The term ‘social media’ refers to the wide range of internet-based and mobile services that allow users to participate in online exchanges, contribute to user created content, or join online communities. The kind of internet services commonly associated with social media include Blogs, Wikis, Social book marking, Social network sites, Status-update services, Virtual world content, Media-sharing sites etc.For many people, well-known social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube typify social media. The sites have become enormously popular across demographics of race, age and gender, and have hundreds of millions of users.
Government agencies slowly but increasingly adopt social technologies to better serve their mission. These technologies can gradually reengineer the old model of public sector as they offer numerous opportunities to increase government transparency and trust, create new forms of citizens’ participation and engagement in public issues and enhance inter and intra-organisational collaboration.
After the landslide victory in the 2008 national parliamentary election, Awami League formed the government and focused on attaining the seemingly lofty goals and targets outlined in the manifesto. In this process ‘Digital Bangladesh’ has emerged not only as a vision but also as a unique development approach to leverage ICT in delivering the social goods for the underserved-a promise that no other than the Prime Minister made. The Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021 agenda -the country’s launch pad for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals - is a long-term vision of poverty reduction and human development anchored in govpreneurship (entrepreneurship by the government) and hopes to empower the people of Bangladesh to co-create solutions to development challenges. Within this, Access to Information (a2i) was established by the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure easy, affordable and reliable access to quality public services which harnesses the power of digital.
Access to Information is an UNDP and USAID supported programme having its office at the Prime Ministers’ Office. The overall objective of the programme is to provide support in building a digital nation through delivering services at the citizen’s doorsteps. The programme aims to improve quality, widen access, and decentralise delivery of public services to ensure responsiveness and transparency.
a2i is supporting the civil service to harness the power of social media in three strategic ways: discovering creative ways to attain effective citizen engagement in the process of improving public service delivery; as a peer-support and mentorship platform to encourage the spread of ideas and interaction among experienced senior civil servants and junior officers with innovative ideas and ambition; and, institutionalising and managing the practice of citizen-centric innovation by breaking down hierarchical barriers across all ministries, departments and agencies.
All 64 districts now have open DC Office Facebook pages, established and monitored by the Deputy Commissioners (DC). These pages are being used to redress citizens’ grievances and contributing immensely to the provision of better, quicker and more affordable public services like law and order, education, healthcare, disputes resolution, tackling natural disasters and son. The success of this model has already encouraged over 5,000 offices of many ministries, directorates, sub-district level government offices and even frontline service providing agencies to also open up their own accounts.
Public Service Innovation Bangladesh - a Facebook group for civil servants - has brought about a revolution in Bangladesh Civil Service’s internal communications system. Together with Departmental Blogs, they have led to the breakdown of hierarchical barriers that have historically deterred quick organisational communications and enabled civil servants to demonstrate their potential by sharing ideas, learning from and supporting each other by talking about their challenges. Over 10,776 government officials have engaged in social media dialogues through more than 5,072government Facebook pages/groups.
Top bureaucrats like the Cabinet Secretary and Principal Secretary are not only writing posts on topics like innovation but even encouraging their colleagues, particularly those at the field level who are closer to citizens, to challenge their propositions and have online debates through comments on Facebook to decide on the best course of action. Moreover, the fact that an idea posted as a status on Public Service Innovation Bangladesh by a field level officer can attract a comment or question from their ministry’s top secretary serves as tremendous inspiration and an effective incentive for them to continue to think, engage and act innovatively to further the cause of citizen-centric public service innovation in Bangladesh.
Citizens, as well as government officers, are able to access the information they need from the Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangla-desh.gov.bd) as well as YouTube and a myriad of government Facebook pages. Field administration teams of the government conduct consultations with citizens while simultaneously engaging their superiors who are based in the capital Dhaka, through Facebook Live. Senior bureaucrats, including the Cabinet Secretary, are able to provide guidance and decisions instantly on pressing matters.
The use of social media applications now has been widely accepted. Many of the social media strategies and day-to-day tactics have also been adopted around the world to ensure good governance. However, the acceptance and broader adoption of sophisticated tactics that go beyond information and education paradigm such as true engagement or networking strategies are still in its infancy. Rapid diffusion is challenged by informal bottom-up experimentation that meets institutional and organisational challenges hindering innovative tactics. Going forward governments and bureaucratic organisations are also facing the challenge to show the impact of their social media interactions.
It is revealed that still some public officials are notable to realise that they represent innovations. Even they have lack the courage to share and present them in the closed Public Service Innovation Bangladesh Facebook group. Besides a continuing challenge for a2i is to ensure how ignored posts get noted by relevant government officials. A formal feedback mechanism is yet to be established which would allow a2i to advocate for the use of social media in grievance redressal process.
Social media initiatives in the public sector are booming. Effective adoption of social media may assist the government in achieving e-government goals at a lower cost. But the effects of social media adoption and use in the public sector appear to be under-investigated. Despite the importance of social media in public sector, little is known about the status of social media utilisation by the government of Bangladesh. It is clear that social media applications will surely continue to offer opportunities for direct public participation. Building a large follower base to engage and amplify a message is something the government must do better.
(The author acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)
The writer is the Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University