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Social Portals. Why? How? When?

Should Facebook and other social portals—tools and networks designed to build social relationships and friendships be used as a primary means to formulate public policy? Are the social portals the right (and best) strategic approach to support the multiple roles and needs of government agencies — now and into the future?

If we today promote social networks as a primary means of network communication might we foreclose future strategic options to leverage network communications, for citizens and for government? On the other hand, can use of social network portals be a positive first step on the road to socialization of network communications?

Alternatively, can and should we build decentralized citizen networks that better reflect the role of government but yet create points of intersection – not simply to the social portals, but also to media, stakeholder groups and other points of citizen aggregation?

These are all important questions.

Demand for Network Communications Structures

Demand for network communications structures is growing. Government agencies are growing impatient, watching their colleagues in the private sector leverage engagement from social networking into business results. Logically, they ask, why not us? With escalating demand, predictably, agencies are turning to social portals. They are free (perception, not reality), widely used by consumers, and have basic profiling, grouping, forums, and image management tools that make basic social networking possible.

As an example, the “Facebook” trend is growing. In April 2009, the General Services Administration signed an agreement with Facebook enabling governmental use when appropriate. See Federal Computer Week. In a similar vein, Bob Knisely, the former Deputy Director of the National Performance Review recently authored a blog post for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Leadership In a Networked World series suggesting Facebook as a “break through” application for government using an example called “Department of Mary Jones”.

Maybe the most poignant example is our use of govloop — a loose confederation of those interested in gov.2 challenges regardless of role and title. Our exchanges, blogs, and view-points all promote open dialogue with limited encumbrance other than our good judgment. The important point in all examples is a growing recognition that by listening “in network” government can drive results. And that is a meaningful step forward.

Do social portals fulfill government’s vision for gov 2.0?

The question for government is probably not whether social portals can add value to government processes, but rather, how they add value and how they should be used. Should they be a dominant and primary methodology, or a secondary supplementary strategy that creates points of intersection that support government network structures — including citizen outreach?

Let’s start by asking why and how government might use the social portals, and for what purposes? What is the motivation?

– Is it because the social portals represent an audience of users that government cannot otherwise reach?
– Is it because the social portals have such rare and sophisticated technology and know how that government cannot hope to replicate either?
– Is it because technology is supplied at no perceived cost, and that government agencies are suffering from fatigue of cost and system builds from the traditional vendor networks?

Let’s address each point of logic.

Audience aggregation

First, it is undeniable that social portals represent ways to reach large audiences. It would be hard (and wrong) to ignore the fact that Facebook has over 70M members in the United States or that virtually every citizen/consumer online accesses Google You Tube for information. These are new massive addressable audiences reachable in a centralized network communication model built on a principle of aggregation.

Let’s challenge this justification.

First, the assumption that because an audience is aggregated in one place and for one purpose, it will be receptive to engagement for another purpose is fundamentally inaccurate. Facebook and/or other social portals may not represent an appropriate inclusion strategy – standing alone. Many if not most consumers do not use Facebook or other social portals for business purposes for good reasons. I use myself as an example.

I love my Facebook page. I use it to stay in touch with my family and close colleagues. I generally don’t use it to organize my relationships with people that I don’t know well. It is place of refuge from my work life and business conversations (though I would freely admit that I selectively use it to meet interesting people that I want to get to know better).

Similarly, like many, I ascribe roles to my other social communities – as an example, use of Twitter – for rapid and interesting exchange with friends and colleagues. We may not know our twitter friends in real life (IRL). Occasionally, we do form good relationships with someone with whom we have a “weak link” as we exchange ideas with them through the Twitter network.

Another example is Linked In. Like many, I use it as an electronic rolodex and to form connections to business associates and professional colleagues (to whom I might be introduced by common friends). But I would not use Linked In to build social relationships – in the way that I might use Facebook or Twitter. In fact I use Linked In when I don’t want to be social.

Second, not everyone has equal access to Facebook and Twitter. Nor does every citizen desire a Facebook page – as a condition to electronic public participation. Some citizens merely want to participate, whether through independent discrete contributions (public comment) or collaboratively (social collaboration), with their government directly. I think of my parents who have a Facebook page but struggle mightily with how to use it — even for family purposes.

Third, why for instance, wouldn’t government agencies equally encourage interaction through traditional media or stakeholder groups all of whom have increasing access to multiple forms of technology? In other words, what about that part of the audience that is decentralized and speaking to policies that have local effects? Relying upon an aggregation model minimizes the possibility that the role of government is often to act in decentralized networks and to reach many diverse audiences.

