Citizen Engagement and Public Services in the Arab World: The Potential of Social Media
Arab Social Media Report series, 6th edition, June 2014
54 Pages Posted: 17 Mar 2015
Date Written: June 26, 2014
Around the world, trust in government is at an all-time low. Limited accountability, lack of transparency and low quality of public services are coupled with unprecedented levels of access to information, informed citizens, empowered civil society structures and rising citizens expectations; all just a few of the reasons why the public sector globally is in the crosshair.
The Arab World is burdened by varying degrees of these challenges on regional and country levels. Most importantly, the public sector in a majority of Arab countries continues to suffer from mounting deficiencies in terms of quality, efficiency and accessibility of government services. Meanwhile, the ever-growing connectivity in the Arab world has paved the way for the emergence of varying forms of networked societies where individuals and groups are firmly connected - and empowered by a medium of free-flowing information, ideas and knowledge. This increased connectivity has reached a critical mass of the population in the Arab region, both in terms of expanding physical communication channels such as computing devices, smart phones and other internet-enabled ‘things’, as well as informational channels in the form of affordable internet subscriptions and an arsenal of social media accounts. With internet users in the Arab region finally reaching the global average in 2014 for the first time ever - a developmental milestone for the region - suddenly this critical mass has gained access to massive volumes of data and information on every facet of life in their region and beyond. Coupled with wide scale political instability in many Arab counties, this new found ‘awareness’ is increasingly leading to rising expectations of government services by citizens.
These new realities empowered large number of individuals and groups in the region to proactively utilize technological and informational means to voice opinions, make suggestions, give feedback as well as proactively innovate. These new transformations promise to enable individuals and organizations in the region to co-design, co-produce and deliver better or new public services, overcoming many shortcomings in the Arab public sector and filling the gaps left by the state. These socio-technological transformations have flattened informational hierarchies, changed trust models both in society and between citizens and government, re-defined many leadership characteristics, altered power structures and transformed the landscape of public service and policy making cycles significantly. Many governments in the Arab region realize today that they need to proactively engage citizens and partner with civil society structures as well as with businesses, to find innovative ways for delivering public services that are inclusive, citizen-centric, responsive, timely and cost-effective.
With regards to service delivery, the unintended side-effects of the ‘new public management’ era and the documented limitations in the ‘electronic government’ era provide invaluable lessons for policy makers in the ongoing ‘open government’ and ‘social media’ era. With around 82 million Arab users today at 22 percent penetration rates regionally, social media is already providing the medium for overcoming many of the monumental barriers for re-inventing public service in the Arab world. With around 41 percent Internet penetration and above 110 percent mobile penetration in the region, we are also witnessing a new wave of convergence, with online social media tools merging with smart phone messaging applications. For example, the largest social media platform; Facebook has recently merged with Whatsapp, one of the widest used smart phone messaging platform. This meant that Facebook now has access to new datasets for 500 million users, majority of whom are already using Facebook. By the 2nd quarter of 2014, these users were exchanging 64 billion messages using their smartphones each day worldwide, up from 54 billion a day four months earlier. As with every new technological step forward, these changes are already opening a new era of opportunities for businesses and new channels for government engagement with citizens. Social media platforms are aggressively seeking better smart phone integration, as this is bringing new opportunities to develop location-based services, provide better customer experiences with merged identities and develop an ‘always on’ experience regardless of the technological channels the customers are using. In a region where mobile penetration is well above 100 percent, many governments have started taking advantage of such opportunities to provide innovative public services for citizens through a combination of smart phones and social media applications. However, universal connectivity, critical mass of users, big data analysis tools coupled with ubiquitous penetration of smarter devices also give way to new risks, where misuse of personal data and information by governments, businesses and individuals becomes easier and more feasible than ever. These are some of the policy implications fixed at the radar screen of every single government globally. As was the case in the early days of e-government development, adapting to these disruptive technological changes will eventually reach equilibrium where a regional and local ‘right fit’ will be achieved. While we are still in a beginning of an era where technology is empowering citizens and allowing for real collaboration models with government entities, the Arab region is witnessing increased examples where the ‘business case’ for using social media for co-design, co-production and co-delivery of public services is taking place. The UAE government, for example, has initiated a first-of-its-kind social media brainstorming campaign with society to try to solve public service problems related to health and education, and engage with the public to come up with innovative ideas to re-design and co-deliver many of these services. This was coupled with several local and regional awards initiated by the government to reward innovation in public service delivery through smart devices and social media to “harness the positive potential of social media for the good of the Arab world”.
How sustainable is this ‘partnership’ going to be? What boundaries will be set by the different sides for their role in this partnership? What are the policy implications for this new collaborative governance structure? How will different governments react and adapt? These are some of the questions that will clarify with time, while these new channels are institutionalized. However, what seems to be clear is that, until more formal citizen engagement channels emerge in Arab societies, social media will continue to play a significant role in enabling better citizen engagement, government responsiveness, increased accountability and wider forms of collaboration for enhancing delivery of public service in the Arab world.
Keywords: Social Media, Government, Arab World, e-Government, Open Government
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