Auditor-General's overview

Learning from public entities' use of social media.

In our private lives, New Zealanders are making widespread use of social media to connect with people – friends and acquaintances, their friends and acquaintances, and complete strangers, nationally and internationally. Collectively, a great many of us are using social media to share our news, opinions, interests, and photos with a wider audience than we can otherwise reach.

The potential to connect with people has led many public entities to actively consider whether to use social media to communicate with the public.

For public entities, using social media can mean different degrees of interaction. Social media can be used to monitor how a public entity is talked about, to broadcast information to interested people, or to initiate rich and ongoing dialogue. Social media has the potential to change the way that public services are delivered to New Zealanders, not just connecting and communicating with people, but actively involving them and even empowering them.

In my view, the public sector is moving cautiously but positively to embrace social media. There have been some well-known and successful "early adopters" of social media – the Companies Office is one such example. But getting involved in social media does not automatically bring better results, and it is not always the right "tool" to achieve a public entity's objectives. Public entities will get the most value from social media when they are clear about the purpose and the appropriateness of their involvement and have people using the technology wisely.

This report shares what eight entities (seven public entities and one non-government organisation) have learned from using social media in different ways. It also draws out success factors from the experiences of these eight entities. I hope that this information will help other public entities to thoughtfully consider how they could use social media to best advantage.

The eight success factors that we have identified are:

  • leadership – good leadership means being open to exploring the possibilities of social media and providing a culture for innovation;
  • strategy – social media should be used deliberately and targeted to achieve a clear purpose;
  • implementation – people and time are just as important as technology and money;
  • risk management – risks need to be recognised and managed, but do not need to act as a barrier to participation;
  • integration – the use of social media needs to be nurtured, then slowly and deliberately brought into the entity's day-to-day operations;
  • adaptation – entities need to be adaptable and learn as they go;
  • measurement – it is not always easy to measure social media's effect on outcomes, but it is important to know "what success would look like"; and
  • considered communication – public entities need to make their "terms of engagement" in social media clear, and consider how social media might require changes in the way they communicate.

The guidance that the Department of Internal Affairs has produced about using social media is well regarded, but my staff found low levels of awareness of that guidance among senior management. I encourage the leaders of public entities to access the material that the Department has produced.1

In my view, social media has the potential to do more than monitor or seek to improve an entity's reputation or the public's understanding of its work. The dialogue that social media allows could enhance policy development or contribute to more widespread improvements in service delivery throughout the public sector.

I thank the entities whose experiences feature in this paper for their co-operation and help. I also thank all those staff from entities not featured in this paper, who gave their time generously, and the senior management staff who took part in our survey.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

21 June 2013

1: The guidance is available at

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