Measuring government impact in a social media world


Top 30 central government Twitter accounts - graph

Today’s post is by Arthur Mickoleit & Ryan Androsoff, Digital government policy analysts in the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

There is hardly a government around the world that has not yet felt the impact of social media on how it communicates and engages with citizens. And while the most prominent early adopters in the public sector have tended to be politicians (think of US President Barack Obama’s impressive use of social media during his 2008 campaign), government offices are also increasingly jumping on the bandwagon. Yes, we are talking about those – mostly bricks-and-mortar – institutions that often toil away from the public gaze, managing the public administration in our countries. As the world changes, they too are increasingly engaging in a very public way through social media.

Research from our recent OECD working paper “Social Media Use by Governments” shows that as of November 2014, out of 34 OECD countries, 28 have a Twitter account for the office representing the top executive institution (head of state, head of government, or government as a whole), and 21 have a Facebook account.

Though executive government institutions may not leap to mind when the average citizen thinks about who to follow on social media, we’ve seen that in some countries these accounts have gained significant interest. Using data collected by Twiplomacy we were able to calculate how the number of their Twitter followers compares to their countries’ domestic population (in order to control for country size).

Using this metric, we see that some of the “usual suspects” we hear about when it comes to government use of social media are among the most popular (i.e. @WhiteHouse and @Number10Gov). However we also spot other very social media savvy governments, e.g. in Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Chile, and Costa Rica (we wrote about Chile’s social media use back in 2013).

Click on the image to see the top 30 central government Twitter accounts.

Top 30 central government Twitter accounts - graph

While the data in the graph above covers only the central government Twitter accounts with the largest per capita following, you can download the full dataset here. It should be noted that this data is from June of 2014, and many of these accounts have continued to build followings at a rapid pace. For example the @PMOIndia account has almost tripled its number of followers since June 2014, which now at 4.8 Million makes it the 2nd largest central government Twitter account in absolute numbers (though still low on the per capita measure given India’s very large population).

But what is the impact governments can or should expect from social media? Is it all just vanity and peer pressure? Surely not.

Take the Spanish national police force (e.g. on Twitter, Facebook & YouTube), a great example of using social media to build long-term engagement, trust and a better public service. The thing so many governments yearn for, in this case the Spanish police seem to have managed well.

Or take the Danish “tax daddy” on Twitter – @Skattefar. It started out as the national tax administration’s quest to make it easier for everyone to submit correct tax filings; it is now one of the best examples around of a tax agency gone social.

Government administrations can use social media for internal purposes too. The Government of Canada used public platforms like Twitter and internal platforms like GCpedia and GCconnex to conduct a major employee engagement exercise (Blueprint 2020) to develop a vision for the future of the Canadian federal public service.

And when it comes to raising efficiency in the public sector, read this account of a Dutch research facility’s Director who decided to stop email. Not reduce it, but stop it altogether and replace it with social media.

There are so many other examples that could be cited. But the major question is how can we even begin to appraise the impact of these different initiatives? Because as we’ve known since the 19th century, “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” (quote usually attributed to Lord Kelvin). Some aspects of impact measurement for social media can be borrowed from the private sector with regards to presence, popularity, penetration, and perception. But it’s around purpose that impact measurement agendas will split between the private sector and government. Virtually all companies will want to calculate the return on social media investments based on whether it helps them improve their financial returns. That’s different in the public sector where purpose is rarely defined in commercial terms.

A good impact assessment for social media in the public sector therefore needs to be built around its unique purpose-orientation. This is much more difficult to measure and it will involve a mix of quantitative data (e.g. reach of target audience) and qualitative data (e.g. case studies describing tangible impact). Social Media Use by Governments proposes a framework to start looking at social media measurement in gradual steps – from measuring presence, to popularity, to penetration, to perception, and finally, to purpose-orientation. The aim of this framework is to help governments develop truly relevant metrics and start treating social media activity by governments with the same public management rigour that is applied to other government activities. You can see a table summarising the framework by clicking on the thumbnail below.

Social media indicators

This is far from an exact science, but we are beginning the work collaborating with member and partner governments to develop a toolkit that will help decision-makers implement the OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies, including on the issue of social media metrics.

What do you think? How can we best measure the impact of social media usage by government? We’d love to hear about your experiences and ideas! Post your comments below or let us know via Twitter using the #eleaders hashtag or connecting with us at @arturelis and @RyanAndrosoff.