Thursday, 24 October 2013

Social media can contribute to government responsiveness not only by increasing the speed and volume of interactions with the public - Dr Panos Panagiotopoulos, Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary University

National and local governments are using social media innovatively to become more responsive to their public. Panos Panagiotopoulos argues that government agencies should think about their use of social media as a way to become more responsive and to educate and influence and should focus less on measuring the speed and volume of interactions. Government agencies should use social media to listen and engage proactively with specific audiences. The UK Food Standards Agency’s digital engagement activities show how this approach can be put into practice.

What usually makes a responsive government is the ability to respond quickly to all citizen demands. This view seems to guide many recent efforts to establish government accounts on social media where the public can access information and even expect rapid responses to queries, complains or calls for action. Many government accounts on channels such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been indeed attracting large audiences and are successfully spreading government content.

While reacting effectively to public demands is important, focusing on optimising reputation metrics such as numbers of clicks, response times and number of followers is a rather technocratic way of thinking about what government should be trying to do. However, the number and diversity of people using social media points to the fact that there might be considerable scope to expand government’s usually limited capacity to engage proactively and reach specific groups of people. Arguments about collaborative responsiveness (see here and here) have emphasised the importance of listening to the public and promoting positive behavioural change. The Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) digital engagement initiatives suggest how these ideas could work in other government agencies.

The FSA is responsible for food safety and hygiene across the UK. The agency communicates with food consumers as well as a diverse audience of experts, organisations in the food industry, local councils, other national or European food governance authorities. It also manages the Food Hygiene Scheme. That programme rates catering companies’ offerings from 0 to 5. Scores must be displayed in all eating facilities. The FSA’s communication needs are complicated by the fact that, food policies and regulations require elaborate scientific evidence (e.g. meat audit) and are in many cases bounded by European legislation. Major food safety incidents such as the recent “horse meat” require special attention and engagement effort.

As well as its traditional communication channels, the FSA has taken several digital engagement initiatives to promote food safety and healthy eating habits. These include
  • Training websites and open access repositories.
  • The Chief Scientist’s blog.
  • Email alerts and RSS feeds complemented by more recent mobile applications for the hygiene rating scheme and allergy alerts.
  • Facebook groups to promote regional and thematic campaigns such as eating habits around Christmas or the Food Safety Week. 
  • Twitter account where conversations with other users take place regularly.
  • YouTube channel with food safety and advice videos.
  • Live streams, social bookmarking, infographics, interactive calendars and other visualisation and presentation tools (e.g. Pinterest , Thinglink and Storify).

This wide range of channels reaches large numbers of people. Using so many channels also enables the agency to manage expectations of responsiveness from their audiences. Social media activities are kept focused and consistent so that it is clear how and when communication can take place. Interesting and interactive content is targeted to consumers with specific demographic characteristics (e.g. mothers) and to influential groups such as allergy charities, consumer organisations and food experts.

By building relationships with these audiences, the agency can find the right networks to share key messages and to target campaigns about food safety and hygiene. It also enhances its ability to use social media as information sources about public sentiment and insight to guide the agency’s attention to emerging issues. For example, monitoring public reactions on the recent “horse meat” incidents helped identify consumers’ main concerns and address them accordingly.

The FSA’s digital activities show how the effectiveness of government agencies’ presence on social media can be measured in richer ways than those of ticking the box of popular channels and maximising the number of people engaging on each one of them. High visibility of government social media accounts can support the public sector’s mission to educate, collaborate with and learn from the public. Even if social media users do not necessarily represent the general population, reaching them can open new opportunities to improve government responsiveness and inform the development of policy.

You can read more about social media and government responsiveness or the case of the UK Food Standards Agency here. This is an open version of a paper co-authored with Prof Julie Barnett and Dr Laurence Brooks that received the award as the most critical reflection at the IFIP 8.5 12th International Conference on Electronic Government, Koblenz, Germany, September 2013. The research was supported by the FoodRisC project under the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission. We gratefully acknowledge interview participants from the Food Standards Agency.

Panos Panagiotopoulos is a Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary University of London with interests in information technology and social media research. He tweets from @DrPanPan.

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