The Queensland Police Service (QPS) has been awarded the 2011 Excellence in eGovernment award for Gov 2.0, andnot without reason.
The Police Service’s use of social media during the Queensland floods during the summer of 2010-11 has emerged as one of the first, if not the first tangible example of the major customer service benefits that social media engagement offer to a government agency.
Gov 2.0 champions across the public service should be jumping with joy to have a hard and fast case study to take to their superiors in support of social media use. And if the response to the QPS’s James Kliemt’s eGovernment presentation at CeBIT is anything to go by, it looks like they are.
The QPS’s experience with social media has not been without hiccups – some of the ‘over-sharing’ that has passed across the agency’s Facebook and Twitter pages would give agency CEOs and Directors-General some very uncomfortable moments.
Kliemt told the CeBIT audience that one Facebook user had gone out of his way to dob in a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang on the QPS page.
He did so using his own name.
Another user responded to a post about a violent murder by naming and accusing two individuals they suspected of being the assailants. Soon after, said Kliemt, the very same couple were charged with the offence.
Neither is the experience easy for those charged with monitoring the social media pages.
“One day we posted release about a motorcyclist who had been killed in an accident,” said Kliemt.
“About 30 minutes later someone had left us a message saying that their friend travelled that same road to work and hadn’t yet turned up that morning...It quickly became apparent to us that we were talking about the same individual.”
“We have to deal with issues like this probably every week,” he said.
But this has not dampened the spirit of the media team at the QPS, who have risen to the status of Gov 2.0 celebrities in the months following the Queensland Floods.
As Queensland’s designated lead agency during natural disasters, it was up to the QPS to keep the public informed throughout the January disaster, in spite of the serious damage that wild weather inflicted upon telecommunications networks.
Its Facebook page became a hub for authoritative information, which was essential to dispelling dangerous rumours which threatened to grow out of control across online platforms.
On January 10, the day on which an ‘inland tsunami’ devastated Toowoomba and began its journey to Brisbane, 80,000 people joined the QPS Facebook page.
As of this week, the page has attracted 200,000 members and hundreds of posts expressing praise and gratitude.
Agencies can spend a lot of money on communications campaigns that fail to generate this level customer engagement. The advantage of Facebook, said Kliemt, is that it uses someone else’s infrastructure and doesn’t cost the taxpayer a cent.
Former Assistant Secretary for the Online Services Branch at Finance (and soon to be Treasury CIO) Peter Alexander agreed.
“The Queensland Police should be thinking, what would have happened if we didn’t have Facebook – if we had to build our own platform or even have people travelling around Queensland to get our information across?” he said. “How much would it have cost us?”
So what can other government agencies learn from the QPS experience?
Kliemt said that successful experiments in Gov 2.0 hinge on the use of existing platforms, the devolution of authority to, and trust in, staff, an acceptance rather than a fear of risk, quick reactions and genuine and engaging output.
In the QPS, the media section is in charge of social media, and is trusted to make posts without approval from above.
“If you are posting uncontroversial factual information, then generally speaking you do not need high level approval,” said Kliemt.
“There is no way known to write a policy that is going to be able to deal with all of the issues that come up on out Facebook page,” he said.
However Kliemt was also quick to acknowledge that the QPS experience did not represent a ‘one size fits all’ approach to Gov 2.0.
“We are freed up in the sense that the issues we are dealing with are very serious – often concerning life and death. Thus we can remain independent of the policy process,” he said.
The QPS also has a head start in the sense that they deal will action-filled events that the public is broadly interested in. The Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Parliamentary Services may find it harder to match its number of Facebook friends. Despite this, Kliemt said, the value is in quantity not quality and there are few agencies which could not benefit from input into their policy-making process.