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Government Use of Social Media – “In Addition to,” Not “In Lieu of”

April 27, 2010

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Pew Internet Report

Download the full report

Pew Internet released their “Government Online” report today, and it’s chock FULL of great statistics.  If you get an opportunity, I highly recommend reading through the whole thing and bookmarking it for good slide fodder for future presentations.  I won’t/can’t possibly do justice to the entire report here in one post, but there was one particular piece that struck me in my initial read-through:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question, or task involving the government.  35% of of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.” [page 20]

And,

“The telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as 1/3 of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.” [page 20]

Surprising?  It shouldn’t be.  Despite the Government 2.0 community’s zeal for all things social media and online, 1/3 of Americans still don’t have access to broadband Internet, and even among those who do, less than 50% prefer to contact their government via online means, instead preferring the telephone, in-person contact, or writing a letter (!!).  While the issue of a digital divide when it comes to government-public communication is well-documented, it’s about more than just identifying non-digital means to reach out those without broadband access – it’s about providing a variety of means, both online and off, for everyone.  Among those who did contact their government at some point, almost half used a combination of both online and offline vehicles to do so.

“44% of all Americans contacted their local, state, or federal government via offline means. Roughly one in three called a government office or agency on the phone, one-quarter visited an office or agency in person, and 17% wrote a letter to a government office, agency, or official.”

Americans are using a combination of online and offline means to communicate with government

While plenty of Americans are are going online to contact their government – 82% of internet users (representing 61% of all American adults) looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the twelve months preceding the survey -the total proportion of Americans who prefer online communications has actually remained the same since this survey was last conducted back in 2003.  For these internet users, government websites/Twitter accounts/Facebook fan pages/blogs/podcasts have become critical supplements – not replacements – for more traditional forms of communication. The majority of online government users interact with government agencies using multiple channels, both online and off.

What does this mean to the Gov 2.0 community?  A few things –

  • Online government communication is incredibly valuable and useful
  • Information and transactions are viewed as more important government offerings than social media outreach
  • Government use of social media should be focused on supplementing and improving the day-to-day informational and transactional needs of the public
  • We should be focusing a LOT less on getting more Facebook fans and Twitter followers and more on figuring out how Facebook and Twitter can improve our customer service
  • Government use of social media should be integrated with the communications and public affairs departments.  Very few internet users rely solely on government social media sites – in fact, those who use government social media sites are more likely to also use other means, both online and off, to communicate with their government as well
  • Balance the promotions of your social media channels with other means of communications.  Two in five Americans believe that the use of social media is a waste of government resources, although 3/4 believe this type of engagement makes government accessible.

Social media helps supplement and improve everything else the government is doing to communicate – it’s not some communications panacea.  But you already knew that, right?? 🙂

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