It was pretty cool to take part in the recently held 1st South Eastern European Government Communication Conference. There was a fair amount of hype building up to the conference, and rightly so, due to the intention to adopt a declaration on government communications, a historic feat by all means.
For someone who is an Open Government Partnership enthusiast, a certified geek and an internet junkie, the blend of conference topics, presenters and participants was just right. I will not do justice to the two-and-a-half days of discussion in this post, but it would be good to at least mention some of the key points (and some myths which were busted).
We kicked off with the opening remarks and it was immediately obvious we were in for a treat: Igor Luksic, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, was adamant about the fact that new technologies and social media were prime tools for direct communication between governments and citizens, communication which is inevitably two-way and real time.
“This is the era of information, where information dominates all other currencies.”
Rastislav Vrbensky, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Montenegro
Prime Minister Luksic announced Montenegro’s new web platform for petitioning the Government, which will make Montenegro the first country in the broader region to boast e-petitions, with much inspiration drawn from the UK experience.
Head of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Office for Serbia and Montenegro, Henri-Giscard Bohnet pointed out that, in the 21st century, policies are becoming more and more complex which augments the need to communicate government policies throughout, or else the people will not understand what their governments are doing.
“Spokespersons are the bridge between the government and the public.”
US Ambassador Sue K. Brown
Much of the conference was devoted to the link between open government and the evolving role of communications. As one of the participants aptly pointed out, we cannot achieve open government, if the people don’t believe we are open. (See: Does open communication lead to open government?)
Government communicators therefore have a duty to provide accurate and timely information to journalists, which will be the determining factor in building up a trusted relationship.
After all, journalists and government communicators are both doing the same job, that of performing a public service of informing the citizens. And in the digital era of government communications, online meeting spaces simply cannot be overlooked.
The message was loud and clear: heads of governments and states cannot ignore Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, in fact they should use these spaces to reach out to their “netizens.”
And if there’s anyone who still posits that “serious” communication cannot take place on social media platforms, check out how NATO announced the end of the war in Libya on Facebook and Twitter first.
I have to report that many of the conference participants were blown away by the online government communication in Croatia.
Tomislav Korman’s groovy slides (pdf) showed how by being mindful of four simple principles, online communications can bridge the divide and join the citizens and their elected officials in the conversation on public good:
- Be respectful
- Have fun
It is therefore the conversation which leads to collaboration and, ultimately, to the building of a community.
And now for the busted myths! Contrary to popular belief, social media did not play a major role in the Arab Spring, as the evidence to support that is at best contradictory. It was the fact the internet was shut down that forced the people in Egypt to communicate; they relied on the cab drivers to spread the message. The myth that presence on social media equals engagement also took a serious blow since engagement actually requires listening and responding to demands from the citizens.
And again, we were impressed with the efforts online communications team in Croatia is investing to provide responses to citizens’ queries on Facebook (close to 110 responses provided each day), Twitter, YouTube and other social media.
And thus we come to the final myth that was shattered by Giulio Quaggiotto: people are not target audiences, they are your asset. The era of open government and digital democracy gives everyone a seat at the online table and, anyhow, the smartest people don’t work for your organization. Reach out to them via online meeting places and don’t be afraid to embark on the exciting path of co-production of services.
Have you communicated with your government through social media or online platforms?