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The right tool for the job: social media in the public service

The tweeting of government has become deafening. Two million micro-messages later, digital engagement has reached some sort of zenith.

And it’s not just Twitter — other social media platforms are now widely used by government entities and their senior staff members in a professional capacity. Service-based agencies continue to use social media to replace or supplement their call centres and face-to-face contact options, while public servants are forming and joining online communities of practice, crowd-sourcing ideas, and breaking public consultation processes into bite-sized chunks.

When the 2012-13 State of the Service report was published, 75% of agencies were using social media to support business outcomes one way or another, and usage has only increased since.

Together, various online platforms offer the combined powers of publication, communication and dissemination at low cost and with relatively minimal training, making them a no-brainer for the public service. When your work either affects or directly serves at least some of the public, it makes sense to have a wide range of ways to connect with the public.

Social media and IT experts love to point out areas where the public service lags behind the private sector. But public sector organisations have made a lot of progress in this area they can be proud of. Certainly, many of Australia’s leading online engagement professionals are now public servants.

At the start of September, the Australian Public Service Twitter Leaderboard showed 183 official federal government Twitter accounts, with over 1.12 million followers between them. That’s up from about 750,000 followers last December, when 192 official accounts were listed.

The APS Facebook Leaderboard ranks 125 official pages which have attracted about 9 million likes between them — although over two thirds of those approving clicks were earned by the national tourism page, which fills news feeds with a constant stream of beautiful landscapes and cute wildlife. In distant second place, the ABC is approaching 290,000. Then there is the Army ahead of a binge drinking campaign and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, followed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

There are also 60 YouTube channels, 30 blogs and 24 Flickr accounts — and that’s just the federal government. The Victorian government’s website lists 208 official Twitter accounts, 171 Facebook pages, 101 YouTube channels, 80 mobile apps, 48 Google+ profiles, 28 Flickr accounts and 19 Instagram accounts, among its many interactive online assets. The New South Wales government also boasts an impressive list of social media profiles and, generally speaking, the other states are not far behind.

Government entities have now sent over 2 million tweets, according to Delib Australia managing director Craig Thomler, who has put together infographics to mark the milestone. His figures for the number of accounts owned by each government are a little higher than the official figures, which are based on each account owner providing the information, whereas Thomler actively seeks it. Thomler points out on his blog that:

“Many of the numbers have more than doubled since January 2013. Agencies are tweeting three times as frequently and the total number of followers has increased 2.22 times.”

The Top Government Twitter Accounts in Australia – Sept 2014

Senior executives are also active, particularly on Twitter, where many use individual profiles — some official, some not. The dangers of public comment seem non-existent among this group of successful executives, who generally discuss their respective field of expertise and the work of the government body they represent. When personal use is combined, lower-level public servants may find it instructive that senior staff almost always stick to uncontroversial topics like art, food and sport.

One of the most prolific senior tweeters, Australian government chief technology officer John Sheridan, told a Digital Culture Talk at the National Library last week that, in the past few years, social media had become “mainstream” in the APS. “People are using social media to go about doing their government business all the time,” he told the audience.

Sheridan lauded the Department of Human Services staff who regularly chime in on Facebook discussions with accurate advice about entitlements, and acknowledged APS social media star, DHS spokesperson Hank Jongen. He uses Twitter to broadcast helpful messages and field a constant barrage of questions and complaints, and appears on radio and stars in a weekly YouTube series among other elements of a multi-pronged communications strategy.

“Everyone knows that everywhere on the internet, someone is saying the wrong thing about the government, all the time, and we’ve now got an opportunity to do something about that — to correct factually, politely, sensibly, responsibly, errors that don’t explain how things have been done, properly, or where the actual right advice is,” Sheridan enthused. “This has changed the way we connect to the citizens [and] to the clients that we have in organisations, to drive different behaviours, to get better results.”

The secretary of the NSW Department of Families and Community Services, Michael Coutts-Trotter, often responds to tweets he feels are inaccurate, even when they’re not directly aimed at him:

Importantly, public servants can now also use online publishing to break their own news stories, a technique used to great effect to announce the recent police raids in Sydney. NSW Police public affairs director Strath Gordon told the ABC program Media Watch that:

“Twitter is the fastest, cleanest way to communicate. If we tweet it first, that is re-tweeted by journalists and that becomes the official version of events.”

Sheridan says social media has also reinvigorated public and industry consultation processes, and changed procurement processes for the better through greater transparency. But he cautions that social media is just one set of tools, and they’re not necessarily suited to every job.

The government CTO questioned the dubious accuracy of online polls and what can appear to be a groundswell of public opinion, suggesting public servants should keep in mind that “people are more likely to complain than they are to say nice things” on the internet. In Sheridan’s view, the fact that a particular topic might elicit a strong response does not necessarily mean it’s worthwhile to hold official consultations.

“You have to pick your targets,” he told the forum on social media in the public sector. “I don’t think we could sensibly use social media for a discussion on immigration policy, for example. I just don’t think that would work.”

Sheridan explained, using a popular analogy, that he was “against the notion” of having a social media policy on its own.

“My view is that just as carpenters don’t have hammer strategies … you don’t need a particular strategy for a particular tool, but rather you should look at your broad communications strategy and adopt the channels that you need to use, for the right purpose,” he said.

More at The Mandarin: Social media: beat the journos, don’t say anything stupid

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.