Scarcity and know how

Let’s address the second point of logic. Is government capable of supporting citizen networks? Is the technology and network know how of networking so unique, that only social portals can provide it?

To the first question: Yes, government is capable of supporting citizen networks. This is what government does — routinely. Government agencies understand not only methods of citizen communication, but as importantly, the specific business problems and logic faced by citizens and agencies both.

To the second question: No — the technology and know how are not so unique that they cannot be replicated. In fact many countries in the world routinely provide networking capabilities to their citizens —reference the United Kingdom, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and also India and Australia – very independently of the social portals.

The key is to understand that it is a very different proposition to build networks designed primarily for social purposes – making friends, than it is to build deliberative networks that may have social characteristics. The former is designed to achieve user aggregation in a way that drives advertising revenue. The latter is designed to achieve best results in decision-making and policy in a way that promotes citizen and professional inclusion.


Finally, understandably, government agencies gravitate to what is perceived as a “low cost” business model. They are fatigued by massive and complicated system builds that have historically cost tens and in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars. So they are turning to social portals that provide networking benefits at a perceived price of “free”.

“Free” often ends up being the most costly solution. Facebook, YouTube, and other social networks are not free. As businesses often supported by vast sums of venture capital, they have to generate revenue. Social portal business models are uniformly focused on aggregating users first, and then addressing monetization later.

The key to financial success of these models is to dramatically increase the change costs to individuals and government agencies before having to address who pays for what when. Today, uniformly, they are premised on a vague notion of future advertising revenue even though that business model is of itself under attack by transformative market forces. There are several inherent issues in government’s reliance on these models as a primary mechanism of promoting citizen involvement and agency collaboration.

The first is government’s responsibility to maintain neutrality. Is it right to require citizen exposure to advertising as a condition of public participation? In an old world model, government would be ridiculed if it ceded public participation and/or agency collaboration to traditional media – CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS, ABC? And it would never cede agency sponsored public discourse to stakeholder sites many of which have a distinct point of view and social agenda?

Second, one of the most compelling benefits of deliberative networks is to build institutional memory of policy deliberations and decisions. What went into our decisions? And how can government draw upon past conversations for current learning? Social portals do not create this institutional memory and government does not therefore realize the benefits.

I am not suggesting that government networks should not enable citizen use of social networks in public dialogue or even between and amongst agencies and their stakeholders. Collaboration outside of traditional structures is in fact vital. Our relationships and conversations here on govloop, and our government engagement through twitter underscore what can be achieved in self-policing communications structures – designed in part to be “social”. Notwithstanding, government sponsored citizen networks (that create intersections with many existing networks including those of the social portals) address both the practical and policy implications in a way that maximizes the potential benefits of networks in governance models for today and tomorrow.

The opportunity for network transformation.

The key is that every network service serves a different and distinct human need. Some needs are social (developing friendship). Some needs are purposeful (collaborating to make a decision and/or to achieve a business objective), and others may be entertainment or learning (discovery of unique and interesting experiences that earn social attention). And while networks tend to have a primary purpose, it is also true that many networks support multiple purposes – a deliberative network with a social characteristic. This is true specifically of government sponsored networks.

Government has a rare opportunity – an opportunity to make citizen engagement meaningful again. But it is also a fragile opportunity. Poorly executed, it will disappoint. And social portals can contribute greatly to help government drive new participation. But fairly considered, they should be a secondary, not primary strategy to maximize the value of networks for all government processes. They should be a point of intersection, not a primary means for reaching citizens and stakeholders.

The bet is that government, like industry, can embrace network transformation and as Yochai Benkler describes it, the information network economy, with thoughtful embrace of its own network structures.

Twitter address @kpkfusion

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Pam Broviak

I wanted to comment on this quote from Kim: “Is it right to require citizen exposure to advertising as a condition of public participation?”

My experience has shown that this has in fact been the norm for many many years with the legal requirements that advertisement for bids, zoning hearings, public hearing notices, ordinances, etc be published in a legal notice. In a small town like ours that means published in the one local newspaper so in order for me to gain access to this information, I am required to either pay for a subscription or visit the library on a daily basis to read a free newspaper. And in some cities I lived in, the library was only open once a week so I would not have had access to the paper and the government notices unless I paid for a newspaper subscription.

I have never thought this was fair since not everyone wants to have to read the paper.