Private enterprises commonly use various instruments aimed to attract knowledge of external stakeholders in order to increase the participation of the latter in enterprises’ decision making and, thus, foster product and service innovation. However, the use of open innovation tools is beneficial for public organizations as well. The main goals of the participatory approach to public administration are the improvement of the administrative system, development of meaningful relationships with citizens, and enhancement of capacities to meet their needs (Schmidthuber, et al., 2019). It means that by utilizing information contributed by external stakeholders, public organizations may alter their internal processes in a way that leads to positive social and public outcomes.
For a significant time, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) strived to promote openness within its public sector. The country has introduced an e-government system to increase customers’ accessibility to government services, improve those services, and add transparency and accountability (Al Shamsi, et al., 2018). Overall, the creation of e-government is in line with the increasing technology adoption trends among the members of the UAE population, but there is a need to employ more advanced communication tools to stimulate the government’s progress and be able to satisfy citizens’ interests with greater effectiveness.
It is valid to say that the use of social media as part of a participatory approach to public administration is promising in this regard since interactivity and user empowerment are among the core features of social media. Therefore, they provide a plethora of opportunities for the establishment of more trustful dialogues and relationships with citizens. Considering this, the present paper will review current evidence on the application of social media in public administration to identify major advantages and disadvantages related to this practice. Besides, it will evaluate evidence on the social media use by the UAE government to determine the extent of the technology integration in the local e-government system.
Public Participation and e-Participation in Governance
Definition of Public Participation
One of the main responsibilities of international governments is to respect the interests and needs of the general public. Therefore, public participation in governance is of significant importance since it ensures the openness of authorities to citizens’ voices and feedback. Public participation is defined as an essential tool for the development of a more democratic culture in society (Jamil, 2018). As stated by Jamil (2018), the main objectives of public participation include the promotion of social justice and inclusion in policy-making, the development of knowledge about the matters of common concern, and the enhancement of the decision-making process through the formulation of more informed solutions.
Thus, public engagement is advantageous since it allows authorities to take into account the opinions of diverse population groups, including those whose representation in governmental institutions may be limited. Besides, researchers distinguish such benefits of citizens’ participation as the increased public trust and interest in policy and community development matters (Jamil, 2018; Wang & Van Wart, 2007). In this way, improved information exchange between citizens and the government may lead to overall better governance outcomes.
Definition of e-Participation
Decades ago, public engagement was facilitated merely through traditional media, including magazines, radio, and television. However, modern information technologies are associated with better access to information and participation and allow the establishment of online political discourses supported by interactive and democratic processes (Jamil 2018; Zolotov, et al., 2018; Zhao, et al., 2017; Charalabidis & Loukis, 2012; Mukhtarov, et al., 2018).
For this reason, the concept of e-participation is now one of the central themes in research on governance quality and public administration. Citing the United Nations, Zolotov, et al. (2018) defined e-participation as “the process of engaging citizens through ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] in policy and decision-making in order to make public administration participatory, inclusive, collaborative and deliberative for intrinsic and instrumental ends” (p. 351). It is valid to say that with the rising penetration and worldwide use of various ITCs, the governments may significantly increase public engagement rates by creating various e-participation channels and, therefore, consolidate the chances for the betterment of policy and decision making.
The Roles of Social Media in e-Participation
Social media are a part of the Web 2.0 movement. As stated by Karakiza (2015), the main features of Web 2.0 are “Transparency, Honesty, Trust and Reputation,” and unlike Web 1.0 that is embraces more static online media, such as websites, it is characterized by greater interactivity and involvement of users in the generation of new content (p. 387). As for social media, they are defined as online applications that allow the creation of new content by users and its dissemination (Karakiza, 2015).
They can be either expressive or collaborative; the former type implies self-expression through various means, including text and photographs, whereas the second type is linked to the sharing of knowledge and mobilization of resources needed to attain certain common goals (Karakiza, 2015). Besides that, new media foster greater visibility and accessibility of relevant information to users from diverse backgrounds (Jamil, 2018). Thus, it is possible to say that the employment of collaborative social media can provide governments with substantial advantages since they allow a mutual exchange of information and, thus, may result in the strengthening of public engagement.
Evidence on the Effects of Social Media Use in the Public Sector
The favorable impacts of social media on public engagement in politics and governance are verified in multiple studies. When examining the effects of social media on public participation in a political campaign in Pakistan, Jamil (2018) revealed that the local authorities use social media primarily to evaluate public attitudes, communicate with voters, and raise public awareness cost-effectively. Among the major effects of using such platforms as Facebook and Twitter were the improvement of citizens’ knowledge of political issues, their engagement in online discussions, and more active participation in the elections (Jamil, 2018). It means that consistently with the theory of public participation, social media allow greater public engagement in the decision-making process.
