Thus far the predominant use of social media by organisations has been as an extra channel to ‘engage’ with customers. In most instances this merely means pushing out your message via various social networks. Whilst all very nice, I think a far bigger use for social technologies is in reshaping how our organisations work, be that in defining strategy, product development, collaboration, providing customer service or any of the other ways in which they can help organisations become sense and respond rather than make and sell.
So what of government? There is an awful lot of publicity at the moment about how the two main presidential candidates are using social media to get their message out to voters. It’s widely regarded that Obama set the stall during the 2008 campaign with his work on social media allowing him to engage and mobilise voters.
Which is fine, it’s what most organisations do at the moment, but how can social technologies change how governments actually function? After all, most democratic governments are setup to sense what the public needs and respond to those needs. The feeling is however that this isn’t what actually happens. Most governments offer a one size fits all approach to service delivery.
There’s an interesting talk below from Clay Shirkey on how the web can and should transform the way governments operate. He talks about how governments should be much more ‘bottom up’, or emergent, in how they operate rather than the top-down approach that dominates at the moment.
Will such change happen however? I can’t help but think not. The very nature of politics in the modern world leans towards this notion of hero leadership whereby we regard our leaders as superheroes that can, or at least should try, to do everything themselves. They should have all the knowledge and all of the answers. That’s why we pay them such vast sums of money. The notion that in a complex world, they typically don’t have the answers, or even the best knowledge, will require a change in culture.
As Shirky says, open and collaborative environments have typically evolved in places where people didn’t have any power to begin with. So just as it will take a sustained will for executives to admit that they don’t have the answers and open up strategy to the masses, it will also take a sustained effort by the population to open up democracies to the people so that we have a choice every day rather than every four years.
Hopefully it’s a change that I’ll get to see in my lifetime.