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Social media black hole as Commonwealth soaks up ‘likes’

The competition between states and the Commonwealth to improve services and engagement through the use of social media has been never stronger. But is anyone measuring this engagement to see how it’s working beyond racking up “likes” and retweets?

Public service commissioner Stephen Sedgwick has made a pitch for celebrating the achievements in social media innovation made by federal agencies. Highlighting examples such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ census tweets, Run That Town and Spotlight 2.0, Sedgwick says the bureau is building a long-term engagement with the community, essential as it relies on voluntary compliance to achieve its mission. Tackling this extra engagement in his State of the Service report for the first time, Sedgwick said the public has come to expect instant and creative engagement:

“Many Australians are ‘connected’ by way of mobile technologies on an almost constant basis. With this comes an increasing expectation that they will be able to interact with government online or through mobile platforms, in the same way they connect with friends, family and private sector organisations.”

Commonwealth Twitter accounts are holding steady at 191 different accounts tracked by the Department of Finance’s APS Twitter leaderboard, similar to last year, with only five that could be considered inactive. While perennial favourite @Australia from Tourism Australia gets upwards of 10,000 favourites a month and 7500 retweets, with @dfat and @CSIROnews also pulling significant followers, there are also around 40 agency accounts that get no engagement from the public at all. Replies to the public’s engagement attempts are not recorded.

On Facebook, federal agencies and statutory office holders manage 137 official pages, where again Tourism Australia has the most engagement with some 6.2 million likes. The Bureau of Meteorology and the ABC are the next most popular on Facebook with half a million and 300,000 likes respectively. Deeper engagement measures are available via Facebook’s internal tools, but not collected.

But what of GovDex, the Finance-run social media tool exclusively for Australia’s public servants? The department has released no figures, although anecdotally the impact on inter-agency collaboration has already been felt and individual community managers can access their own data. No data is routinely fed upwards to agency heads, the secretaries board or ministers.

Sensing a pattern? There’s a black hole when it comes to big-picture analysis of government use of social media, says Craig Thomler, managing director of Delib Australia and creator of Great Oz Gov Tweets. Virtually all boards and chief executives at private sector companies receive social media complaint data on a regular basis, but rarely does such information reach the top in state or Commonwealth public entities. Thomler says those channels are even more critical for government.

“What a lot of people at the top of agencies forget is that people’s view of agencies are not shaped by the grand 50-year visions, they’re shaped by their latest engagement with government agencies,” he told The Mandarin. “If they have a bad engagement or don’t like a politician they will oppose otherwise good measures, just simply believe it’s not a good measure because they had a bad experience with government. Government is undermined by little things that it does.”

Employee use of social media for work purposes by agency function (2014)
Employee use of social media for work purposes by agency function (2014)

This year the APS employee census found only 12% of Commonwealth public servants engage with social media for work purposes. However, a majority now have access to social channels for internal communication. GovDex is one, and Defence is rolling out ForceNet for its community. More than half agreed that these tools helped them to work more effectively and keep up-to-date with events and issues relevant to their agency, with employees at larger agencies reporting the most benefit.

Correspondingly, 72% agencies now provide guidance material for employees on appropriate use of social media and networking tools, either in a professional capacity or for personal use, although often both. On personal use, Sedgwick offers this guidance:

“Maintaining an online presence and making comments online is a common practice in the Australian community. Like other citizens, APS employees make public comments on, for example, social networking sites, blogs and online news sites. Interaction between the private lives of APS employees and their work can be complex. APS employees are citizens and members of the community, but the right to serve the community as APS employees comes with certain responsibilities. These responsibilities include maintaining the confidence of the community that the APS can deliver services on behalf of the government professionally and impartially.”

The commissioner added that there remains much room for improvement across the board in APS use of social media:

“Given the popular use of social media with young Australians, having induction programmes in place for graduates and other new entrants that articulate APS behavioural expectations and the potential agency reputational risks associated with the personal use of social media by APS employees is key.

“Social media use within agencies, however, appears to be largely the function of specialised areas rather than being employed more broadly. The use of Facebook as the social media tool of choice highlights the conservative nature of government engagement in this space. While the case studies and data presented in this chapter demonstrate that APS agencies are engaging with emergent communications technology, there remains scope for increasingly innovative approaches.”

Do you know more? If your state or territory agency has adopted social media monitoring, tell us what you’ve found.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.