Overall, the abovementioned findings are high-quality but characterized by some limitations. Jamil (2018) obtained them by utilizing the mixed research design that involved the collection of empirical data through in-depth interviews and the analysis of statistical data gathered by using surveys. As part of the study, Jamil (2018) recruited the members of local Pakistani political parties and journalists from mainstream media (n=21) through purposeful sampling and also surveyed 100 randomly selected university students from six different districts.
It is valid to say that the choice of the study population is associated with a risk of bias since the experiences of students cannot be generalized to the overall population. At the same time, the involvement of competent experts by using purposeful sampling was advantageous since it allowed getting information-rich answers on the topic of interest, that is, the trends of social media use in the Pakistani public sector.
Regardless of potential quality issues linked to the study results discussed above, they are supported by findings from other studies. For example, a thematic literature review of 115 research articles conducted by Dwivedi et al. (2017) indicated that Web 2.0 technologies can indeed lead to citizens’ increased participation in public administration and politics. Social media may positively impact the level of transparency and accountability and contribute to better engagement by providing efficient tools for citizen-government interactions and, thus, igniting individuals’ interest in political and policy matters (Dwivedi, et al., 2017).
The selected literature review helps to form a comprehensive picture of social media use in the public sector and to identify practical implications. However, the fact that the researchers included studies that employed insufficiently rigorous methods (including case studies and expert opinions) could decrease the validity of their findings.
It is worth noting that along with multiple beneficial effects, social media use in the public sector has several drawbacks. The results of the mixed-method study on the impacts of social media-mediated participation of citizens in the planning of a bus route in China indicated that Web 2.0 allowed to increase the efficacy of communication with the authorities, yet the engagement of diverse citizens and actors was unequal (Zhao, et al., 2017).
For example, people without access to the Internet and those illiterate in terms of modern technology use were not able to participate in the discussion and, thus, certain population groups (especially elites, such as experts and professionals) had the power to impact decision making through social media to a greater extent (Zhao, et al., 2017). The same observations were made in the studies by Dwivedi, et al. (2017) and Jamil (2018).
For example, Jamil (2018) concluded that the idea about citizens’ empowerment and equal representation through social media is not true. It follows that the differences in individuals’ knowledge of technology and its possession create a significant barrier to democratic participation in public administration activities. It is valid to presume, that to eliminate this obstacle and make participation more inclusive, it is essential to ensure a high literacy rate among the members of the general population and strengthen the infrastructures.
The UAE Experience
The UAE has been one of the leading countries in adopting digital technologies to enhance the efficiency and overall quality of governance. The county has established the e-government system as part of its 2011-2013 strategy aimed “to improve government services and bring them in line with the international standards” (Al Khouri, 2011, p. 25). In his theoretical study that had a purpose to evaluate the effectiveness of the UAE’s e-government practices and develop a framework aimed to provide some practical implications for the improvement of the digital governance system, Al Khouri (2011) identified that by 2011 the UAE mainly used its e-government platform for information sharing (57%).
Other tasks that the country’s public organizations accomplished through web-based tools are transactions or electronic delivery of certain services and documents (23%) and interactions (20%) (Al Khouri, 2011). At the same time, such an essential stage in the use of digital governance tools as transformation, which implies “electronic delivery of services where more than one department may be involved in processing a service request or service,” was still not attained (Al Khouri, 2011).
According to Al Khouri (2011), the lack of inter-agency integration within the UAE e-government is the primary barrier to the development of a more citizen-centered platform. It can be argued that besides a change in the internal e-government infrastructure, increased implementation of social media can assist the authorities in the achievement of that goal as well.
Web 2.0 technologies can contribute to the development of more customer-centered governance frameworks. They can also help the UAE public sector to expand the number of activities performed in the digital space. While the present-day e-government system in the country mainly concentrates on the delivery of services, the findings of a theoretical study by Charalabidis and Loukis (2012) indicate that besides all previously discussed positive effects of social media on governance, including democratic participation and improvement of service quality, Web 2.0 may provide multiple opportunities for innovation.
Along with this, social media can have a substantial structural and cultural impact on organizations. According to Charalabidis and Loukis (2012), social media facilitate the shift from a “monolithic government” to a citizen-centered “Government 2.0” that comprises a plethora of “governance webs” or, in other words, “digitally enabled networks of public, private and/or civil society participants, which perform activities that previously were the exclusive domain of single public agencies” (p. 81). Overall, in comparison to traditional hierarchical governance models, Government 2.0 is characterized by a more equal and wide distribution of power, leading to the development of knowledge and innovation.
