Thursday, November 17, 2011

Social media in government: problem or opportunity?

It was only after his "nervous breakdown" in 1897 that the German sociologist Max Weber wrote one of the greatest social studies of all time: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 

Weber had been felled by the "irrationalities" of his own mind and so he compensated by finding and celebrating the growth of orderliness in the modern world. As Elizabeth Kolbert puts it:

"With “The Protestant Ethic,” Weber seems to have discovered his calling: the study of rationality....In Weber’s view, modern Western society is the product of increasingly rational forms of organization. Its institutions are governed by “systematic” rules and “impersonal” procedures, rather than by custom or religious obligation, and this sets it apart from virtually all other world cultures." 

If there were a status called "sainthood" in the government today, Max Weber would probably occupy it. It was Weber who defined and elucidated bureaucracy, which - despite the fact that the word has a negative taint - we continue to practice today in government as axiomatic. 

Generally the characteristics are:
  1. "Formal hierarchy"
  2. "Management by rules"
  3. "Organization by functional specialty"
  4. "An 'up-focused' or 'in-focused' mission" (the organization serves either another organization or its own employees rather than the public)
  5. "Purposely impersonal"
  6. "Employment based on technical qualifications"
The "problem" a bureaucratic government faces when confronted by social media is the tendency of free-spoken individuals to shine a light on the institution itself. It is a social law that bureaucracies will seek to preserve themselves even if they are antiquated and failing, but in the absence of an astute and informed observer, the process of that decay can continue for a fairly long time before Rome crumbles.

Already in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto sounded the warning bell about the rise of social media, but at that time, relatively few were listening. Now in 2011, social media is the language of the masses.

If government can think strategically about social media and ride the wave of scrutiny that will increasingly come upon it, then the rational bureaucratic model has a strong chance of surviving - because people prefer the status quo to change, and because rationality trumps irrationality as a mode of organizing large-scale endeavors.

But to do this they would be wise to heed words like Douglas' Crets, who comments on his own question (in Quora), "What's the best way to super-size a b.s. idea?"

"Well, I think we have to start wth the premise that if you really believe in what you are doing, the idea better not be crap. Secondly, making something go viral is a canard, so let's do away with that. There, tossed. Thirdly, social media is about relationship management, relationship discovery and relationship reality. It is not about pushing out an idea for people to consume and then when they shit, they shit out golden coupons which they use to buy your product. This is an idea that I think was generated because advertising seemed to work." 
 

"...."ask" the consumer what he wants, not by offering it first, but by asking the consumer, how do you feel, what do you want done for you, what needs to happen in your life. and then the social media enthusiast needs to bust ass to help that person do that thing. 
 

"If you think that sounds like something you are willing to do, then I say, get off your ass and start doing that. Or, hire me, and I will do that for you."

Like bureaucracy, social media is a tool - neither good nor bad. It is what we do with it that lends meaning. But it cannot be used to "push" a message nor can it be ignored or even suppressed as an inconvenient-for-us voice.

Here's hoping that the bureaucracy engages with those who want to engage back in productive dialogue for the good of the people.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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