Can Online Communities Promote a Transparent Government?

3 minute read

November 8, 2016

Can Online Communities Promote a Transparent Government?

That government is finding new ways of connecting with the public online is relatively new. A look at the current 2016 United States Presidential Election is enough to tell you that would-be politicians are engaging their base on social media in many ways.

In a recent article from CIO, senior writer Matt Kapko puts it simply; social media could not be more powerful or dangerous. Like any tool, social media and online communities in general are dual-edged. That is, they can be used for good or evil.

When used during a heated election, it can turn ugly fast. It can also turn into an information dispersal tool. Two sides to the same coin.

When used by an established government entity, however, online communities can be a powerful tool.

Most government agencies, regardless of country, maintain an active online community via social media. Others take a more direct approach and rely on forum software for a more personal touch.

Getting Citizens Involved

One of the largest criticism of government, no matter where you live, is a lack of transparency. As a result, some governments are taking steps to be more transparent and engage their citizenry in the political processes that impact their daily lives.

One such example is the Open Government Forum, a U.K. based coalition of government, citizens, businesses and organizations formed to promote cooperation and transparency through interaction. Specific areas of the forum are dedicated to accountability, legislation, information-sharing, as well as the seedier side, corruption.

All members are encouraged to engage with their local neighbors as well as government officials and create a peaceful, harmonious dialogue aimed at tackling these and other important issues.

What impact has online communities have on public safety and policing?

Online community platforms are driving major changes in public safety and emergency service delivery. Agencies around the world are increasingly using real-time technology, social media and community platforms to respond to public safety issues, develop public safety and access police services.

One of the best examples of public use of community platform for public safety is Ushahidi. It is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.

Started in 2007 by a Kenyan man who created a website as a way to combat the violence of the Kenyan elections. He used this website to collect eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message, and placed them on a Google map.

By crowdsourcing social activism, citizen action and GPS information, Ushahidi allows citizens to submit real-time public safety announcements using their cellphones on site. It has become a great tool for emergency response teams and charities who use it as part of their disaster response efforts.

How can the government service develop an online community strategy?

Many government agencies are finally embracing the new online reality by developing relevant policies, procedures and practices.

Agencies are utilizing new collaborative technology and new rules of interactions with citizens. Government leaders are trying to enable and empower civil servants to close the gap between the communities they serve and government policies.

Unfortunately, government leaders are extremely conservative, and they more likely to look at the risks and costs associated to engaging with online communities. To minimize risks, leaders need to create a framework that includes these three elements in their online community strategy:

  • Managing Risk (to ensure risk management and establish rules of engagement),
  • Training and Implementation (to teach members how to use online platforms effectively),
  • Evaluation and Measurement (to identify risks/opportunities and engage in a process of continuous growth).

Government bureaucracy is traditionally slow to adopt new technologies and processes. This has resulted in a growing gap that has created a long list of opportunities to leverage online community platforms for improved public safety and public trust.

To combat this, the Canadian government has embarked on an open data initiative to create greater transparency, increase citizen engagement, and drive innovation and economic opportunities through open data, open information, and open dialogue.

Key accomplishments include the following:

  • Easy access to government data and access to information
  • The creation of the first competitive Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE), which brought together more than 900 developers and open data techies from across Canada to develop over 100 innovative applications using federal data.

Few government agencies have established online communities outside of social media accounts. As online communities become more established in more aspects of our society, government should follow suit when it comes to interacting with the public.

In an effort to make government more efficient and/or transparent, more agencies and offices will continue to take to online communities in order to connect with their citizens that they serve.

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David Dumas

Written by David Dumas

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