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Should Social Media Use by Govt Officials be Regulated?
Source: futuregov
Source Date: Monday, September 20, 2010
Created: Sep 21, 2010

Policymakers across Asia have been busy drawing up guidelines for how civil servants should use social media to engage with the public. Should they go further and regulate its use? As officials in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and New Zealand revealed to FutureGov, opinion is divided on whether a firmer hand is needed to control e-engagement via web 2.0. 

In a press release last week, telecom analyst Ovum proposed that regulation was “a necessary evil” to avoid sensitive information being divulged by careless staff.

Business-focused interactions should have “some form of regulation” to ensure that officials respond to customers correctly, efficiently and adhere to privacy rules, Jens Butler, Principal Analyst, IT Services, told FutureGov.

A “new etiquette” for what should and should not be said on social platforms is also required, he noted.

“Social media is not just a new channel. It’s a channel that connects many different people at once, and interactions are made public to everyone online - unlike telephone, email, or online chatting, where interactions are typically between the agent and the customer only. New regulations will need to follow new rules of engagement.”

Writing the rule book

In Indonesia, there are clear regulations for how all citizens should conduct themselves on social media. The Information and Electronic Transactions bill, passed in 2008, could mean six years in prison or a US$111,000 fine for offences such as defamation or indecency. But there are no clear rules for government officials, one senior Indonesian civil servant admitted.

Hinting that new policies needed to be worked into the transactions bill that deal specifically with the conduct of civil servants, the official pointed to the story of an Indonesian policeman who made a comment through his Facebook status about a lawsuit, which made newspaper headlines the following day.

“Officials should be mindful that if they are conveying their personal views on social media these views are no longer private,” he said. “It is sometimes difficult to avoid answering work-related questions on social media. But serious questions usually need to be re-directed through more formals channels such as email or a web site.”

Although there are no rules of engagement for civil servants yet, some Indonesian ministries have limited or filtered access to social media at work. A more effective measure, the official suggested, are training programmes to raise awareness of the potential pitfalls of web 2.0, and alert officials to how and to whom data can be exposed.

Data insecurities

Losing sensitive information is a sensitive issue in Hong Kong, where a doctor lost a USB drive containing the health records of 47 patients in March last year.

In a survey at FutureGov Forum Hong Kong in March this year, officials listed information security as their number one concern.

Stephen Mak, Hong Kong’s Deputy GCIO, noted that Tweeting or Facebooking civil servants must comply with strict data protection rules, and “be vigilant” not to disclose sensitive information.

“Staff participating in e-engagement on official business need to be properly authorised,” said Mak. “Like any official activity, they have to comply with the prevailing information security rules, policies and guidelines in protecting government information assets.”

New security threats such as social engineering, phishing, spam and impersonation mean that keeping officials well informed is an imperative measure to take to keep social media communications secure, he added.

To regulate or not to regulate

New Zealand is no stranger to the pitfalls of social media. The government used blogs and wikis to test the popularity of its new Police Act in 2009, but pulled the plug on its activity because of what was considered an overly negative reaction from the public.

Channa Jayasinha is the CIO for New Zealand’s Ministry of Fisheries. He suggests that media relations policy should be extended to account for “non-compliant” use of social media. This should be complemented with training programmes and the creation of a network of “social media champions” to guide internal users.

IT teams should monitor the use of social media and produce regular (monthly) reports to highlight successes and failures and build a database of case studies which agencies can use to benchmark performance, Jayasinha said.

But regulation? Jayasinha is not convinced this is the right route to take.

“We should be able to use social media without the need for regulation - as long as we have well informed internal users who will treat the channel with care, the same way they do when interacting with customers using e-mail or the telephone,” he said.

But ultimately, users need to be encouraged - not discouraged - from using of social media, Jayasinha concluded: “The more comfortable they are using the medium, the less likely they are to use it inappropriately, and the more likely positive interactions with citizens will result.”

For tips and examples of best practice in the use social media, Jayasinha recommended the New Zealand government web standards web site.

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