America’s Town Hall Moves Online

Almost four years ago, the United States experienced the first national election in which social media was seen by many as the key that opened the door to the White House and, no doubt, it will play a critical role in the upcoming election.

Over the past four years, it has become evident that the town hall of American government has moved online and into the social arena. Public officials in every corner of government — not just politicians — are expanding their use of social media to better understand and communicate with today’s digital citizens.

With an estimated 107 million Twitter users in the United States and another 156 million Americans using Facebook, more and more people expect real-time access and authentic engagement with everything from the brands they love to the governments they elect. In fact, according to a survey by Accenture of citizens in seven countries, including the United States, 50 percent believe that being able to interact digitally with government would encourage them to become more engaged and would make government more transparent.

Recognizing the opportunity to engage the digital generation in the democratic process, the state of Washington took the unprecedented step in July of becoming the first U.S. state to allow eligible residents to register to vote in this year’s election through Facebook. The secure registration process Washington developed clearly signals the collapse of the last few barriers to the public acceptance of social media as a critical — and secure — medium for government communications. In addition to increasing voter participation, the new process will require no printing, signing or mailing of forms to a state office — saving both time and state resources. Today, government is using social media to register voters, but soon we may see actual voting via Facebook, and the opportunity to become a truly digital democracy.

While encouraging, the state of Washington is unfortunately not the norm. In the same Accenture study that found a majority of Americans want greater social engagement from their government, fewer than half of the respondents believe their government has effectively leveraged social and digital platforms to ease access to public services. While major consumer brands are busy trying to meet the challenges of the social marketplace, most public-sector efforts lag behind citizen expectations. After Y2K, governments turned to “e-government” to dramatically improve their efficiency and effectiveness, building online portals to dispense important information about public services. However, the fundamental aspiration of Gov. 2.0 — a more personal, convenient and empowering interaction, a social contract with citizens — was not realized.

Even when government agencies decide to engage, most “social” programs are still relegated to one-way information broadcasting and sporadic individual use by officials. But mobility has brought us to a tipping point, and social engagement is the next frontier. The good news is that there are many other good examples to emulate.

In 2011, for example, FEMA officials were able to monitor social media conversations and respond to tornado disaster reports in Joplin, Mo., from citizens on the ground before official reports could be verified. And, in Boulder, Colo., real-time social communications between citizens and government through Facebook and Twitter helped save lives and property as a wildfire raged in 2010.

New York City has re-engineered a tool from the analog era — 311 — into a leading social media support system to facilitate more efficient citizen interaction with city government and reduce public services spending. Leveraging Twitter and Facebook from a mobile device, residents can use NYC 311 to request pothole repair or report graffiti simply by attaching a photo and hitting the send button. The system shortens government response time, reduces costs and deepens the connection between citizens and local government.

The federal government also has begun leveraging the connectivity of social media to streamline government and save taxpayer money. A good example is an innovative program called the SAVE Award (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency), which effectively crowd sources cost-saving ideas from federal employees on how to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. Since introducing the program in 2009, federal employees have submitted more than 56,000 cost-cutting ideas.

Social media applications are used very effectively throughout the private sector to trim costs and improve efficiency. Cisco, for example, says it has been able to reach 90 times the audience for a key router it produces at one-sixth the cost through social channels.

Imagine the potential savings and insights that government could generate by having an ongoing online dialogue with citizens. Getting there would require funding for the tools, training, analytics and measurement needed, but there’s no doubt, in this era of continued belt tightening, that social media could render a positive return on investment.

Government agencies can start now by taking three steps:

  • First, they should conduct a bottom-up assessment to determine how best to leverage social media to serve the unique needs of their constituents. Agencies at every government level should review programs and practices built for the offline era to determine how the social marketplace can reshape their service offerings for the next decade.
  • Next, government workforces must be given the tools necessary to create two-way integration, especially those under 30 who prefer to communicate through social channels. They must be trained in all relevant digital technology to be ready for the next phase of citizen communication.
  • Finally, governments should solicit direct feedback from the public through free tools like Facebook and Twitter. This type of “digital democracy” enables citizens to make recommendations in real time and to play a leading role in shaping everything from public policy to public services.

Increased transparency through social media at all levels of government can deepen the connection with the public, instill a greater sense of trust and drive increased citizen participation. With a majority of Americans seeking more social interaction with their government, and the potential for increased efficiency and cost savings, social engagement will help create the public services for the future that digital citizens demand and deserve.

Stephen J. Rohleder is group chief executive for Accenture’s global Health & Public Service business.

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