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Elephant in the Room? “Culture” and Social Media uptake in the Public Sector

The last few weeks I was at a couple of government-focused social media events, one in person (Gov 2.0 Expo) and one
virtually (GovCamp).
They were both really good and provided a lot of value I think.

There were some similarities in the events, through a recurring theme. Specifically, everyone (ok, well most everyone) in the various
rooms at either event was in agreement that “cultural change”
was one of, and perhaps the biggest impediment to a higher adoption rate
of social media in the public sector

Personally, I could not agree more. However, these themes have been consistent well before
GovCamp or Gov 2.0 Expo. Many people (including myself) have been
communicating about this for some time.

If there is a frustration, it is that I believe there are no or at least not enough actions aligning to the agreed upon problem of engaging
culture blockers. Culture gets mentioned, everyone agrees,
and then conversation turns to a technical or implementation discussion
We need to – arguably, have to – dig into the culture change deeper and
on a regular basis. To not do this is robbing important
momentum from public sector social media evolution.

Below are cultural areas that I focus on every day to try and improve, therefore, I am somewhat biased but I also think they are the

Failure – We have all probably heard about “failing well” and the “importance of failing” as it relates to the progression
and learnings for social media. I would argue this is even truer in the
public sector and certainly different given traditional public sector
governance and funding. Yet, I have not encountered a focused discussion
on defining “good failure” in the public sector, what the scope and
structure of that might look like, good and bad examples from
organizations, and how we communicate that up and out to the public
sector community and to government leaders, if necessary.

Engagement – Again, something that most people might be familiar with, the 1%
and the impact that the spirit of that has on public sector
participation, both internally and externally. You are not going to
change everyone into becoming content creators but I sincerely believe
that unless more time and shared discussion is spent on ways to increase
contribution (including how to increase participation as part of that),
the stickiness of social media in the public sector will be
challenged. This can’t be about the few, particularly in a government

This is something that effects any organization, public or private as well as, of course, individuals that are out on the web. What are the
best practices? What has worked well and not well as participative
strategies? What carries well across jurisdictions (political and
geographical) and what doesn’t?

Transparency – This, in my opinion, is a significant issue that does not get nearly enough discussion. How do participants –
particularly for internal public sector social media activities – get
comfortable with what they want to share? Perhaps even more importantly,
how do leaders get comfortable in providing good direction and
confidence and comfort to stakeholders and potential
participants/contributors? Some of this discussion would overlap with
privacy legislation but I think it is much more of a discussion of
transitioning out of a command/control governance model into one that
has to empower the participant enough to engage them (and, ideally, keep
them coming back) but can also be done in a way that provides comfort
to leaders who want to be progressive yet they don’t want to feel they
are jumping into the deep end.

Real life examples of this exist throughout government already where employees are not sure what the rules are, in some cases have been put
in a box (see David Eaves list of banned blogs as one example) ,
and there is a general lack of middle management understanding which can
lead to no or bad direction on their part sometimes.

I am going to stop at those three areas. I know that there are others (I had more in here originally) but would really enjoy a dialogue
around these to start and hear what others believe are some of the other
cultural issues impeding social media in the public sector.

Couple of pieces of context to walk away with:

  • First, this is aimed to be helpful for those setting the agendas; could be those responsible for the next Gov 2.0 Expo or someone having a
    coffee with a friend that is not engaged on the social media front.
  • Second, I see these conversations and learning experiences as additions to the agenda of various forums, workshops, and expos now. We
    don’t need to do turn a current agenda on its respective­ head but
    balance them with a new “cultural stream” of discussion.

I really hope that we open a new, deeper conversation around culture change…I think we will all be wiser (and larger in number) for it.


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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Great post and important issues to consider! I fully agree with your points but I think what is going to change culture is how we reward people in government. Failure is a career-ender, the public affairs department have heart attacks over employees actually engaging the public, and the less transparency equals less criticism. And this just isn’t internal to the agency but imagine how the public and Congress would react to “successful failures.”

We need to adopt the principles but the current system is not going to let it happen. Please, someone prove me wrong! 🙂

Dannielle Blumenthal

I agree its about reward for performance. Define the goal, assign it a metric, show how social media influences the metric positively, and social media will get done, especially if tied to funding. Culture follows business goals not the other way around. My two cents.

Geordie Adams

Great comments, thanks for contributing.

I think that business goals is top down and the culture change is more – but not exclusively – bottom up, generally. Certainly the right rewards (for all, not just participants but leaders) is a very important work in progress to embedding social media in government. At the same time, part of my point would be that you would also be adding to social media momentum by more directly tackling culture, which historically (given bottom up status) does not get a lot of focus.