Doing more with less? The role of public managers in adopting social media

The use of social media in the public sector can potentially enhance task-efficiency and transparency but it can also increase complexity and workload for public managers.

This tradeoff and the drivers behind public managers’ perceptions of social media tools were discussed during the third webinar of the CIVICA PhD Seminar Series on Public Sector Digital Transformation that took place on November 24th with Mary Feeney. The discussion focused on the role of public managers in a very decentralised system like the U.S., but this evidence is also relevant for European governments facing similar challenges.  

Social media is very much an integral part of people’s everyday lives, whether it be socialising, sharing information, or connecting with friends. Tools that were designed for personal use are increasingly being incorporated by the public sector. In this way, social media is changing not only the way individuals interact with one another, but also how governments and citizens do so. The use of social media in the public sector can have multiple benefits, including increasing transparency, accountability and improving the provision of public services. Public managers play a key role in the adoption of such new technologies. However, the costs of incorporating social media into their jobs may outweigh the benefits. 

Particularly in smaller governments, the use of social media can double public managers’ workload without gaining much in terms of efficiency. Managers are often not trained properly or provided adequate resources to deal with new technologies - yet more and more find themselves under high pressure to adopt them. Being constantly asked to do more with less, public managers risk becoming overworked and cynical about making the most of social media. This factor should not be underestimated, as managerial perceptions of technology have been shown to be very important for predicting uptake. A recent study that analyses the role of public managers in technology adoption in the U.S. finds that several factors influence  how they perceive social media in the workplace, such as individual and organisational social media use, digital threats, technological capacity and organisational culture. Personal use of social media has a strong positive effect on public managers’ perceptions of social media use in the workplace. On the other hand, if they do not believe that a particular technology is useful or have negative views of social media in general, managers are less likely to use these technologies effectively and reap the benefits. 

It is therefore important to better understand how to support social media use without compromising the workload of public managers. The process of effective adoption of new technologies depends on at least two aspects that go hand in hand: choosing and fostering managers with the right mindset and providing them with adequate training. Governments can make a difference with who they choose to put in charge and how they empower leaders. On one hand, younger managers are more likely to adapt more easily to technology. On the other hand, senior managers’ expertise should not go to waste and appropriate training. A possible strategy to use is to target employees who are comfortable with social media to serve as lead adopters and users and to support their individual learning. Furthermore, better guidelines and strategies are needed to orient and support public managers in the effective adoption of these tools. 

In short, social media has the potential to enhance task efficiency in the public sector but may also increase complexity and workload if not taken up with the perspective of public managers in mind. Public managers overall seem to have a positive perception of social media when they work in environments which encourage the interplay of personal and organisational social media use, develop an organisational culture of innovation, and provide formal guidance on using social media. Going forward, it is important to consider the workload of public managers and adopt new technologies in the public sector with an in-depth understanding of their perspectives. 

This blog post is part of the CIVICA PhD Seminar Series on Public Sector Digital Transformation organised by Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance and Bocconi University’s Department of Social and Political Science. The insights highlighted have been based on the third seminar session’s discussion of Mary Feeney’s keynote “E-Government in the US” as well as her paper “Social media in the workplace: Information exchange, productivity, or waste?”. We would like to thank the participants for sharing their views and ideas.

More literature on this topic: 

  • Feeney, M.K. and Welch, E.W. 2016. Technology-task coupling: Exploring social media use and managerial perceptions of e-government. American Review of Public Administration 46(2): 162-179. August 20 2014. 10.1177/0275074014547413
  • Chun, S. A., Shulman, S., Sandoval, R., & Hovy, E. (2010). Government 2.0: Making connections between citizens, data and government. Information Polity, 15, 1-9.
  • Bryer, T. A., & Zavattaro, S. M. (2011). Social media and public administration: Theoretical dimensions and introduction to the symposium. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 33, 325-340.

Watch Mary Feeney’s keynote “E-Government in the US”: