When it comes to government and politics, there is what is called engagement and then there is the real deal engagement.
There are agencies that launch twitter streams, maybe have an RSS feed for their blog, they may have a Facebook fan page, and they think or at least say that they are engaging the public. There are politicians that successfully use the same tools to build a groundswell of volunteers and to educate the public about their political platform. They both think that they are engaging the public.
But if you look at these closely what you will see in the comments, in the tweets, on the wall, and in most any other social media channel that they use is the agency posting one thing, some citizens responding, and then nothing more from the agency.
Last time I checked that does not constitute engagement. A one-way conversation is not engagement. Sure, you might see a few responses back from the agency but that seems to be as rare as an honest politician. That is at its best marketing and at is worst appeasement.
Why don’t agencies engage more, really carry on two or more way conversations? For a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that engagement is hard work. But that maybe changing – Microsoft may actually be making citizen engagement easier.
Earlier this week at the Politics Online Conference, Microsoft announced the release of a new government and political social engagement tool called TownHall. Microsoft was kind enough to brief me about it and give me a peek at what it could do the week before the announcement.
TownHall is essentially a cloud-based application that has the ability to allow both politicians and government agencies to provide a platform for a higher level of engagement with citizens.
Constructive constituent participation is encouraged through a points-based rewards system similar to what Microsoft has used with Xbox Live. TownHall participants collect points by asking questions, answering questions, voting on items, and other activities that advance and contribute to the discourse.
Participants can also share their contributions out on to other social networks through integration with applications like Facebook, Twitter, and others with the intent through viral and organic growth that it may draw more participants into the conversation.
The code for Microsoft’s TownHall is available for free for any organization at http://code.msdn.microsoft.com/TownHall but only runs on top of the Microsoft Azure platform.
The benefits to the politicians and government agencies are that they can use TownHall as a platform to gauge public and constituent sentiment about a specific set of issues, to increase the level of dialogue and communication around an issue, and to get a better feel for what matters to their community. Admittedly, it is limited to those who self-chose to participate but so is the act of voting.
The Bottom Line: Microsoft has provided a good tool that will probably be of the most use for political campaigns and sitting politicians, though government agencies looking to gather general input will also find it useful. It will not immediately replace the formal comment and response mechanisms that are already in place for public comments on agency policies, but it will encourage government agencies to turn to the social media space to gather public comments. What do you think?