Tsang's next post

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 August, 2010, 12:00am

Much media attention has been focused on the announcement by the chief executive's office that it will launch a Facebook page - and the subsequent advert for staff to operate it. As governments around the world tap into the power of the internet to get their message across, it is only natural that Hong Kong should take a stab at Government 2.0. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen himself was seen with an iPad at his last question and answer session in the legislature. It will undoubtedly keep him in touch with the latest on the site, but whether it will help him gauge public sentiment, we will have to wait and see.

Governments through the ages have tried all sorts of ways to engage their constituents. Each technological breakthrough - radio, television and the internet - opened new platforms and added tools and rules for interaction. And with that, citizens - who are now also 'netizens' - have come to expect more transparency, more effort in encouraging public participation, and more genuine and instantaneous forms of engagement with their governments.

New tools alone will not ensure the government communicates better with the people. It all boils down to the basics. While no one would reasonably expect the chief executive to answer every thread, comment and debate posted on the page, a more demanding public will expect much more than a Facebook version of the Government Information Service website.

By Facebook-ing his office, the chief executive is setting a precedent for his successors, and there's no turning back. As it is supposed to be an official page, it should have a permanence that one would not expect from a personal page. This means that, unless Facebook folds or until an uberFacebook comes along, this will be part of the office of future chief executives. No one with an iota of political sense would shut it down. After all, what kind of message would that send?

And, therefore, it must serve as much more than a political gimmick or an excuse to add staff. The page must reflect the government's willingness to be more open and responsive to public participation. Its content and the way feedback is handled will be a measure of that. Do it right and it may help funnel and facilitate quality public debate over issues and policies. Poorly handled, it will guarantee a feast for cyber-pranksters and attract the occasional attention-seeking nut. But if the page can provide people an additional - and dare we say, better - access point to understand policies and issues, and have their say on them, then it will serve a real purpose.

Keeping the public engaged will not be easy. The government should look to the experiences of its undersecretaries and political assistants who have been running their Facebook accounts for some time now. Taking the time to respond and to engage thoughtfully isn't rocket science but it takes sincerity and genuine effort. Adding that personal touch - and not merely propagating the 'line to take' - is essential. Of course, being open makes it easier to attract bad press - it comes with the territory.

Or perhaps the chief executive's office should take a leaf out of lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee's Facebook page. The time, care and attention she attaches to managing her account is obvious. Not everyone is a fan, of course, but she still leads her peers in her ability to use the page to disseminate information, converse with her constituents, and even organise events.

With Facebook having recently passed its 500-million-user mark (if Facebook were a country, it would be the world's third largest), it is unlikely to be a fad. The White House's official Facebook page boasts a following of over 700,000. We won't all 'like' the chief executive's office's page, nor agree with every one of its policies or decisions, but we should encourage its efforts to be more open and direct with the public.

Just remember not to click on the 'dislike' button: it could be a virus aimed at stealing your personal information to be sold to other companies.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA