Last year, when an earthquake hit Melbourne, Twitter was the first on the scene. Within minutes, the subject became the top Twitter-trending topic worldwide and even caused the Geoscience Australia website to crash as people went online to see what had happened.
The power of social media is beyond doubt. Social media is more than a passing trend and its immediacy, ease of use and pervasive nature means it will continue to displace other forms of communication as it becomes more embedded in everyday life.
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For federal government agencies, social media represents a compelling opportunity to share news, receive information and opinions from citizens, generate real-time awareness and debate and improve service delivery.
And according to a recent Sensis survey -- completed with the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association -- the number of people using social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with government is on the rise.
But the federal government may find it difficult to fulfill this demand due to inconsistent adoption and use of social media across federal government agencies.
While there are pockets of excellence and innovation where agencies have incorporated social media into their everyday operations, there are some agencies that have only recently started putting social media to use, often driven by the fear of being left behind.
The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and Department of Human Services (DHS) are examples of agencies that proactively use social media to engage with the public.
The ATO uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share information about recent tax changes, initiatives, products and services. It customises messages based on the specific social media application and its targeted constituents.
It uses Twitter to communicate the latest updates and reminders of due dates, Facebook to foster interaction with its constituents and YouTube to provide videos on various tax administration topics.
DIAC offers another example of using social media to good effect. It provides not only the more common applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but also a multitude of other services including Facebook chats, Flickr, Blog, Storify and an online newsroom to distribute information to the public and promote interaction on migration issues.
The success of DIAC's social media effort is reflected not just its number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers but also in the amount of reciprocal interaction it generates (e.g., comments, points of view shared, suggestions).
On last viewing, DIAC had over 1600 "talking about this" counts on Facebook, an indicator of the number of unique users that have engaged with the page over the past seven days.
Although not the only measure of success, the result indicates how well DIAC is inviting new content, participation and ongoing communication with its constituents. By way of comparison, the "talk about" count on DIAC Facebook page is three times that of equivalent US immigration Facebook page.
Supporting multiple channels
With the advent of ubiquitous mobile access, federal government departments are also adopting the use of mobile phone apps to support smartphone users. Agencies use apps to provide citizens with the information they need, when and where they need it.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) has developed self-serve apps that allow its targeted constituents, such as seniors, students, job seekers and families to claim entitlements and transact with the department in the same way they would using traditional channels.
DHS offers an integrated multi-channel environment where citizens can engage with the department across the web, social media and mobile, as well as in person.
While it is not surprising that large federal agencies are driving social media innovation, smaller organisations have also leveraged social media to meet their goals and objectives.
For example, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) is a small corporation that has a strong understanding of its audience - what they want to know and discuss and how they can be engaged.
AWM is using social media applications such as YouTube and Podcasts to communicate the Australian experience of war to its younger audience.
Although social media is starting to grow among the federal agencies, its adoption remains relatively slow, especially when compared to its international counterparts.
The US Customs and Border Protection, for instance, recently released an app that informs passengers of how long the wait is between getting off the plane and clearing through Customs.
The social media presence of other agencies suggests that the adoption is sometimes reactive and less strategic, with some Facebook pages and Twitter accounts untouched for more than a year.
Linking social to strategy
Any investment in social media should be weighed like any other -- through a rational assessment of how the initiative links to the organisation's strategic direction.
When developing social media strategies, agencies should consider what it means to citizens and how it will impact existing services, what capabilities need to be included, the expected customer experience, and the final outcomes.
Agencies also need to map out how they manage any issues that may arise by having staff interact with citizens using social media platforms.
It's also important to be aware of the common pitfalls during execution. These include failing to obtain management 'buy-in', not routinely evaluating and customising content, training staff only on social media tools and not communication skills, and forgetting to measure the impact of the social media effort.
Fortunately for many agencies, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has been promoting the use of social media and the Government 2.0 initiative is a good starting point.
As the public demand for real-time, digital interaction with government services continues to rise, federal agencies need to decide on how they will better leverage social media.
Many agencies are already reaping the benefits of social media while others are still struggling to formulate a coherent response. Social media is here to stay and offers a compelling opportunity for federal agencies to improve service delivery to the Australian public.
Pankaj Chitkara is an associate at Booz & Company in Canberra. He works with organisations on business and IT strategy, digitisation and enterprise architecture.