Over the last decade, social media has allowed information to be broadcasted all over the world within seconds. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter have created an open platform where individuals can engage in conversations on topics impacting the public sector, such as policy development, social issues, education and other services provided by the Government. Social media has allowed people to be more connected with each other, and is often used as a tool by the Government to communicate with its citizens. A popular example is the United States, where President Donald Trump has over 47 million followers on Twitter and has posted approximately 36,800 tweets in his first year of office. The content of these posts has caused a significant amount of controversy with the media and the broader public. However, it does demonstrate that social media platforms have opened up a form of communication which the Australian public sector should consider exploring further to connect with its citizens.
The Government & Public Sector Practice of WPP published The Leaders’ Report – The Future of Government Communication last year, which is a global review of government communication functions covering 40 countries. The review found that that even though each nation’s government exists in a different context, there remains an overarching belief that communication is poorly understood and under-utilised within government. Based on available information, the trends displayed by countries in Europe, North America, South Asia and Australasia is that the majority of government communication spend remains focused on traditional channels, with spend on newspapers, radio and television accounting for between 75% and 97% of media spend. Through interviews, senior communication leaders acknowledge that social media has created an echo chamber of information that has the ability to filter out opposing views and commentary. It has also created a sense that all information is ‘free’ and equal. Fundamentally, government communication should enable the exchange of views and thus the more effort a government puts into communication, the clearer its purpose and the more effective it is likely to be with its citizens.
Given the nature of social media, anyone has the ability to post and comment on any issue publicly. This could lead to implications and associated risks when government employees are perceived to be supporting a specific view on social media. In August 2017, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) released Making Public Comment on Social Media, a set of guidelines for APS employees. The guidelines imposes responsibilities on APS staff when it comes to posting on social media and warns that public servants do not have unlimited rights of free speech. Under the guidance, “liking”, reposting and sharing social media content could breach employment conditions. Furthermore, not taking sensible action regarding objectionable material posted by others could be seen as endorsement of that content.
The use of social media by the Government to communicate with its citizens will undoubtedly bring greater opportunities to connect, share and engage in meaningful discussions. However, there are risks and limitations which should be considered carefully prior to the use of social media communications with the broader public. Given the current rate of technology developments and digital disruption, it is important that Government agencies are prepared and actively educating and upskilling its staff to be capable of dealing with the imminent issue surrounding social media.