The need for more widespread integration of social media and modern technologies in the UAE public sector to improve government-citizen communication and service innovation is recognized by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. In his open letter posted on Twitter, the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai acknowledged that people increasingly demand to diversify the means of communication with the government (The National, 2019)).
At the same time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid noted that many governmental entities currently fail to implement modern means of communication and stated that this situation contradicts the government’s main mission of serving people (The National, 2019). These statements are in line with recent research findings indicating that the integration of social media into the UAE e-government system is still insufficient.
In an empirical study on the effectiveness of social media use by the UAE government, Darwish (2017) noted that in 2011, the authorities released guidelines for social media use by various governmental entities, yet not all the entities use social media nowadays. Besides, Darwish (2017) argued that it was not clear how do public and governmental organizations in the country utilize social media to increase citizen participation.
As a result of a comprehensive analysis of statistical data and social media use trends, the researcher revealed that the implementation of Web 2.0 in the UAE is relatively effective, but the government still applies traditional communication techniques to a larger degree (Darwish, 2017). The authorities mainly disseminate information through social media, but there is no evidence that they undertake efforts to actively engage with the public (Darwish, 2017). Overall, it means that the government uses Web 2.0 technologies as a marketing tool but not as an instrument for stakeholder empowerment.
The abovementioned study is one of a few empirical research projects dedicated to the matter of social media use within the UAE e-government system. The findings may be considered credible since Darwish (2017) employed a rigorous quantitative methodology. Besides, his findings are consistent with those obtained in another high-quality study. The results of a national survey completed by Mourtada and Alkhatib (2014) demonstrate that approximately 10% of citizens utilize governmental social media to leave feedback and communicate with the authorities, whereas the majority of respondents (78%) visit them merely in order to access necessary information.
Regardless of that, 85% of respondents in the study were convinced that the application of social media for the improvement of services and enhancement of communication between stakeholders and the authorities can be beneficial (Mourtada & Alkhatib, 2014). Therefore, the government needs to increase its capacities needed to stimulate citizens’ engagement in service design and policy-making through social media and to maximize the benefits associated with the use of Web 2.0 within the public sector.
While recent research evidence suggests that the UAE government still does not implement social media to collaborate with citizens and involve them in the decision-making process, some examples show that social media use can indeed promote the enhancement of service quality and accelerate organizational decision-making. In April 2019, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum posted a message on his Twitter account criticizing the quality of services at the UAE official postal operator, Emirates Post (Khaleej Times, 2019).
In response to the Prime Minister’s post, the service speed and quality have drastically increased in the organization along with customer satisfaction within a period of just a few months (Tesorero, 2019). The case of Emirates Post shows that the government is dedicated to the promotion of excellence and transparency among its different entities. Besides, it demonstrates that social media can be used as a powerful tool in the public sector. It may be argued that the further integration of Web 2.0 in the UAE’s e-government system can lead to substantial positive changes in terms of decision-making and innovation.
It is possible to say that the UAE currently has all the necessary resources to initiate the transition to Government 2.0 framework. The social trends in terms of technology use provide a favorable outlook for the shift. As a result of a comprehensive analysis of statistics, the study on the use of social media by the UAE government by Mourtada and Alkhatib (2014) revealed that the popularity of various social media platforms is increasing in the country. For instance, as of 2014, 60.4% of the UAE population utilized Facebook, and it is observed that the number of users had increased by 200% since 2010 (Mourtada & Alkhatib, 2014). The growing penetration of social media in society can facilitate the government’s use of Web 2.0 for collaboration with citizens and stimulation of policy and social improvements.
The review of the literature and the theory of public participation make it clear that the implementation of social media for the stimulation of citizens’ engagement in public administration can be advantageous. A few of the potential benefits of the practice include greater citizen-government communication efficacy, increased public awareness of various political and governance issues, improvement of services through co-design, promotion of innovation by tapping into collective knowledge.
However, while the theory suggests that social media use in the public sector may lead to citizen empowerment and democratization of the decision-making process, the available evidence did not support this statement and, on the contrary, indicated an unequal involvement of diverse individuals in the discussion of governance issues on governmental forums.
The analysis of the UAE experience also revealed that the government now mainly uses social media for communication and information sharing, but is less effective in using Web 2.0 for collaboration with stakeholders. At the current stage, there is no evidence that governmental entities use social media to involve citizens in decision-making and gather their knowledge to stimulate innovation.
However, the case of the Emirates Post shows that it is indeed possible to encourage significant improvements and organizational changes with the assistance of social media platforms. However, the UAE needs to implement a system that would allow not only recording not only the opinions of influential political figures but also gathering public opinions in a systematic matter. Considering the scarcity of research on the effects of social media utilization within the UAE public sector, and especially their impacts on administrative decision making, there is a need to investigate this issue further and develop recommendations for the improvement of public engagement in the country.
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