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Social Media and the Public Service Administrator: No Where to Hide.
Posted on April 30th 2012
Today's financially stressed and burdened service sector, government and nonprofit alike is seeing an intense scrutiny and pressure from funding sources and clients. Government spending scandals, questioning of entitlements, spending practices and a general distrust of the whole government process has made a previous work environment in these institutions stressful from without and within. Non profits are reducing services just as demand goes up. Scandals from irresponsible behavior in some quarters has focused public attention on everyone, not just the rotten apples whose actions aroused the public ire.
I served as director of a public library in a medium-sized Boston suburb for three (long) years. My first day on the job began an education in the need for accountability and the end product of its absence. The organization had a long chronological history and a troubled past. I had inherited an aging historic main building, an ignored and under equipped yet heavily used branch, a divided staff and a host of other issues.
Trustee meetings were held in a totally inaccessible area (so much for open meeting compliance). There were no public policies (one trustee is quoted:”we are the board, we run the library). In short, a evidence of an organization that had isolated itself from the audience that it served and provided its funding.
It used to be in the “good old days” that when the local press covered a public board meeting it was a ceremonial formality: read the minutes, second the motion, etc., more like the ballet than a close discussion of public policy. Often times the local reporter just took notes, got hold of the previous minutes and recorded the date for the next meeting. No one asked questions, few members of the public attended, meetings were held at the convenience of the board (not the funders).
Three years of up hill progress, trustee indifference, and gradual coming on board by the staff led me to call it quits due to the stress of constant struggles and turmoil. That's when the dominoes began to fall. A new director was hired and coincidentally, the social media concept began to enter the arena of public debate. The library began to see serious internal problems reappear and these were noticed by some influential members of the community, including several selectmen. The sudden popularity of online journalism, blogging and Facebook opened up an accessible floodgate of very public scrutiny and questions of accountability. A barrage of criticism began to appear in all formants at once, the weekly local print tabloid fell to a last position in public trust. The board still held to its non reponsive attitude until a national professional journal and a regional newspaper picked up on goings-on and covered the library very carefully. Many in the town were embarrassed,and angry at the board's lack of response and poor performance and the Facebook group grew exponentially. At one point it looked like they had assumed the duties of both board and administrator. Still, no real response from the “people in charge” as the wildfire of criticism grew and began to consume the professional time of the director in dealing with the increased criticism from many sources.There were big changes coming and all for the better, as a matter of fact. Public support for the library dramatically increased, responsiveness grew and a very publicly directed service attitude resulted. Today's public service sector must demonstrate its relationship to its audience on a daily basis, no one has a right to exist any longer, no matter how long the institution has existed or how worthy the cause. There is too much competition for funds and too many causes to fund. Presenting the organization's mission, how it is succeeding and thanking supporters constantly is a prerequisite to survival.
The upshot of all this is that it is no longer possible for any bureaucrat, at any level, at any position to be immune from public scrutiny and accountability. Social media management, response, public engagement and communication are now a necessity. Whistle-blowers will disclose wrongdoings, public minded bean-counters will question expenditures, it will go viral and you can't stop it and you can't hide.
Public service administrators, nonprofit administrators, public and private boards and trustees all must rapidly acclimate to the reality of social media and get on the bus or be thrown under it.
Develop a social media policy. Appoint someone to manage it. Hold them accountable. Communicate. Say again, communicate. Feed the alligators before they get hungry, there's not enough time or people to drain the swamp.