Why do so many governments fail to leverage social media?

Published on November 09, 2023

The widespread adoption of social media by governments is not just a matter of choice but an essential step in embracing the modern age of communication.

These platforms have indeed empowered individuals and non-traditional interest groups to an unprecedented extent.

Politicians were the first to recognise this potential and harness social media’s power to rally support and connect with their constituents.

However… it is concerning that government institutions were slow to adapt, as they risked falling behind in engaging with their citizens effectively.

How do you know you’re doing a good job serving your citizens if you’re not engaging with them?

Why do so many governments fail to leverage social media?

Political personalities > public institutions they represent

While individual political personalities have thrived on these platforms, the lack of a comprehensive strategy from institutions reflects a certain level of uncertainty and a failure to adapt to the changing times.

The popularity of political leaders on social media is not just due to their identifiable personalities; it also highlights the lack of creativity and innovation within government institutions.

People want to interact with REAL individuals, and politicians have capitalised on this desire by building personal brands and establishing direct connections with their constituents.

On the other hand…government agencies often struggle to create a relatable and engaging presence on social media, which hampers their ability to effectively communicate and connect with citizens.

Despite their recent efforts to jump on any platform, there is (Meta’s new platform Threads attracted 250 US government accounts and 80,000 followers within 24 hours of its launch), they lack strategy.

Social media is not just a supplementary tool for public communication… It is a powerful channel that can reshape the way public services are delivered and improve citizen engagement.

Yet, despite the vast potential, the overall lack of engagement with public agencies on social media is not enough.

It reflects a missed opportunity to foster a more transparent and participatory government where citizens are actively involved in shaping public policies and decisions.

By neglecting to genuinely leverage social media for these advanced purposes, governments are squandering a valuable resource for improving public services and strengthening the bond between the governed and the governing.

Rebuilding confidence between governments and citizens

Democratising potential of social media

Social media has undoubtedly provided a voice to previously marginalised and ad-hoc interest groups.

It empowers citizens to place issues on the political agenda, driving discourse and demanding accountability from established political actors.

But as we revel in the democratising effects, we must ask ourselves: Does this amplified digital cacophony truly lead to meaningful change, or is it merely a fleeting echo chamber of opinions?

Participative development

Governments must seize the opportunities presented by social media to engage in iterative, collaborative, and responsive public policy design.

This requires dedicating resources to facilitate meaningful citizen participation and integrating feedback from new channels.

Yet, amidst the endless stream of opinions, governments should filter out the noise and ensure that the most critical concerns are genuinely addressed.

Bridging the digital divide

While social media can bridge access and take-up gaps in government services, we must recognise that not everyone has equal access to these platforms.

The characteristics of social media users and non-users can vary significantly between and within countries.

Leaders must ensure that their efforts to promote inclusivity and accessibility do not inadvertently exacerbate existing disparities…

Public service delivery

The dynamic nature of social media has driven innovation in public service delivery and government operations.

It allows for faster dissemination of information and facilitates more direct communication with citizens.

However, amidst the drive for progress, we must not sacrifice the quality of the information provided.

Bottom line

Social media undoubtedly presents a transformative opportunity to engage citizens and reshape democratic governance (but it is not without its complexities.)

To harness its power effectively, leaders must navigate its challenges with thoughtfulness and foresight.

By actively engaging citizens through these platforms, fostering inclusivity, and addressing risks responsibly, I believe they can create a more participative and responsive political landscape for the benefit of all.

Ultimately, the success of this endeavour will lie in the ability to find a harmonious balance between embracing the democratising potential of social media and mitigating its potential pitfalls.


About the Author

Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.

He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.

After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.

He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.

As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.

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