Government decision makers have to overcome their fear of social media and develop new models of government that are more agile and reactive, according to Dr Yasar Jarrar, Partner Adviser, Bain & Company and Research Fellow, Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government, UAE.
Speaking today at the MBRSG and SAP Innovation Day in Dubai, Jarrar said that social media is extremely important to future models of government, but it is still in the early stages, and it is important that governments understand how to adapt to it.
"We still don't understand social media and government, we still don't really know what to do with this tool - we are experimenting, we are in a period of experimentation," he said.
"When I see a minister or deputy minister or director and say ‘social media', what is the initial reaction? Fear. They are absolutely gripped by fear, they pretend they like it, they pretend to have social media tools, but they are afraid of it. They don't know how to deal with reactions."
Jarrar said that the amount feedback and speed of response from citizens that social media enables has been a major disruptor to governments worldwide, not just in the region, but that with the high uptake of social media and mobile devices in the Gulf, it is important to understand the changes that it will bring to government. He noted the recent sacking of the Saudi Minister of Health, Ahmed Khatib, after a film of him angrily dismissing a citizen's complaint was released on social media as an example of the power of the medium.
"We have never heard of anything like that in this part of the world. This is not reporting, this is short bursts of information that are holding us to instant, live accountability. As citizens, government officials, what do we do with this?"
Jarrar also stressed the positive potential for social media, in areas such as improving engagement with citizens and being able to involve people more in government decision making. He highlighted the example of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President Ruler of Dubai, who in 2013 asked his Twitter followers to brainstorm ideas to improve healthcare and education in the UAE, which resulted in over 80,000 suggestions from parents and educators.
There is no best practice for how government can use social media at present, he added, but government would need to learn from the failings of e-Government, and change models to accommodate social media and the need to react and respond more quickly to the feedback and expectations of citizens.
"We are still using 19th century government models for decision making, for budgeting, for reacting to public policy and for public policy making, we are using those models with a thin layer of Facebook, and Instagram, and LinkedIn and so on. If we continue to do that, government will continue to face more and more problems," Jarrar said.
"It was never delivered, the promise of e-Government, let's face it. Not because it was bad, but because we didn't restructure government. We put websites on old government structures - that is not e-Government, that is just the old government with a better window, the shop doesn't change. I'm afraid social media is going to have the same thing if we don't fundamentally change policy."
Jarrar was speaking at the third Innovation Day, held by MBRSG and SAP, which seeks to explore technology and issues around global best practices on smart government transformation.The event focused on Social Media and its potential for government.