Little to “Like”: Social Media and the HK Government

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Social media is about two-way communication, but the Hong Kong Government has another idea.

(This article was originally published on April 22, 2016 on fragrantdelta.)


When 30,000 Facebook users took advantage of a new reaction emoticon function to send Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s profile a torrent of “angry” emoticons in late February, most of the territory laughed it off as a harmless act of protest against an unpopular leader.

Leung and several other senior Hong Kong officials hold personal Facebook pages rather than fan pages, such as those of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s Tsai Ying-wen and other more media-savvy leaders. Aside from limiting the territory’s officials to 5,000 screened “friends”, this also allows them to avoid troublesome comments, thereby undermining two-way communication, one of the key advantages of “social” media.

The government’s reliance on one-way communication through new media is a conscious choice. Last year, this author was bidding to deliver an “e-engagement” Facebook project to a Hong Kong bureau. Though comments are enabled on agency profiles, when the question of how feedback was to be recorded arose, the bureau offered this response:

“We would treat the e-engagement as a one-way publicity mechanism much more than a two-way feedback system. We do not require feed-in to existing [bureau] feedback systems.”

If nobody on the bureau side is collecting and responding to feedback, what added value would the new profile offer to audiences? Most readers already get their fill of one-way government communication through traditional media. It goes without saying that most existing Hong Kong government social media profiles are fairly tranquil places that feature little community participation. And that is a shame, for new media channels offer advantages to governments that use them properly.


Unrealized Potential

In recent years, examples of social media success stories in government service provision and disaster prevention have grown rapidly. Another potential usage – shaping of political discourse and readers’ actions – is also important in the Hong Kong context.

This applies equally to youth outreach efforts. Past research in Hong Kong has shown that university students who are connected to political figures through Facebook are more likely to share political information and participate in politics. In this light, the government might increase youth interest in its desired political messages if it could attract young netizens to its own profiles. Consequently, officials should strive to make their profiles more accessible and popular than those of political rivals.

Of course, popularity is not a given. According to David Landsbergen, an expert on government information provision, popularity on official profiles is related in part to how well social media is understood by the government, how creative its own users are, and how well the features of the media in question are employed on a daily basis. Relevance of content alone is not enough. This suggests the need for a social media strategy executed by communications professionals.

If the Hong Kong government has an overarching strategy, little evidence exists at present. A glance at the Social Media Links on the Gov.HK portal reveals significant inconsistencies in platform usage. While the total number of profiles seems large, the entire endeavor has an ad hoc air to it, with principal officers and agencies authoring profiles (or not) without apparent rhyme or reason.

Nor is there sufficient evidence that communications professionals have the leeway they need to adequately manage any strategy. On the contrary, much of the impetus for the social media rollout appears to be driven by government IT specialists.


Regulatory Division

The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer’s (OGCIO) is the government’s IT services and support arm. Since 2004, it has played a prominent role in territorial IT strategy execution through the Digital 21 Strategy, a blueprint for information and communications technology development, one component of which is “e-government”.

Though official social media would necessarily fall under e-government, the OGCIO’s annual updates on Digital 21 e-government delivery have made no mentions of new media since 2010, as part of a communications strategy or otherwise.

Under ideal circumstances, communications strategy development would fall on the shoulders of the government’s in-house PR agency, the Information Services Department (ISD), with the OGCIO providing support. However, a 2013 Auditing Commission report on ISD advertising and publicity reveals something odd.

Specifically, the first agency mentioned in the report’s chapter on the “use of social media in the government” is the OGCIO. According to the commission, this agency provides guidelines on social media usage to governments and departments through an official intranet.

What are the ISD’s responsibilities? In its response to the commission’s recommendation that the administration find new ways to promote wider use of social media, the agency offers to upload content and “encourage” agencies to use social media according to OGCIO guidelines. In contrast, the OGCIO’s response to the commission sets communications-strategy-relevant limitations on the social media rollout:

“The use of social media can provide additional channels to engage the public, but using social media effectively requires additional resources to plan, design, collect, monitor, review, manage and engage.”

While this is true, it should not be the responsibility of an IT development and service department to make prescriptions on the resources required for “collection”, “monitoring”, “review”, “management”, or “engagement”, all of which deal with the communication process.

Meanwhile, a casual glance at the ISD’s website reveals potential shortcomings. The ISD’s “Digital Media Subdivision” is run by one out of three Assistant Directors. That official must simultaneously juggle responsibilities for public relations strategies of four policy bureaus and ten departments. This calls into question the attention that the government’s in-house agency can currently afford to pay to social media.

It is clear that the Hong Kong government’s apparent indirection when it comes to new media is not entirely one of resources. Just as important are the clumsy division of responsibility between two agencies and the inadequate attention that new media tools necessarily receive by the administration’s so-called experts.


Change Needed

At the root of both of these issues is an even thornier problem. As technology raises the importance of networks in society, governments will need to fundamentally alter the way that they communicate in order to retain readers’ attention. This may require adjustments to bureaucratic structures in favor of new regulatory units that are equipped to meet rising public expectations.

In Hong Kong, effective exploitation of social media and other tools of e-engagement will require ongoing, close cooperation between communication and technology experts in a way that the current OGCIO-ISD division is not equipped to accommodate. A new division, staffed by an integrated team of communications experts, technology specialists, and implementing officers would handle the job better.

This new unit would exist to develop two-way relationships with the community rather than offering simple infrastructure or information provision. This implies more personalized communication with individual netizens through official profiles as well as collection and further action based on citizen feedback.

Most important, all efforts should fit within a reinvigorated government-wide social media and e-engagement strategy. To this end, the new unit must be staffed to handle social media and e-engagement efforts of every bureau, department or principal officer. Resource-consuming efforts that do little to meet public needs, such as the Development Bureau’s Tree Care Action Team Facebook game app, should be discontinued.

As the OGCIO rightly noted in its response to the Audit Commission, this will require more resources to support planning, design, collection of feedback, monitoring activities, performance measurement, management, and public outreach.

This said, officials must not be distracted by dollar signs. Instead, they must determine the sort of relationship the government desires with local residents and take action on that basis. In a political system where official authority is increasingly under question, tools that may raise government legitimacy are worth the expense.