Friday, September 14, 2012

Social media: Govt officials just don't get it

Interior Ministry officials have been told they check into Facebook too often during their working hours. As of Oct 1, they can only do that during the lunch break. The official reason? They are using up too much bandwidth and access to the social networking website doesn’t contribute to their productivity.

But the “ban” won’t cover YouTube. The man in charge of the ministry’s internet connection says officials there can still access the popular video website but will make downloads related to it slower.

Nobody knows whether the ministry’s officials will be allowed to tweet or not. Apparently, authorities at the ministry aren’t quite sure what social media are really all about.

Some officials who “get it” say many of their bosses simply don’t understand where the world of communications are headed. One younger official argued that Facebook had in fact facilitated coordination and was now a channel for many government units to communicate with the people. In other words, Facebook and other social media tools have saved time and expenses. “You don’t have to make telephone calls and you have instant two-way communications among government agencies,” he said.

The reason for this state of affairs is very obvious: The government doesn’t have a social media policy because most Cabinet members simply don’t know what it’s all about. They might have heard about it. They might have been told social media are “the new thing.” But most officials running this country are still too far behind in this important trend to realize not only the importance but the inevitability of using social media as part of their daily operations.

Even the most internet-savvy among the bureaucrats and ruling party members, the only purpose of social media is for political manipulation rather than to serve public interests.

Little do they realize that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be used to disseminate information, track the opinions and feelings of constituents, and, on the law enforcement side, to find criminals and illegal activities. Enlightened government agencies not only can use social media to communicate with the public but also with one another around the clock.

On the other side of the spectrum, social media could be used by citizens to demand accountability from the government and bureaucracy. And that is a vital part of building a real democratic system to which most politicians have been paying lip service.

Citizen involvement is critical for enhancing democratic governance and improving service delivery. And if that is what the government is serious about, then the best way to empower the people is to build their capacity through social media, not to view them as time-wasting, futile, and negative tools.

Social media will strengthen the citizens, civil society organizations and other non-state actors tohold the government accountable and make all politicians and bureaucrats responsive to their needs.

In the US, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) recently launched a Twitter feed and opened a new Facebook page to respond to the growing public demand for transparency from the government. Twitter gives voters even more ways to keep up with news about elections and government ethics. Twitter followers get the latest information on which officials and candidates have filed paperwork, updates on actions etc…”

Facebook and Twitter have proved to be efficient, low-cost way to reach the citizens and provide them with improved “customer service” --- something most bureaucrats still don’t appreciate is the most crucial “key performance index” (KPI) to judge whether they should stay on the job or be fired.

For the Thai government, the issue may in the end boil down to this question: How do you explain it when the government that goes out of its way to offer tablets to first grader to show that it means business when it says it wants to promote digital education – and bans adults at the Interior Ministry from accessing Facebook

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