Survival Guide: Social media and public administration

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We continue our guest blog post series with an insightful article by Tomislav Korman, former Head of Online Communication Department of the Government of Croatia, on the challenges and benefits of the use of social media by public sector institutions. 


From 2000 to 2011, the European union (EU) has spent 190 million euros to fund e-participation projects. However, EU countries are faced with citizens’ ignorance towards political participation. Only 41% of EU internet users actually uses internet opportunities to get involved. Yet, European internet users are extremely open towards social media. According to Business Insider Europeans use social media in greater percentages than Americans. For example, in Italy, 77% of population spends more than 30 minutes every day on social media sites. Social networking seems like an easy option for governments as they are easily used to simultaneously inform and interact with a large audience. Yet, most of the public institutions still don’t have a clue on how to use social media productively. It is simply not enough to have social media sites and randomly post information. Without organisational change, a strategy, goals and objectives, final results will not be clear, or will fail to achieve a major change. Social media is not easy, but is simple. It might help your institution to do better. Especially if your attempts are strategised, aligned with broader plans, programs, missions and visions.

EU: Using tech for public good

During the last years various information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become accessible to the public. Moreover, ICTs, such as internet, specialised online platforms and social networking become accessible to public institutions, as well. New technologies seemed like an affordable way to provide information and services, furthermore modernise and reform slow-changing bureaucracy. To support both democratic principles and modernisation it has been expected for EU countries to simplify public administration, but more importantly, to embrace participatory democracy and ICT use for its purpose. The “European eGovernment Action Plan 2011-15” and the Malmö Ministerial Declaration on eGovernment support the use of ICTs in civic life. Member states and candidate countries are expected to rely on ICT when promoting “effective, useful and better ways for businesses and citizens to participate in the policy processes”. Furthermore, “Europe 2020 Strategy” introduced in 2010, among many other initiatives includes “The Digital Agenda for Europe” which promotes “effective use of digital technologies”. This “agenda” is supposed to “trigger technology development and increase in socio economic benefits”.

ICTs are not a problem-solver, but their usage might be

Firstly, not only that EU institutions and EU governments have to provide online services, they have to secure visibility of such services as well. In the era of ICT and accessibility, voters turnout and democratic engagement has never been lower. Voter turnout in may´s European elections was lower than 43% – the lowest ever. In addition, data published by Eurostat in 2013 shows that 80% of the EU citizens has internet, but only 41% of individuals used the internet to interact with public authorities or services. Public sector bureaucracy which often strangles with entrepreneurship and innovation, has to produce a sustainable and forever changing strategy to adapt to an increasing role of new technologies.

Secondly, although good cases have been constantly highlighted, “one size fits all” rule can not be applied. Lessons have been learned through trial and error. Some governments and institution embraced online forums, blogs, virtual communities and social networking sites. These social media sites enable governments to interact with citizens and businesses in a new way. Moreover, they offer a two-way communication that can enable citizens to respond, question and interact with each other, and the institution as well. Such interactions create interest and “buzz”.

Public sector matters: What to expect?

Interaction changed from one way to many-to-many communication. “We are social” reports on almost 300 million active social media users in Europe or 40% of the region’s population. Using social media in public bodies is creating networks of state and non-state actors. These actors are organising to use existing resources, knowledge and tools to pursue public goals. They exchange pictures, videos and experiences, mostly over Twitter and Facebook. They create content on YouTube and Flickr. All freely available to the public, all about – you. Public servants need to put time to recognise and become an active part of such relationships if they want to gain trust and argue their case on the issue. Knowledge on policies, communication, bureaucracy, technology, design, engagement, analysis, content marketing and community management comes together to develop digital network services of the public sector. Nonetheless, researchers such as Hoffman, Lutz and Seri, confirmed that this might mean informational overload and consultation difficulties. In addition, skepticism of many public administrations towards social media result in weak initiatives, poor composition and weak management. Furthermore, lack of relevant skills and organisational practices often gets in the way of adopting modern methods in public management which consequently affects openness and transparency, thus interactive government-citizen processes. Resistance to flexibility or lack of skilled specialists might reduce the attractiveness of such public features, which again leads to low response on the political issues. In addition, it is hard not to associate such adoption with expansion of personnel and training requirements. Interestingly, in his research, Norman Baldwin found that older public servants are more optimistic towards new technologies as they already witnessed change in their work with the introduction of telefaks, printers and internet.

