America, predictably enough, considering the way the Internet has penetrated the lives and lifestyles of its citizens.
Though one might be tempted to attribute this development to President Obama’s social media powered election campaign but I would say that the Obama campaign was a catalyst, a major one at that. As a natural progression of that, President Obama unveiled the Open Government Initiative by stating:
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
On his first day in office, the President signed a memorandum directing all federal agencies to participate and collaborate with the people and ensure that there is transparency in their functioning. Leading by example, he circumvented the White House Press Corps while soliciting opinions from Americans about his administration and received over 11,000 responses, of course he couldn’t answer all of them but he did respond to a lot of the concerns raised. The questions from citizens are available on YouTube’s CitizenTube channel and viewers were required to vote for the questions that they wanted him to respond to. This was a very interesting demonstration of cyber-democracy and populism. This interview was the Obama’s first after his State of the Union address which was viewed by 1.3 million live on the White House’s website of course this is apart from the approximately 48 million others who watched the address live on TV. The White House also said that about 50,000 people participated in a Q&A session with Government Officials after the speech via facebook. While the White House hasn’t been able to figure out exactly how many people viewed the speech through their iPhone app but they did announce that more than a terabyte of data was streamed. This isn’t surprising considering the fact that little over a year ago 13.9 million people watched the President’s inauguration on alone.

Similarly, when Obama goes on overseas trips the number of questions he receives is staggering. Sample this, 17,000 responses from a visit to Ghana and 250,000 from a visit to South Africa, albeit some of these responses were from outside Africa but still, considering the thin Internet penetration in the continent these numbers say a lot about the potential of Social Media integration in Governance.

As for internal transparency, we have the example of, which is, “leading the way in democratizing public sector data and driving innovation. The data is being surfaced from many locations making the Government data stores available to researchers to perform their own analysis. Developers are finding good uses for the datasets, providing interesting and useful applications that allow for new views and public analysis.” The government is now publishing online data that has never been available in the past about federal spending and research. started as 47 data-sets from a small group of federal agencies and as of December 2009, expanded into more than 118,000 data-sets with many more such initiatives like reversing an executive order that previously limited access to presidential records and web-casting White House meetings and conference. What’s even more interesting is the administration accepting that, “By themselves, however, these steps do not provide the transformation in the philosophy of governing that the President wants. They are improvements over past practice, to be sure, and valuable ones.  But more needs to be done.”

Of course, the UK and the US aren’t the only countries that are on Social Media, other countries  like Singapore, Hong Kong etc., have joined in the fray but the way the US has leveraged on the ubiquity of the Internet to include its citizens in Governance 2.0 is admirable. We are sure that as other countries realize the benefits of this medium and Internet penetration also increases in the developing world we will see more synergies being created between the traditional government systems and Social Media. As these governments step in, they will bring their own ideas about how this medium can be utilized for their and their citizens’ benefits, which is the beauty of mass media, one can always mould it into the way they want to utilize it. 

Social Media is not a ‘new’ media

We, the acolytes of Social Media always meet people who are apprehensive of this because they see it as something ‘new’ and unfamiliar. But the way I see it, people have always been using the ‘Social Media’ of their time for a variety of purposes, including, to change in the way our government, society etc., work. Paul, the Apostle wrote 13 epistles (letters) that substantially influenced Christianity throughout the Mediterranean and were included in the New Testaments. Martin Luther brought to light the abuses of the Church and initiated the Protestant Reformation by writing theses (updates) and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517 which were quickly translated from Latin to German, printed and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the Printing Press. Within two weeks, copies of these had spread throughout Germany and within two months throughout Europe. His writings, spreading wider, reached France, England and Italy as early as 1519 and students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak. Thomas Paine spread his printed pamphlets (blogs) about democracy to the masses titled, ‘Common Sense’ which immediately spread among the literate and in three months, 100,000 copies sold throughout the American British colonies making it the best-selling work in 18th century America and giving him the honour of being the Father of the American Revolution.

As is demonstrated by the above examples, Social Media isn’t really something new that has suddenly come up in our midst; it has always been there. The only difference between the usages has been the platform that the information has been spread through.

Social and political change can still be brought about today using the same social networks that have been around us for centuries, the only difference is that today, thanks to the Internet our social network is much wider and information can spread far and wide at the speed of the Internet.


But even in the US, Governance 2.0 is not exactly smooth sailing. At the Gov 2.0 Expo convened at Washington D.C. between May 25-27, 2010 one could hear the same refrain that we in the Social Media domain tend to hear a lot: 'we cannot do this, the management won't accept it, government regulations make it too hard' to share information freely with the public. This is despite the Open Government Initiative; this is despite increasing adoption of social media by the general public and their desire to be in the know of how their democratically elected government runs and despite the increasing social media presence of the top government officials and offices.

These are issues that the simple directives cannot and will not solve. Creating and implementing effective Social Media Communications strategies can go a long way in solving these issues. Another thing that needs to be done for a longer term is to imbue the culture of openness within the people who make up these organizations and agencies and for them to see that the Internet and Social Media are not something alien to them. It is something that has always been around them for generations in one form or the other.


For governments the world over, social media can not only send and receive critical information instantaneously but also help build trust and relationships and share information at the same time by keeping both governments and citizens at an equal footing. To do this, social media usage doesn’t need to be creative, just being there and responding proactively to the queries received, clarification and information being requested and demonstrating that action is being taken based on what the citizens are saying is all that needs to be done to show people that the government agencies are indeed listening.


  1. Ok now that I have read the entire post-I would like to know why don't we have any Indian examples here? Our Governance is so corrupt that social media remains the only vent for the english speaking masses? When will the time be right for any change to occur in our system because the social media made it happen?

    Pls dnt get me wrong I hugely believe in the power of this medium. I perhaps am in a hurry to see some changes take place beos of this media

  2. The Indian Government, Politicians and the Administration has started coming up on Social Media. Shashi Tharoor isn't the only one who is on twitter, there are others too. I have compiled a list of some of them. Secondly, the Delhi traffic Police is now on twitter and facebook (the facebook page created by them is very active). India Post is also now on twitter.

    But the reason why they haven't been included in this post is because they are just starting while the focus of this post was to inform people about the possibilities of this medium. There are many more ways in which Social Media has been harnessed by the American Military and Internal Security departments. Maybe I will write another post on them soon.

    Hopefully India will also catch up soon.

  3. Perhaps I missed making my point well. I know a handful of young MP's from Bombay/Delhi who are on twitter/gmail and also know personally. So when it is one on one it is a different honest dialogue, however when it is social media- it is completely a dialogue of charades! This medium is all about being honest else one gets caught out?! Well they continue to be hiding behind smoky nvr can u gauge the truth. Be it Mr Tharoor or young Deora!

    As regards the Post or Delhi traffic- Subir, do you believe honestly pls tell, that such folks who have such battered images will ever in a hurry create a groundswell for themselves? Nah...says my cynical brain:)

  4. hmm yeah ur right there. attitudes have to change. without that, social media is of no use.