Although there may well be available by more information on social media in business small and large than any one person could absorb in a lifetime, my sense is that we are only just beginning the journey to understanding how social media can work, or not, in the government sphere.

As a social media strategist who is a former Federal and State public sector executive and over several years a consultant to various government agencies, I’ve wondered from time to time how the sort of conversations that occur around social media in the business context might translate across into the public sector.

But I’ve spent little time on the subject of government and social media, apart from an occasional blog post.

parliamenthouse Canberra, Australia

An initiative backed by Australia’s social media savvy, long term blogger Senator Kate Lundy has prompted me to get off the fence and join the discussion. I have registered to attend the Public Sphere Camp, Open Government: Policy and Practice, on June 22, to be held in Parliament House, Canberra. Some camp site!

As befitting the topic, it’s an open event, physically and virtually:

Anyone is welcome to attend the Public Sphere Camp, however seats are limited in the physical component of the event which will be in Parliament House (Canberra, ACT – details on registration page). Anyone will be able to see streaming video online and participate in the event discussion via Twitter, and we will ensure there is liveblogging on the day to also help capture the ideas presented on the day, and to capture external feedback on those ideas.

There are a lot of aspects to the topic “Open Government”, some of them quite technical. It’s clearly not all about social media and I don’t intend to get into a bout of social media barrow pushing, but I’m working on the assumption that policy and practice on open government will have to incorporate some up to date and even adventurous thinking on the role of social media. And a well thought out strategy (which will include a wide margin for flexibility, fast prototyping and “failing forward” – not an easy call for government administration!).

Certainly the US Government’s Web managers see, in line with the new Administration’s program, the need for a “government-wide strategy for using social media tools to create a more effective and transparent government”.

I don’t know if we’ll get to that level of policy commitment in Australia in the foreseeable future, but I hope that we can have a practical discussion in the meantime. And as a former public servant, my idea of a practical discussion on this topic includes, front and centre, what it means for the people who will be charged with implementing the policy – the public servants.

So I’ve put my hand up to speak in one of the 15 minute (including questions) slots and indicated I’d like to talk about the cultural change implications of employing social media in the service of open government. Stephen Collins may have dibs on that topic, having signalled it before I did, and if he gets the nod that will be fine as he certainly knows the terrain. I am just hoping the topic gets an airing, however briefly.

Public servants at various levels, from departmental heads and managers of particular programs to people dealing directly with the public on a daily basis, are going to be affected by any serious policy implementation in this field. Not all are going to be comfortable with the kind of openness and transparency social media can bring, or with the speed of impact. Some will resist – actively, passively – some will try to be inconspicuous, others will relish the opportunities social media provide to better serve the citizenry.

Whatever happens, things won’t be the same.

Photo credit: Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, by stage88 via Flickr – Creative Commons license

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).