Securing buy-in from citizens to new and potentially unpopular moves is a challenge faced by public sector agencies across the world. Social media-style consultation can help gauge public sentiment and boost acceptance of new public sector initiatives, says IBM South Africa.

Speaking after discussions coming out of GovTech 2013, IBM South Africa Sales Lead Hamilton Ratshefola says the public sector can harness the power and reach of the Internet to engage with citizens in numerous ways. Not only can this engagement enhance acceptance of new initiatives, it can also help shape the direction of new projects, ensuring that they meet real public needs.

“Thanks to the high level of mobile penetration in South Africa, and the widespread adoption of mainstream social media platforms by South Africans, social media-style platforms now present a well-accepted and cost-effective way for the public sector to engage on a personal level with millions of individuals across the country,” says Ratshefola.

A good example of the use of online consultation and collaboration platforms by the public sector is the Jam Session staged in 2011 by the National Planning Commission within the Office of the Presidency, when it tabled its first public documents setting out key challenges in fighting poverty and inequality.

An IBM Jam is a guided, real-time online discussion with potentially tens of thousands of people, initially developed by IBM for internal brainstorming. The NPC Secretariat, working with IBM, hosted its own 72-hour Jam session inviting public comment.

The session was a resounding success, with over 10,400 logins and over 8,900 individual posts made. Described as the biggest online dialogue ever held in Africa, the Jam not only allowed the NPC to analyse public opinion, it also allowed for the identification of the areas the public was most concerned about.

Ten discussion forums were included in the Jam, with the highest participation occurring in the areas dedicated to education and training, the economy and jobs.

The power of online interaction with citizens was also illustrated in a campaign held earlier this year, when IBM launched a website and released an Android crowdsourcing app, Water Watchers, that encouraged South Africans to report leaks, faulty water pipes and problems with their local waterways. The 6-week campaign generated positive social sentiment, with 745,396 hits on its website and 147 reports and/or service requests.

The uses for crowd sourced information and large-scale online consultation are unlimited, says Ratshefola. The resulting data can be used to empower citizens, build political capital, ensure service delivery that meets communities’ needs and predict changes and future needs. The process also allows the public sector to base its decision-making on more accurate data and up-to-date needs analysis, he says.