Part 1: Introduction

Learning from public entities' use of social media.

Social media in public service delivery

Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction and collaboration.

Social media is now in widespread use, in New Zealand and throughout the world. In our public sector, many entities use social media as one of their "channels" for communicating with the public. It can be used passively to monitor how an entity is talked about, more actively to broadcast information to the public, or as a means to discuss and debate. Social media can be used to create, share, and exchange information and ideas with the public, and can help public entities to connect with people that can otherwise be hard to reach.

We carried out some work to look at how entities were using social media, and used a form of social media to report on that work. The examples of entities' social media use are described in more detail on our blog (

In this paper, we discuss the lessons that the eight entities learned and draw out themes from their experiences.

What is social media?

There is no universally accepted definition of social media. According to the Department of Internal Affairs' high-level guidance about social media, it is:

… a set of online technologies, sites, and practices which are used to share opinions, experiences, and perspectives. [It is] about conversation.2

According to Wikipedia, which is itself a form of social media:

Social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.3

The Department of Internal Affairs states that social media is different from traditional media, such as print, television, and radio because it is not a broadcast medium but a dialogue. We note that these lines are increasingly blurring, as the more traditional media channels increasingly include ways and means of talking to and interacting with viewers and readers.

Internet and social media use in New Zealand

Social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.

According to the Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealanders have been enthusiastic adopters of social media. In 2012, 64% of the New Zealand population was using social media of some sort. In Australia, the figure was 62%, and in the United Kingdom it was 48%.

Our work

In 2012/13, the theme of our Office's work programme has been Our future needs – is the public sector ready? The focus is on how public agencies prioritise work, develop necessary capabilities and skills, and use information to identify and address future needs.

As part of this theme, we have looked at how eight entities – seven public entities and one non-government organisation that receives much of its funding from the Government – are using social media. Public agencies are still developing their use of social media, but we wanted to point to emerging practices or lessons and collate some critical success factors that could be useful to other public entities.

How we did our work

To find the emerging practices and what entities had learned, we:

  • identified a list of about 35 entities that were engaged in some form of social media, met with staff in each of the entities (where appropriate), and reduced the list to eight that could serve as case studies;
  • analysed relevant documents and interviewed staff in those eight entities; and
  • spoke to communications practitioners in the public sector.
Social media: Participatory online media that utilizes the group to write and direct content, rather than a read-only media. Allows for direct contact between participants.
– Urban Dictionary

As part of our work, we also:

  • kept a regular blog as our work progressed, sharing some of our findings and our own experiences with learning about social media; and
  • decided to report the case studies as posts on our blog.

We reported the case studies as blog posts because it seemed more appropriate, in a review of social media, to do so. A review of social media lends itself to a more informal style of reporting and, fittingly, offered the potential for us to reach a different audience than we normally would.

Senior management survey

Social media: Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.

In April 2013, we surveyed chief executives and senior managers in the public sector about social media (our senior management survey). We sent our senior management survey to 210 organisations. We received 150 responses, from 53 chief executives and 97 senior managers.

The results of our senior management survey are available on our website.

Review of a sample of public entities' Facebook pages

In April 2013, we reviewed a sample of public entities' Facebook pages. We chose a random sample of 78 public entities, checked whether they had a Facebook page, then used a set of criteria to evaluate each one.4

Of the 78 public entities, 65% had a Facebook page under either its own name or a subsidiary name. For example, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) does not have an MBIE Facebook page, but there are several Facebook pages for different functions of MBIE, such as Consumer Affairs.

The results of our review are also available on our website.

What we did not cover

We did not try to compare the relative merits, features, or effectiveness of one form of social media with another. We did not form a view on whether social media was more suited to any particular situation than the use of more traditional means of communicating with the public.

We focused on the public-facing or external use of social media, rather than looking at how entities are using social media internally to communicate or share with their staff.

To avoid duplicating the efforts of other agencies, we talked to staff of the Department of Internal Affairs, the State Services Commission, Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the Privacy Commissioner, and Association of Local Government Information Management. We also consulted with Dr Miriam Lips, Professor of e-Government in the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, and Simon Wright, a member and former Board member of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2).

Structure of this paper

In the rest of this paper:

  • Part 2 lists the eight case studies we looked at and briefly summarises the main benefits of, and lessons from, their use of social media.
  • Part 3 discusses in more detail the success factors that emerged from the eight case studies that might be usefully considered by other public entities using, or thinking of using, social media.
  • Part 4 describes some aspects of public sector regulation that apply to social media.
  • Appendix 1 provides further details of the theoretical models we used in our work.
  • Appendix 2 provides a high-level profile of the respondents to our senior management survey.

2: Department of internal Affairs (2011), Social media in Government: High-level Guidance, Wellington. See

3: See (accessed 18 June 2013).

4: The criteria were based on the aspects of good engagement discussed in our blog post, The bird is the word – see

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