What is the government's social media policy?

opinion September 13, 2012 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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Interior Ministry officials have been warned that they check into Facebook too often during their working hours. As of October 1 they can only do so during their lunch break. The official reason? They are using up too much bandwidth, and logging on to the

But the “ban” won’t cover YouTube. The man in charge of the ministry’s Internet connection says officials there can still access the popular video site but they will make downloads from it slower.

Nobody knows whether the ministry’s officials will be allowed to tweet or not. Apparently authorities at the ministry aren’t quite sure what the social media are really all about.
Some officials who “get it” say many of their bosses simply don’t understand where the world of communications is headed. One younger official argued that Facebook had in fact facilitated coordination and was now a channel for many government units to communicate with the people. In other words, Facebook and other social media can save both time and expenses. “You don’t have to make telephone calls and you have instant two-way communications between government agencies,” said the official.
The reason for this state of affairs is very obvious: the government doesn’t have a social-media policy because most Cabinet members simply don’t know what it’s all about. They might have heard about it. They might have been told that the social media are “the new thing”. But most officials running this country are still too far behind in this important trend to realise not only the importance but the inevitability of using social media as part of their daily operations.
Even among the most Internet-savvy of the bureaucrats and government members, the only purpose of social media is for political manipulation rather than to serve the public interest.
Little do they realise that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be used to disseminate information, track the opinions and feelings of constituents, and, on the law-enforcement side, to hunt down criminals and monitor illegal activities. Enlightened government agencies can not only use social media to communicate with the public but also with each another, around the clock.
On the other side of the coin, citizens can use the social media to demand accountability from the government and the bureaucracy. And that is a vital element in building a real democratic system – to which most politicians have been paying only lip service.
Citizen involvement is critical for enhancing democratic governance and improving service delivery. And if that is what the government is serious about, then the best way to empower the people is to build their capacity through social media, not to view these tools as time-wasting, futile and negative.
Social media will strengthen citizens, civil-society organisations and other non-state actors, to hold the government accountable and make all politicians and bureaucrats responsive to the public’s needs. 
In the United States, the Government Accountability Board recently launched a Twitter feed and opened a new Facebook page to respond to the growing public demand for transparency from the government. Twitter gives voters even more ways to keep up with news about elections and government ethics. Twitter followers get the latest information on which officials and candidates have filed paperwork, updates on actions, and other issues of import.
Facebook and Twitter have proved to be efficient, low-cost ways to reach citizens and provide them with improved “customer service” – something that most bureaucrats still don’t appreciate is the most crucial key performance index to judge whether they should stay on the job or be fired.
For the Thai government, the issue may in the end boil down to this question: How do you explain it when a government goes out of its way to offer computer tablets to first graders – to show that it’s serious about promoting digital education – and then bans adults at the Interior Ministry from accessing Facebook during working hours?