What to Consider

A part from organisational reforms and maintenance guidelines for your staff, there are some advices for social media maintenance. To achieve openness and citizen centricity, furthermore, introduce new ways of responding, creating and sharing information, governments need to step up from the throne of public communication and review its citizen consultation and participation process. What do citizens need? What do citizens want? How can we use citizens to help us work better, faster and simpler? By understanding of this concepts, governments can position themselves to deliver better and positive outcomes of citizen-government interaction. Participatory outcomes can impact businesses, the economy and society while delivering a new and effective, public service paradigm. Engaging the public becomes the key catalyst in the attempts of political or bureaucratic reforms.

Although various institutions might target various groups and stakeholders, experts agree on several recommendations. To simplify, I always group them into four simple rules: Listen, Engage, Be respectful and Have fun.

• Listen. Who is your targeted audience? What are their interests? What have they been saying about you? What kind of queries do they have? How do they use social media? Is this relatable to your services? How? Research, research, research… Learn as much as you can about audience you are going to be exposed to. Learn who and how influential they are. Prepare some concepts and actions that will help you respond to crisis once you go public. Set and draft 10 common issues that you might be involved with. This should help you during the first few days. As a public service or servant you are expected to respond and account for related information and issues. Have them ready. Integrate your activities with all relevant communication departments and follow the existing communication strategy (if there is one, if not, create your own with the agreement of communication officers). Social media are extending your democratic duty. Therefore, don’t raise expectations to unreasonable levels. Listen, then speak.

• Engage. How can your audience help you to work better? Will information that you provide make the work of your institution easier, faster, more relevant? Your audience might give you ideas or appoint you to the relevant matters. You have to be committed to maintain your social media, but also to be a conversation starter and create opportunities for the audience to participate. The easiest way is to discreetly ask for advices or opinion. Questions can help you form relevant advice and input. But keep it simple. Educate on the issues but do not overwhelm with questions or information. Keep such efforts constant from start to finish. Iteratively execute and measure results. Update your audience on progress and final results of their participation.

• Be respectful. Respectful to information you provide, and more respectful to the users. A part from proofreading and double-checking every information you announce, your job is to provide the best customer service in the universe.According to a Government Business Council survey from 2013, 60% of government executives describe citizens’ attitudes toward government as “frustrated”. Both public and private sector deal with people. Chris Tyrrell, Senior Assessor with standards organisation Customer Service Excellence (CSE) listed 50 advices on how to handle difficult tasks of human interaction with politeness and care. Among other things he states that “Everybody and I mean everybody, in the organisation should have a customer-focused key work objective/competence/behaviour in their job description for recruitment and induction, and subsequent performance reviews”.

• Have fun. Following rules and guides might work, however if you are upset over the work you do, you will most probably have a hard time. Finding and embracing the passion that might help you to be better at the things you do, is not an easy task. Your should learn to love it or change it. Social media can be used in numerous ways. Your creativity or the creativity of your team can help you constantly innovate and change the way you communicate with your audience. Flexibility of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Flicker can inspire you to combine text, videos and photos in order to spread your message. Moreover, your audience will show you the way to go.


Recommended reading:
Baldwin, J. N., Gauld, R., & Goldfinch, S. (2012). What public servants really think of e-government. Public Management Review14(1), 105-127.

Charalabidis, Y., & Koussouris, S. (Eds.). (2012). Empowering open and collaborative governance: Technologies and methods for online citizen engagement in public policy making. Springer. [Internet] Available from:  https://www.academia.edu/1487923/Book_Chapter_A_critical_analysis_of_EU-funded_eParticipation

Effing, R., van Hillegersberg, J., & Huibers, T. (2011). Social media and political participation: are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube democratizing our political systems?. In Electronic participation(pp. 25-35). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Hoffmann, C. P., Lutz, C., & Meckel, M. (2014). Social Media Readiness in Public Administration: Developing a Research Framework. Available at SSRN 2408737.

Seri, P., & Zanfei, A. (2013). The co-evolution of ICT, skills and organization in public administrations: Evidence from new European country-level data.Structural Change and Economic Dynamics27, 160-176.
Tomislav Korman holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from University of Birmingham. He has been working in Prime Minister’s Office as the Head of Online Communication Department of the Government of Croatia. During his time in the government, he was responsible for daily managing of social networks in accordance with the officials’ and counsellors’ needs, which is where he came up with the idea for Gov.hr – a comprehensive web portal used for transparent dissemination of information of public interest. He worked on a number of electoral campaigns for parties and candidates on presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections both in Croatia and internationally. Experienced in the strategic planning, development and evaluation of digital channels. Specialist in the field of social media; researches, consultancy and trainings for institutions and organizations. His passions are open governance and data transparency.



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Andra Alexandru

Specialist în Comunicare și Relații Internaționale, cu experiență profesională în diplomație publică și comunicare instituțională.

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