S'pore govt needs holistic Web approach

Singapore government's effective use of new media and the Internet to engage citizens will require whole new mindset and culture change, industry observers note.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

news analysis The Singapore government will need to adopt a whole new mindset and holistic strategy, in its efforts to engage its citizens via the Internet and other new media platforms, say industry watchers.

The local government has in recent months indicated a desire to engage Singaporeans on a new level, in cyber space, to be in sync with an increasingly tech-savvy population.

Raphael Phang, vice president of IDC's Government Insights Asia-Pacific, said Web 2.0 and other new media tools are at the forefront of the transformation of how governments interact with their people.

"The hope is, over time, the transparency of the Internet will become a force for more open and transparent government generally. But, of course, this is a pretty simple and naïve view, given the complexities of politics."
-- Steve Hodgkinson
Ovum analyst

Citing U.S. President Barack Obama's use of new media during last year's U.S. presidential elections and YouTube videos showing G20 meetings in the United Kingdom, Phang said such forms of engagement are already evident across the globe. The IDC analyst added that politicians in the region, including Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, have also started blogs.

More recently, the U.S. White House held an online town hall meeting and accepted questions submitted via the Web. The Obama administration received over 104,000 questions sent by 90,000 people.

Phang said in an e-mail interview: "One key lesson that can be learnt from these examples is that the Internet and new media can, and is having, a significant impact on the way citizens view their government--whether the government participates, or does not participate in its usage."

The general population is already embracing new media, regardless of whether governments do likewise, he said. Given the adoption and impact of such platforms, he noted that it is important that governments become proactive users as well.

During his National Day address in August 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, spoke at length about new media and its impact on the island-state. Over 80 percent of households in the country have broadband, and there are some 6 million mobile phones in a population of 4.5 million.

"The young people are totally immersed in this [new] medium," Lee said in his speech. "People are writing their own content, sharing it with others, organizing interest groups... All this has changed the way the government works." He added that his administration is communicating and engaging with Singaporeans online.

And at the forefront of such efforts is Reach, he said, referring to the government portal set up in October 2006, as a platform for citizens to submit feedback and discuss government policies online.

Holistic approach, new skills needed
Steve Hodgkinson, research director for public sector at Ovum, said in an e-mail: "Use of the Internet as a one- and two-way communications channel is now pretty much expected of democratic governments, so Singapore is playing catch-up on this one. The government will need to be mindful of the fact that new media is more about participation than it is about managing or controlling."

As such, ministers and senior government officials will need to acquire new skills, as well as adopt a new culture and mindset, Hodgkinson said. Participating in new media using "old media skills" will not produce the results the Singapore government seeks. For instance, putting a ban on online content will only serve to attract attention to it, he said.

The challenge is that it takes time and experience to learn these new skills, and participate effectively in the new media environment, he noted. On top of that, mistakes are very public, he added.

"The government will need to work out ways to proceed in a measured manner while it gains these skills to avoid embarrassing mistakes that could lead to a reversal of enthusiasms for more open communication," Hodgkinson said. "It would be wise to engage some advisors who are very experienced in the use of social media in the public sector context."

The Singapore government needs to recognize that the younger generation is very different from previous generations, said Ang Peng Hwa, a professor at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.

The tone and method of communication that worked during the era of the country's former prime minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is unlikely to work today, Ang told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. "This generation wants to engage with government and politics on their own terms--on issues they care about," he said. And in terms of the quality of inputs and diversity of views, he noted that the results of this engagement may also not be what government officials want.

There are also costs involved in managing Web 2.0 communications if the government intends to be responsive, he added. Users expect a 24-hour turnaround and these new communication platforms need to be attended by two people, on a work shift, even during holidays, he said.

Regardless, Ang said these forms of engagement are necessary and governments will need to deploy whichever new channels of communication the populace is moving toward. These include SMS, Twitter and instant messaging, he said.

Phang explained: "Unlike traditional media, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies represent a more accessible medium that citizens can use to interact with the government, and with other citizens.

"It is also important to remember that because new generations of citizens are educated in the Internet-enabled age, they will expect to operate in a similar environment that they have been used to when they enter the workforce. The same can be said for those joining the civil service as government officials," he noted.

Governments then need to understand each media platform and the objectives of using that channel of communication, he said. They should approach this in the same way they do with traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio.

Online media, Hodgkinson said, are typically more relaxed and "uncontrolled" with regard to the types of topics discussed and views expressed. He added that it is up to any democratically-elected government to decide what it deems appropriate, and not appropriate, especially in dealing with sensitive issues such as religion and race, which can be socially divisive.

While the Internet is intrinsically more open and participative, enabling greater freedom of expression and transparency, governments can still decide how much freedom and transparency they to allow, he said.

