Environmental Scan on Social Media Use by the Public Sector

Despite their short history, the Internet and Web have fundamentally changed politics and public policy, with all of government’s traditional partners and stakeholders now using digital technologies to supplement their participation in the policy process (Margetts 2009). In Canada, where Internet penetration is extremely high, citizen’s expectations concerning e‐government services have increased markedly with demands for greater transparency, horizontal coordination, responsiveness and public engagement (Borins et al. 2007; McNutt 2007; Roy 2006). Despite some experimentation by the public sector, the use of Web technologies to enhance collaborative interaction between government, stakeholders and citizens remains limited. The emergence of Web 2.0, and in particular online social media tools, has had an uneven impact across governments, ministries and agencies.

Web 2.0 was coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 to describe the cumulative changes of Web uses and applications. Web 1.0 as it existed throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s was a prototype characterized by passive users consuming static content functioning as a publishing medium with limited interactive capacity. Web 2.0 is fundamentally different as users produce and share dynamic content in real time with the platform functioning as a communication medium with extensive interactive capacity (DiNucci 1999; Manovich 2009). Online trends emblematic of the transition include Google usurping Netscape, blogs replacing personal web sites, content management systems transforming into Wikis and the shift from digital highways to virtual communities. As Tim O’Reilly (2007) describes it “Web 2.0 doesn't have a hard boundary, but rather, a gravitational core. You can visualize Web 2.0 as a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles, at a varying distance from that core” (17). What all Web 2.0 technologies hold in common is the functional ability of a community to co‐create content in real time.

The most visible and widely used area of the Web 2.0 universe is social media, the host of sites that invite participants to become part owners by sharing their personal information with the site and with their fellow users, and encourages interaction in a specialized social network of like minded people. While social media sites number in the thousands and exist in almost every language, the most well‐known social networks are Facebook, with over 1 billion users, and Twitter, which now has over 500 million users. Politicians have already noticed the potential of such new technologies and many have adopted their usage in political campaigns and the day‐to‐day management of relations with constituents (Jackson and Lilleker 2011; Golbeck, Grimes and Rogers 2010; Grant, Moon and Grant 2010).

The aim of the environmental scan is to compare how different jurisdictions use social media. This is achieved by scanning selected jurisdictions’ applications of social media including Canada, the United States, Australia, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. The research explores implications of social media arising from convergent administrative and social trends by examining how different digital strategies produce different outcomes. It seeks to highlight both potential opportunities and challenges by surveying different public sector experiences. To this end the project draws evidence from government reports, academic journals, case studies, other grey literature, mainstream news media coverage, and direct observation. In addition, the scan identifies various social media experiments to gather lessons learned. From this comprehensive literature search the scan focuses on three key dimensions of public sector use of social media including administration, public engagement, and citizen‐centered service.

Download the Environmental Scan report.

Download the Social Media and Government report.