Social Media: A New Era for Citizen Engagement

Rabii Haji is CAPAM’s Knowledge Exchange and Research Officer. He is introducing ‘Wavelength’, a quarterly article where he will explore ideas about issues and opportunities in public administration.

“My government will reach out to all segments of Singapore society to
understand your perspectives, to share ideas and concerns with you, to work with you
to come up with plans and programmes which will benefit all of us.”

Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, National Day Rally 2011.
“At City Hall, we’ll forge ahead with new kind of urban mechanics. The generation that gave us Facebook wants to engage in public service more than ever before. I say to them that Boston can be your proving ground and home to a wave of municipal innovation not seen since cities first brought water into people’s homes”.
Former Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, announcing the campaign for his fifth term, April 2009.

Governments and public administrations are always called upon to communicate actively and interact continually with citizens in order to better understand and respond to their demands and expectations. In this regard,the accelerated development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially in the areas of social media and networking platforms, offers an unprecedented opportunity for the public sector to connect more actively with citizens and engage them in the public affairs and public policy arenas.
These networking platforms are referred to in the academic literature as the participative web or the Web 2.0 second generation to distinguish them from the first generation Web 1.0 which is associated with e-government1.
Unlike e-government, social media goes beyond one-sided communications. It promotes services and provides information to open a virtual but real two-way dialogue between governments and citizens. In this way, administrations may facilitate the gathering of information, and collection of ideas and expectations regarding administrative processes and service delivery.

The statistics in the table below show that in 2013, five of the most popular social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn) attracted more than 3 billion users on a monthly basis. This number represents more than one third of the world’s total population who are actively contributing to knowledge, information sharing, and policy development. This has a direct benefit for governments and public administrations around the world.

