Friday, December 30, 2011

What value can social media offer to policy making?

                                         ...connecting the dots....

Social media, have been under the spotlight  for a few years now. In March 2010 an issue of the European journal of ePractice was devoted to understanding whether the use of such tools in a government setting was - as the title suggested - hype, hope or a reality to come.

At that time, I contributed to the debate on the journal with an article co-authored with Francesco Molinari in which we attempted to frame the use of web 2.0 in government within a wider process of public sector innovation. In that article we intended to convey two main messages: the first was that the use of social media by public administration could have contributed to the construction of a more open, transparent and collaborative government. The second message was that social media could have helped tackling some of the problems encountered in the first wave of government digitalization, such as: the lack of orientation towards creation of value for the final user,  the focus on automation rather than on innovation, and the  consequent low levels of take up/participation. 

More recently, the work conducted within the European research project PADGETS has been very useful in gaining a deeper understanding of the relationship between social media and policy making. In particular, the project introduced the concept of "policy gadgets" that I had the chance to discuss in detail in a recent article presented at the ePart 2011 conference that took place in Delft. In that article we introduced the concept of Padget campaign that is defined as: a set of activities covering creation, distribution, interaction, monitoring and termination of one or more padgets for a specific goal. Moreover, we tried to single out what value a Padget campaign could offer to each phase of the policy cycle. The table below provides a brief bird-eye view of the prominent contributions we could identify (for a more precise definition of the concepts: awareness, interest and acceptance, please see this article)

Stage in policy making cycle
Padget campaign value proposition
Agenda setting
Elicitation of needs and priorities
Opinions gathering
Acceptance estimation
Assessment of awareness and interest
Evaluation of impact perception

More in general, we could say that social media could represent an ideal bridge across Governments’ institutional boundaries allowing to establish a bidirectional communication flow between policy makers and society. The value generated by such tools unfolds along a number of dimensions, is perspective dependent (citizen vs. policy maker) and may vary among the different phases of the policy making cycle (as we may see from the table above). Nevertheless, in its essence it may be conceived as a reduction in the distance occurring between policy making and society’s needs, both in terms of time and tools required. In other words, the use of social media could allow to better inform the policy decision process by providing a clear and dynamic vision of the disparate stakeholders’ opinions and priorities.

Finally, as it emerged from the review conducted within the CROSSROAD project, the use of ICT tools for decision support in policy making has traditionally been a “closed door” activity usually carried out with static external inputs in the form of codified or unstructured data coming from different sources (e.g. statistical offices). Such approach often suffers from a number of important limitations: the lack of a direct connection with the external reality on which the policy decision has to impact, an inherent delay present in the policy response due to the lead time to collect and process the relevant data necessary for the analysis. To exemplify with a metaphor, such process could be compared to driving a car by only looking at the rear view mirror (an indirect and delayed input) rather than through the windscreen. The innovation brought by web 2.0 consists in offering the opportunity to open up the policy making process by integrating it with the activity carried out over social media platforms. This allows to establish a direct link between the decision process and the external world as well as to reason on fresh and relevant information (going back to the metaphor, driving while looking through the windscreen and, in the near future, with the possibility to use additional on-board instrumentation). Concluding, once the necessary organizational processes are in place, I am convinced that the use of social media could significantly contribute to produce a much more responsive and effective style of decision making in government. 

Enrico Ferro

PS: Since the publication of this post, I wrote an academic article on Government Information Quarterly on the experience gained in the context of the PADGETS project. Below you may find the reference to the paper linked to the journal website:


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