Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Government Participation in the Age of Social Media

Interacting with the government in our country has evolved as society and technology has advanced. The advent of wide-spread print media, the telegraph, the radio and the television all gave impetus to change. The widespread use of these media by citizens and the leveraging of them for both advertising and political campaigning has dramatically changed how the public receives information and how it participates in the legislative and governing process. Each technological leap has led to increased ease in interaction and visibility of the process. The changing landscape not only allows for candidates to spread their political message and increase their electability.

Seemingly progressing in tandem with technology is the implementation of sunshine ordinances and decisions that add visibility to the process. These include historic moments such as the Supreme Court case Londoner v. Denver (1908), the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976 and the Regulatory Flexibility Act of 1980.

from Businessweek

It appears that social media is continuing the trend of technology bridging the gap between governing bodies and those governed in a meaningful way. According to a recent article on Mashable.com, social media is replacing traditional media as the “default ” outlet for political discussion and interaction.

“It will be about how much society has integrated itself into it,” said Gerrit Lansing, the new media director for Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL 6th). “Citizens will be far more accustomed to being a fan of their congressman on Facebook, because it will soon become one of the main ways in which they communicate with him.”

We have already seen that governing bodies from the Federal to the State and Local levels are gearing up for social media with plans and guidelines and that some tools are in the early stages of development. But more and more “forward thinking” campaigners and public servants are abandoning the traditional viewpoint of political campaigning and outreach. They recognize that information and communication, especially in the social media age, is a two-way street with many points of access.

Larry Ell of the DailyCommercial.com recently published an article about social media entitled, “Social media not just for kids.” Ell touched upon the efforts of a few accounts created by Lake County, California. He mentions, “Municipal governments have also recognized the potential of social media to deliver focused content to their residents.” What needs to be mentioned here is that this is just the beginning. Social media has the potential to create a verifiable interaction framework that could lead to a government style much closer to direct democracy than we have ever imagined before in this nation.

Traditionally, constituents had to rely on direct mail, press releases and events to interact with their elected officials. This was especially true if that individual wanted to provide direct input on legislation and issues. Today, by being part of the information stream of your elected officials, you are able to insert yourself in the conversation and let your ideas be heard. Many public officials are even posting links to their public talks and forums, taking a note from the hugely popular webinar format.

One interesting and noteworthy tool that was mentioned in the previously referenced Mashable article comes from Republicans in Congress. They have launched a program utilizing social media and direct input from constituents called “YouCut.” While the nature of the program may seem partisan (many view the project as benefiting mainly the conservative agenda because of phrasing and focus) it is still a platform where anyone can voice their opinions and still has potential as an input stream for a more direct democracy. If Congress as a whole utilized this type of tool as an opinion gathering method on the legislative items it dealt with, it would have the potential to be a game changer in the political world. This is becoming the case with social media platforms and tools across the board.

In late July and early August, the 2010 Global Forum for Modern Direct Democracy was held at U.C. Hastings in San Francisco. The purpose was to explore the various avenues for modern direct democracy techniques. One of the of the panels included, “Technology Symposium on the Rise of Digital Direct Democracy,” which attempted to answer the question, “What impact will social media have on democracy in the next three years and beyond?” While the findings were expected – digitization will streamline the initiative and petition process – the fact that the question was raised indicates interesting prospects for the future of interacting with government.

The real lesson here is, as the times change, so will the methods of interacting with government. While traditional methods still prove useful, it behooves government organizations to stay ahead of the curve and meet the shifting trends in constituent engagement, or they will find themselves lost as to what the public concerns are and how to inform the governed in the most appropriate and expedient way. While we may not be there yet, the potential for this form of interaction is something worth being excited over.

(This was originally posted at my company blog, but thought it would fit here as well. )

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