Social media governments: Iceland, Nigeria, Rwanda & South Africa

An increasingly crucial part of our daily lives, social media is changing the way we interact, work and live. As a truly people-oriented medium, it is even altering our concept of society and democracy. Governments, from Iceland to Nigeria, are coming up with innovative solutions for meeting the needs of their citizens.

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A fair amount of discussion at a recent World Economic Forum annual meeting held in Davos focused on the future of governance: “Governments today are operating in an environment where citizens’ expectations are communicated through digital means to global audiences in a matter of minutes, with incredible ramifications, as evidenced by the revolutions across the Middle East,” Borge Brende, the fund’s managing director, writes in a report titled The Future of Government.

Smart governments know they need to connect with their citizens on a grassroots level and eGovernance is becoming a buzz word in many cabinet meetings. This changing shape of democracy is best demonstrated in three inspiring case studies:

Crowdsourcing the constitution

Iceland is currently crowdsourcing its new constitution. When your banks and government are free falling, it’s time to ask the people what they want.

Thorvaldur Gylfason, a member of Iceland’s constitutional council, told the Guardian that this was the first time a government had used the internet to draft its constitution. He emphasised the importance of the public seeing the constitution “come into being” before their eyes: “This is very different from old times where constitution makers sometimes found it better to find themselves a remote spot, out of sight, out of touch”.

There’s no doubt that transparency is the best policy for a struggling government. Drafts of the constitution have been posted on the council’s website since the project’s launch in April. The council has also given the public the opportunity to discuss constitutional clauses on its Facebook page.

Getting the people involved at this level brings back a very Athenian sense of democracy, where the mass populace is actively involved in government and decision-making. Last year, the US initiated a similar idea when the White House released a memo to crowdsource innovative approaches to governmental initiatives and programmes.

While the idea of crowdsourcing is popular as it involves citizens in the decision-making process, there is little point if the results are ignored. A crowdsourcing attempt by the UK coalition last year fell flat when the more than 9,500 suggestions went unheeded.

The Nigerian Facebook president

Nigeria was propelled on to the world’s stage in 2010 during the build-up to the presidential elections. The rising star of that media coverage was Goodluck Jonathan, now the country’s president. Jonathan drove his campaign via social media, capturing international attention less than a month after setting up his Facebook account.

The choice to announce his candidacy via Facebook was a stroke of genius. In a society full of young people trying to find their voice and questioning government’s interest in their needs, a social media-driven campaign is a smart choice – a model few governments are adopting.

Jonathan’s approach to Facebook was to avoid simply having a presence on the social network, he actively engaged with users. He discussed many areas of the Nigerian government’s actions and policies through this account. He even reversed a policy decision , based on comments that citizens had put forward on Facebook.

Jonathan’s account seems to be dedicated to listening and providing information. One famed post by the president reads:

“Again I spent time reading your comments and yesterday a youth named Toyin Dawodu indicated that he had an idea for a project that could deliver 4 000 MWs of electricity … Toyin, someone from my office will make contact with you regarding your idea. I know I cannot attend to every comment or suggestion due to time constraints, but please do know that I read them and they influence my actions.”

While Jonathan has found a way to engage with the people and make decisions in their interests, one has to wonder whether this is sustainable as the pressures of fulfilling his role as president ramp up.

Building a community

eGovernance needs more than crowdsourcing information or active listening. There should also be some sense of community building, which is, after all, at the heart of social media success. The Canadian government, for example, recently encouraged its citizens to build apps that inspired and encouraged action around climate change. The government offered US$40 000 in prize money for the best app, inspiring community involvement around a common cause.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is very active on Twitter and responds openly to issues relating to the current state of governance in his country. Kagame was recently featured on YouTube’s Worldview, answering questions about Rwanda and life after the genocide.

If more of the world’s leaders, especially in Africa, are willing to openly discuss questions with the people in this Q&A format, surely there would be more trust between leaders and their people?

South African President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address trended on Twitter because the president asked citizens to pose questions online while he prepared his speech. His use of questions from social media platforms turned his state of the nation address into an online event — hashtags and all.

These ideas can only work in societies which are connected, or at least have a sizeable audience that is connected. Iceland may succeed because a worthwhile portion of its population has access to the internet. While Nigeria’s president is applauded for his efforts, critics point out that not enough of Nigeria’s population is online, somewhat undermining the representativeness of his efforts. The challenge, then, will be for governments to find a way to straddle this divide, and bring their citizens together.

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