"The hope is, over time, the transparency of the Internet will become a force for more open and transparent government generally. But, of course, this is a pretty simple and naïve view given the complexities of politics."

High-level official blogging
Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo was the first, and one of the few, ministers in the country to blog. The Cabinet minister began blogging in 2006 and co-hosts two blogs, covering a wide range of issues including his memories of Star Trek, Singapore President S. R. Nathan's recent visit to Japan's Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and last month's ministerial evacuation at the Asean Summit in Pattaya, Thailand. His blog also features photos of the minister making official visits to Washington D.C., for example, where he met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

When contacted, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to respond to questions on whether Yeo is provided a set of guidelines on issues he blogs about, as well as how he manages his online profile.

According to Siew Kum Hong, currently employed as a legal counsel at a tech company, most--if not all--major companies today have codes of conduct for employees who blog or have online profiles. However, the Singapore-based lawyer is not aware of similar codes established specifically for government officials in the island-state.

Siew is also one of the country's Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), who are unelected MPs first introduced in 1990 as an avenue to allow citizens with no political party affiliation to participate in Singapore's parliamentary debates.

"I doubt if the Instruction Manual covers blogging," he said in an e-mail interview, referring to the administrative handbook all local government officers refer to as a guideline for their daily operations and duties. "In terms of legal boundaries, the only significant difference between government and companies would be that the former is covered by the Official Secrets Act. Otherwise, the usual laws will apply to both equally."

According to Ang, Yeo strikes an appropriate balance between his role as a Cabinet minister and online personality. Government officials including ministers, have to "toe the official line" even if they personally disagree with it, he noted.

As a minister, Yeo does this well in his blog, while at the same time reflecting views and insights that are personal, Ang said.

He added that new, Web-based form of engagement with the public should be embraced by government officials, though there are some caveats and cautions. "But, such engagement is necessary. Singapore is now among the leading pack in its use of IT, and we should aim to continue to be among the leaders," he said. "Such forms of engagement will teach us to be more inclusive of groups and views."

Yeo had been quoted in local news reports to say that his participation in new media platforms, which also includes a Facebook account, keeps him in touch with the younger generation.

He had referred to Obama's use of new media as an important vehicle behind his victory in last year's presidential elections, reaching pockets of Americans who might otherwise have stayed away from the mainstream process.

Ultimately, Siew said, the Internet is just another platform and avenue for the Singapore government to reach out and engage citizens. Improving its interaction with the population will require a fundamental review of "its philosophical approach to engagement", he said. For example, the proposal by the AIMS to allow civil servants to comment on government policies was rejected, in line with an overarching government policy that applies both online and offline.

The AIMS was an advisory council, established in April 2007, to assess how new media is impacting the local society and recommend ways the government can address such impact.

The government accepted, and rejected, some of the council's recommendations. For instance, it now allows individuals to participate in online advertising for elections by blogging or posting election materials, though some safeguards will be implemented to ensure accountability. However, it dismissed the AIMS' recommendation to allow civil servants to voice personal opinions on government policies, noting that this would "compromise the performance of their duty".

Siew said: "Once the government develops a philosophy and strategy, then Internet-specific measures can be implemented to execute that strategy."

Engagement requires some guidelines
Phang cautioned that blogs, unlike official press statements that are vetted, are typically more informal. However, citizens will not view such information any differently, he said, adding that blogs written by government officials should be managed sensibly.

"The content will be no different from what is put out in other media, and the guidelines governing this information is the same as any made public, where there is the element of taking responsibility for what you say," he noted. "The Internet can be viewed as a vast open network in which information can quickly be turned into dis-information."

Hodgkinson said: "Government officials and ministers should definitely not be encouraged to blog or set up an online profile without knowing what they are getting themselves into, or without being trained in how to blog, being supported by appropriate guidelines and support teams, and having 'disaster' plans in place to deal with undesirable events--without just resorting to turning a blog off in a panic."

The Ovum analyst suggested that a clear distinction must be made between political blogs that reflect a minister's personal views on policy issues, and blogs used by the government to communicate policies and related issues. The latter should avoid any political discussions, he said.

Politicians and government officials who do blog should do so on a government-hosted, rather than public, platform to ensure posts are authentic, Hodgkinson said. Content should not be overly sanitized or politically correct or the blogger will lose credibility, he added.

"Be open to debate and criticism, and deal with it transparently with facts and logic, rather than rhetoric," he said.

Some Singapore government officials, however, seem unprepared for negative comments that may emerge from the blogosphere.

Earlier this year, now-Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Lui Tuck Yew, described the Internet as an ineffective self-regulated environment. He noted that the online community did not do enough to quell "unkind" remarks made by local bloggers, that were targeted at a local politician. Lui, as quoted in local news reports, said: "Many of those responses were not rebutted nor answered, And, I think it is not healthy for some of those to remain on the Net unchallenged, unquestioned, and unanswered."

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