Social networks can expose the human side of govt

'Trust' key to government use of social media

“Trust” has been the mantra for the relationship between New Zealanders and their government.

Helen Clark chose it as the key word for the Labour government’s unsuccessful 2008 election campaign and it is frequently evoked still, particularly where electronically-mediated government is concerned; we must trust government agencies with our personal information as we delegate them to perform services for us.

It was also a word much bandied about at the recent GOVIS conference on government information services, whose theme was “user-centred government — more than meets the eye”.

Alexandra Vale of Provoke Solutions sees this as a key to the use of social media in e-government; the people we trust are the people like us, she told the GOVIS audience.

Provoke has been responsible for award-winning systems for government, such as the Ministry of Transport’s intranet, named by US-based usability analyst the Nielsen Norman group last year as one of the top ten intranets in the world.

Vale has worked in government and felt, she says, the common sense of disconnection from head office.

A social network, properly implemented can lead to a new more flexible and trusting style of interaction, both among the people within a government agency and between the agency and its customer base, Vale suggests. Government staff become less “faceless”.

Yet, it’s not just a matter of flinging a platform out there and hoping to connect with everyone, she emphasises; First step is to identify users’ interests and needs, and to form “communities of interest”, leading to livelier and perhaps more informed discussion.

She compares the more social side of such chat to conversation around the water cooler; but your water-cooler can connect with other water-coolers in the organisation.

Computerworld’s reporter engaging Vale via Twitter, pointed to the fact that water-cooler conversation often goes quiet when the boss walks by. With a digital water-cooler, the boss might be present at any moment without employees knowing.

“If that is the offline behaviour in the organisation, an online water-cooler might not be right for them,” Vale replies. On the other hand, “the social intranet may be the chance to change that behaviour, both for the staff and the boss,” she says.

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