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Social Media and the Changing Role of Government (from www.ourblook.com)

I was interviewed by an interesting website called OurBlook this week.

I’m sharing the text of the interview with GovLoopers as I’d welcome any feedback or comments on my perspective. I always find these questions on trends, etc. to be difficult and open to a lot of interpretation. Lately, I’ve been more concerned with tactical issues (how to get more cities on Facebook? how to connect different channels?, etc.). However, it was fun to step back a little bit for a more high-level review of social media’s impact on government.

Link to original story on OurBlook

For a look at how social media are shaping governmental relations, whom better to interview than Scott … he’s CEO and co-founder of GovDelivery, St. Paul, Minn., which calls itself “the world’s leading provider of government-to-citizen communication solutions.”

Question: You are the company behind millions of government e-mails. From your vantage point, how are social media shaping the relationship and role between government and citizens in the U.S.?

SB: Social media provide a new way for elected officials, public servants and citizens to share information. My hope and belief is that more citizens will understand the role that government plays in their lives and that more elected officials and public servants will understand the impact of their decisions.

Question: At this stage, both government and citizens are just getting used to using social media on a broad scale. I don’t think the impact is yet very clear, but there are some clear wins out there. Two examples come to mind.

First, Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services made outstanding use of social media for flu prevention outreach. Judging by growth in Twitter followership, these efforts were very successful.

Second, the majority of major federal agencies now collaborate through mashups so that citizens can signup for e-mail and text alerts from many government agencies in one place. This type of collaboration, which GovDelivery is very proud to facilitate, has led directly to 300 percent-plus increases in the number of citizens signing up to receive information from the government. Increasingly, state and local governments are getting involved in the collaboration, which makes it even more powerful.

Even with this early momentum, it’s important not to overstate the impact of social media. I have read a lot of articles that go too far. Does anyone really believe that Obama wouldn’t have been elected without Facebook and YouTube?

Question: What are the positives and negatives that social media have had on our society … particularly those that haven’t manifested just yet (for example with generation Y and younger)? Have they dumbed it down or do they have unlimited possibilities?

SB: The answer is yes. In some ways, social media are part of the problem we have in society. We have a surplus of information and a deficit of knowledge and thoughtfulness. Many members of Generation Y and beyond are so used to instant gratification in everything they do that the concepts of “start at the bottom” and “pay your dues” can be difficult to digest for some people.

Our challenge as individuals and as a society is to sift through the massive amounts of information that we take in and the connections that we make to find those we can use to make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others.

I don’t lose sleep wondering about social media’s negatives. Reality is that social media are here to stay and they have many positives. They make it easier to connect with a broader group of people across a larger geography, and it should make it easier for citizens and their government to work together.

Question: Which forms of social media do you think will endure, and why? Are there any you see as fads that will fade away?

SB: If I could answer this question with any confidence, I’d try my luck as a venture capitalist. The medium is still in its infancy, but I think we all accept that certain types of sites have a lot of value. Professional networking (LinkedIn), social networking (Facebook), blogs and social information sharing (Twitter) all seem to provide value in my life and work. I know others would swear by virtual worlds, social bookmarking and wikis. Anything that has scale will either persist in its current form or be replaced by another, more compelling, technology that meets the same need.

Question: Do you foresee much impact from social media in major news operations such as newspapers and TV news, or in the future of journalism generally?

SB: I’m not an expert in this area, but as a citizen, I’m very concerned with the state of the media. I feel strongly that well-trained journalists of integrity play a critical role in our democracy. Personally, I’m not interested in being an information sponge. I’d rather have a trusted third party point me in the right direction so I’m asking the right questions and getting the most important information. The mainstream media, particularly print media, have a lot to figure out in order to find a sustainable path forward. Social media only make that more difficult in my view, but I believe that traditional journalists provide enormous value to their fellow citizens and that the profession will find a home somewhere.

Question: You have said that “technology is the biggest opportunity we have to make citizens better citizens and government better government.” Can you expand on that for us?

SB: For citizens, technology presents solutions to two age-old problems:

1) Transparency: The broad range of digital technologies makes it easier than ever before for an interested citizen to become an informed citizen.

2) Organization & Advocacy: Together with the transparency of government in this age, social media reduce the friction involved in organizing citizens around a common purpose. It is more true now than at anytime in history that an interested citizen can organize and fight for change effectively.

For government, technology can take the lead role in driving efficiency and better outcomes.

1) Efficiency & Effectiveness: Government needs to transition to modern, web-based solutions for doing its business. If it does, it should be able to cut out billions of dollars of IT spending and improve service.

2) Accountability & Visibility: Agencies can now get instant feedback on outcomes and citizen satisfaction. This happens through citizen surveys and metrics gathered online. It also happens through social media, like Twitter, where the mayor of Minneapolis can watch for comments on his work and the city to understand what the people are thinking. With accountability and visibility comes continuous improvement. I want to believe that most bad government policy and action is the result of bad information more than bad intentions. With greater visibility and accountability, government should self-correct faster.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to say about social media?

SB: I don’t believe in technology for the sake of technology. I still believe strongly that the best problem solving happens when people work together, face to face. However, government is a massive enterprise and the reason I’m excited about social media is that they make it possible to engage more people in problem solving.

I’ve always said of our business, GovDelivery, that the goal is not to get information to the same people faster, but rather to inform new people and to bring them closer to their government. We want to see government effectively reaching busy single parents, not just political junkies. To that end, the broadband push in the Recovery Act should help ensure that the infrastructure is available so that the impact of social media is as far reaching as possible.

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