Can social networks help governments provide social services? Digital communities may be able to offer what bureaucrats can’t—from moral support and firsthand experience to a stronger civil society. “We are seeing a transformation of the public sector,” says Albert Jacob Meijer, an associate professor of public administration and policy sciences at the Utrecht School of Governance. “Governments tend to think that when it comes to information about public services, they are the ones that should be providing it to citizens, whereas I’ve found that citizens in certain situations are perfectly capable of exchanging this information themselves.”

In two online forums related to unemployment and disability benefits in the Netherlands, Meijer looked at ways technology empowers beneficiaries to co-create the services they use. “When people need information about certain public services, they ask their neighbors or their friends. The interesting thing about the information age is that now citizens are capable of organizing these communities at a much larger scale,” he says.

The advice users offered each other was generally high quality and valuable. In the case of the forum run by the Dutch Agency for Unemployment Benefits, government workers also vetted it. People felt free to ask dangerous questions anonymously—such as “If I’ve been working a little on the side, is that a problem?”—and they got answers quickly.

A more social function of the forum also emerged. “Unemployed people sometimes feel isolated,” Meijer says. “They feel that they cannot discuss their problems with their friends or families.” In sharing their experiences online, members provided each other with information and emotional support.

That kind of intimacy is not in the job description of bureaucrats. “They’re interested in ticking their box or getting their procedure done,” says Charles Leadbeater, co-founder of the social design agency Participle. But losing a job or a limb is not only “a process in an administrative system; it’s a huge life event.” The Dutch forums “focus our attention on a quite important shift,” Meijer says, “the shift from government steering public services and directing communication with society to citizens being capable of setting up their own communication networks.” This push toward what Leadbeater calls the “user-generated state” could relieve pressure on overworked and underfunded administrative systems, while allowing people to make meaningful change in their communities.

Government “should really take care of the more vulnerable groups in society, but at the same time it’s also important to empower these vulnerable groups and not keep them dependent on government,” Meijer says. “I think these new [online] forms of interaction could be quite important in that respect.”

Albert Jacob Meijer, “Networked Coproduction of Public Services in Virtual Communities: From a Government-Centric to a Community Approach to Public Service Support,” Public Administration Review, 71, 2011.

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