Social networking tools have already had a dramatic impact on how we communicate with our friends and family, but as use of these technologies matures they have a major role to play in how businesses manage customer relationships and even the formation of government policy. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, chief information officer for New York State, was in Canberra last week to speak at a conference about how government can use wikis, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to engage citizens.
New York spends about US$2 billion each year on information technology but that budget is under severe pressure due to the global financial crisis. Dollars must be allocated carefully and effectively, a scenario that Mayberry-Stewart says demands greater engagement with taxpayers.
Despite some retaining scepticism about the value of so-called web 2.0 applications, she sees social networking as a key tool in improving those interactions and driving greater openness in government.
"Providing information improves the quality of your decision making and enhances policy making, which allows you to provide better government," she says. "You can tap into the internet intelligentsia out there, which you wouldn't normally be able to do, and in a very cost-effective way.
"When you are making future investment decisions you can validate your assumptions about the need for a service, the demand for it and the impact it will have."
It's an idea that resonates with the Rudd government, particularly Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, who appointed a Government 2.0 taskforce in June to investigate ways of opening up the political process to greater public scrutiny.
New York already offers more than 400 services to its citizens online and agencies have been dabbling in the use of social networking to interact with its taxpayers and improve those services.
For example, maps are posted online to show which areas of the state have poor broadband coverage and the public is invited to validate those ratings according to their experiences. This helps government officials maintain and update their information, which is used to administer the state's broadband grant program.
Several agencies, including the Department of Health and the Department of Family & Children's Services, post consumer education information to YouTube on topics such as the H1N1 virus or child abuse hotlines.
Employees are encouraged to post content on YouTube and Facebook about what it's like to work for the government, which is then used as a recruitment tool, and digital literacy training is made available to its workforce and the state's prisoners.
Making technology policies available online allows Mayberry-Stewart and her team to tap into a wealth of knowledge from within the broader community and has accelerated her department's ability to develop policy and get it implemented.
If there are topics the IT department is particularly interested in, surveys are posted online to produce a quick assessment of reaction in the community.
If a proposed service gets a lot of positive responses in a short time frame, they immediately know that they are on the right track and can use feedback to refine their plans. If it receives no feedback at all, or is not well received, they can go back to the drawing board or ditch the idea altogether.
New York State is also partnering with the Senate to encourage state legislature to make use of social networking tools to inform policy making.
But the use of social media also brings with it a level of commitment because employees that post surveys must follow-up and provide feedback to those who take part. Mayberry-Stewart says building reciprocal relationships is vital to the success of a web 2.0 strategy so government must provide information as well as extract it.
In June, New York launched its Empire 2.0 initiative to build policies and procedures around how agencies would use a suite of social networking tools.
"The applications are endless but we needed to get that initial suite of applications out of the door so that we would open up the cultural barrier and encourage other state agencies to start using those tools," Mayberry-Stewart says.
"We knew there would be challenges from a cultural perspective so we pulled together members of the legal team, technicians and the IP [intellectual property] planning group. Had we decided to look at all of the implications from a policy perspective we probably wouldn't have gotten it off the ground."
Embracing social media has required a change in mindset for senior management because governments tend to be conservative by nature and New York had previously blocked access to sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The nightmare scenario would be for a disgruntled employee to use the broadcast power one of these sites enables to post something that is either secret or offensive. Although aware of the dangers, Mayberry-Stewart says trust is essential and policies cannot be driven by fears of negative outcomes.
"If you use these applications you are agreeing to a code of conduct and if there are violations those privileges will be removed," she says. "You want to promote responsible behaviour but there's that balance that you don't want to censor information."
Like with any new technology, Mayberry-Stewart predicts the key to success will be learning to fail faster. Mistakes will be made along the way, but it is essential to have lots of pilot projects running at any time and a culture that is open to new ideas.
"When you open up discussion you are going to have more diversity of views. You need an environment that welcomes that diversity and does not exclude opinions. The more people engaged in a discussion the higher the quality of the output," she says.
"You can never create a perfect piece of policy. If you spend all of your time doing that then you'll never move at all because you become immobile. You can study things for just so long and then you have to decide to do it." Fairfax Business Media
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