Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Government Adopts Facebook - a Step Too Far?

I had an interesting meeting with a group of policy makers and a press officer from Northern Ireland’s Department for Employment and Learning (DELNI) last month. I have been talking to the team there for a couple of months about their pilot to become the first Government Department to have a Facebook presence.

With the creation of the new brand pages on Facebook, this creates a great opportunity for larger organisations to appeal to a key demographic group in their own backyard. The challenge, as discussed in my previous blog here, is to do this without driving away the very people you want to attract, or sit with few ‘fans’, like the friendless geek at a party.

The guys at DELNI want to attract back to Northern Ireland people who may have left in their teens to study in Scottish and English universities and who have never returned. They are also keen to encourage other people to look to Northern Ireland as a land of opportunity. They want to paint a rosy picture of the country as a place of opportunity and a lively social scene.

But is it a step too far for a Government department to expect to become popular on Facebook? There are already concerns that the way businesses, and older people, have embraced Facebook will lead to younger people finding new places to play. If we start to see The Inland Revenue, The Ministry of Defence and The Home Office in the playground, what effect will that have?

Interestingly, the age group that DELNI want to attract are older than Facebook’s original demographic, having already left university and settled into permanent employment. They are far more likely to be in their mid-20s and older.

The first challenge I put to them was how to make the page viral. If they are going to spread the word and attract fans, people need to feel proud of the association and happy to shout their involvement from the rooftops. I am delighted to see that, since we met, they have changed the name of the page from ‘Department for Employment and Learning’ to a much more simple, ‘Northern Ireland’. After all, who wants to tell their friends that they are a 'fan' of the Department for Employment and Learning?!

The next area to focus on is the content and it will be interesting to track their success in this area. The page will not thrive if the content is posted by the civil servants behind the campaign; it needs to be user driven. Facebook becomes viral when people’s friends see that they have posted content elsewhere on the site. If all of the comments and threads are posted by DELNI and not by their fans, it is merely an information portal and not a social network.

So, is this a step too far? Or an encouraging sign of Government responding to changes in communication and being creative in their approach to reaching their target market?


  1. The problem with social networking (in my view) is the odd kind of ‘polarisation’ it creates. You’re either ‘for it’ and ‘against it’ in so far as you either ‘do it’ or you ‘don’t do it’ with nowhere in between.

    It’s clear that both Govt and business (broadly speaking) are more ‘for it’ than ‘against it’ in that they both believe that they’ve no alternative but to engage with it.

    The result is the apparent absurdity of Government on facebook. The only reason it appears grotesque is because youngsters think that Facebook is a youth culture ‘choice’ when in fact it’s a techologically-deterministic ‘given’ for our culture with few, if any, serious detractors.

  2. My country (Portugal - south Europe) has embraced this social networking phenomena. HI5 ( is the leading social networking site and has received an increasing importance by companies (Fanta the first company to join HI5 in Portugal) and other entities. A few counties, cities, local communities and civic movements have joined the network.
    During the following years, we will see a lot more joining in. The Barack Obama and Hlillary Clinton’s appearance in Facebook have put the world’s attention on this social networks. The US discussion is more advanced on these matters and have taken in consideration several analysis.
    Some thoughts about social networking sites outline the negative perspectives for a more institucionalized approach to this networks from other private and public entities.

    View the complete post here:

  3. Andy,

    I'm very interested to see how this progresses.

    Thanks for giving me a heads up about this.

    I very much agree with your comment on content. I like the energy that they have in wanting to e the first Government entity with a Facebook presence yet you are very correct - if they don't have user driven content - it could just end up being an "ego page" and not net them the results or connections they are seeking.

    Let's watch and see...
    Maria Elena Duron

  4. Isn't this the sign of the beginning of the end for Facebook? When Government departments start embracing things as a good idea they are usually years behind the curve. I remember when I suggested that a major Department of State should start its own Wiki for knowledge sharing, I was amazed at the barrage of blank faces I received at the prospect.


  5. I think a Facebook presence is a fantastic idea. Here in Edinburgh the vast majority of university students and also many lecturers and professors are on Facebook. Graduates in a range of jobs, e.g., IT, are very well represented on Facebook, so it's an excellent way to communicate with the kinds of people Northern Ireland wants to attract.

    And surely it's not expensive to be on Facebook. Free? Takes less time to update than does updating a web page. Self-advertising (people join the group, which is then advertised to their friends, who then join the group...). So it's a very cost effective way to communicate.