Figure 1: Average of monthly users of social media platforms in 2013

The rise of internet users and social media platforms provides a number of benefits and new opportunities for better consultation, service delivery and problem solving. An increasing number of governments at
both central and local levels have committed to adopting social media in their daily communications strategies and activities in order to: engage constituents, gain feedback, and collaborate across departments to tackle, among many issues, miscommunications and inefficient bureaucratic processes2. The use of social media platforms is about making government departments more open, accessible and closer to citizens by engaging them in a constructive knowledge exchange process.  It can lead to both improved and enhanced policies and produce and develop new programs and services. The following cases demonstrate and showcase how social media platforms have helped governments and public administrations improve their service delivery, and engage citizens in public policy development.
1. Great Britain, FixMyStreet
In recent years, local governments in Great Britain have invested significant resources in citizen engagement platforms in order to improve public service delivery. FixMyStreet is one of these many platforms. Launched in 2007, FixMyStreet aims to enable citizens to interact actively with the local authorities and report issues that need to be addressed in their communities, such as potholes, broken streetlights, poor lighting, etc. The idea behind FixMyStreet is not to create a complaint department; rather it encourages public participation and fosters citizen engagement in community management and development issues.
2. Singapore, REACH (reaching everyone for active citizenry@ home)
REACH was established in October 2006 and, since 2009, has become Singapore’s main platform to engage and connect with citizens. This platform allows Singaporeans to express their views and provide feedback and inputs on a number of public policy issues. REACH has three main objectives3:
  • Gather and gauge ground sentiments;
  • Reach out and engage citizens; and,
  • Promote active citizenry through citizen participation and involvement. 
REACH also serves as a national repository for public consultation papers from all government ministries and departments. Citizens can view these papers online and provide input and suggestions on the proposed policies. They can also suggest new ideas and initiatives and call for the implementation of new policies and regulations. Some of the most recent online public consultation papers that were open for citizen commentary and input are:
  • Public Consultation on Proposed Amendments to the Food RegulationsRegarding Food Additives and Contaminants 2014
  • Public Consultation on the Report of the Singapore International Commercial Court Committee
  • Public Consultation on proposed amendments to the Code of ProfessionalConduct and Ethics for Public Accountants and Accounting Entities
3. Malaysia, MyIdeas (1Malaysia 1Million Ideas)
MyIdeas was launched in 2009 by the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI). This web platform enables Malaysians to submit and share new and creative ideas. The objective is to stimulate and bring solutions to the issues and challenges affecting the country. In this regard, and given the severity and extent of road accidents in Malaysia, especially those involving motorists, the Malaysian government launched a crowdsourcing competition in 2012, inviting citizens to submit input and suggest new ways to improve motorist safety and reduce their vulnerability on the road.
In a first step, the ideas were evaluated and voted on by a jury. The jury’s shortlist of best ideas was then e-voted on by the general public through the same portal. The winning idea: modify the disjointed speed bumps in order to penalize and discourage speeding motorists, but allow the cautious motorists to keep moving easily.
Despite the many advantages and positive benefits from the use of social media, its adoption and application in the public sector have been limited to date. Governments at both central and local levels face a number of obstacles in establishing social media policy. Common obstacles include:
  • Risks related to information management, privacy and cyber security;
  • Availability of adequate human, financial and logistical resources;
  • Lack of awareness, understanding, and belief in the role and importance of social media in engaging citizens;
  • Absence of or lack of clarity in guidelines and policy;
  • Fear of receiving negative feedback from citizens, and;
  • Level and degree of population’s digital literacy. 
To Fyfe and Crookall (2010), some of these challenges are: “simply new manifestations of old phenomena; there have always been risks of improper disclosure and misuse of government information4”. In other words, these problems have always existed and the public sector is able to develop solutions and strategies to regulate, prevent and overcome them in the same way it has done for other areas and sectors.
The challenges are often used as excuses and alibis to mask the real and main barrier to social media’s adoption and implementation - the lack of political willingness to open the public service even more to the general public5. In some situations, decision-makers view social media as a threat and are afraid to lose control of the message and balance of power and, therefore, resist any attempt or initiative for its adoption.
In order to reverse this situation and promote the integration of social media in the public sector, governments can build on the best practices and factors behind the success of some local, national, and international experiences in the field. One size does not fit all in the public service across the Commonwealth but common practices and factors may include:
  • Strong political commitment and leadership to recognise social media as a fundamental component of the public sector’s overall communication strategy;
  • Legal frameworks to manage the risks related to information management, privacy policy, and cyber security.
  • Training and empowerment of civil servants to equip them for use of these platforms effectively and responsibly;
  • Targeted and sub-sectorial social media policies to meet specific needs and expectations; and
  • Alignment of any social media policy with existing departmental policies and overall communication strategy. 
It is clear that social media has influenced and created a fundamental shift in how governments and individuals communicate with each other. This influence will continue to create both opportunities and tensions for the public sector.

1 K. McNutt, March (2014), Public engagement in the Web 2.0 era: Social collaborative technologies in a public sector context, Canadian Public Administration/Administration Publique du Canada, vol. 57, No. 1, p. 50.

2 Tish Falco, (2011), Taking Social Media Public: Social Media for Successful Citizen Relationship Management, Social Media Center of Excellence Leader, IBM Global Business Services, White Paper, p. 3.

3 REACH website: visited on May 5, 2014.

4 Fyfe and Crookall, (2010), Loc. Cit, p. 3.

5 K. McNutt, Loc, Cit, p. 50.



Falco Tish, (2011), Taking Social Media Public: Social Media for Successful Citizen Relationship Management, Social Media Center of Excellence Leader, IBM Global Business Services, White Paper.
Fountain Jane E., (2014), Connecting Technologies to Citizenship, chapter forthcoming in Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions, University of Illinois Press.
Fyfe Toby and Crookall Paul, (2010), Social Media and Public Sector Policy Dilemmas, Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), Toronto.
Howe Jeff, June (2006), “Crowdsourcing: A Definition,” Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur. Wired Blog Network.
McNutt Kathleen, March (2014), Public engagement in the Web 2.0 era: Social collaborative technologies in a public sector context, Canadian Public Administration/Administration Publique du Canada, vol. 57, No. 1.
National Taxpayers Union, (2014), “Waste in Government: What’s Being Done?”, Testimony presented to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, United States House of Representatives, Washington D-C.