Thursday, February 17, 2011

“Strike 2.0” in Israel Foreign Service: another opportunity to upgrade Open Government?

One month ago we have experienced in Israel something very unusual – the strike of the Israel Diplomatic service. Diplomats rarely go to strike, as diplomacy is considered an important element of the national security. But this time diplomats protested against the deterioration of their working conditions in the last 15 years, and there was a high level of mobilization among them. The diplomats felt that while praising their difficult work, the government did nothing to provide them with fair salaries. As much as unusual diplomats’ strike could be, after all it was a working dispute in the public sector, which happens often in Israel.

Facebook page of the diplomats' strike' called "Save the Diplomatic Service"

However, what was really unusual, and in my eyes  even amazing - both as a participant in this strike and the firm believer in Gov 2.0 - was the use of social media by diplomats in order to mobilize public support for our struggle.  The public and media support were essential for the success of this struggle, because diplomats didn’t have meaningful leverage on the government or the public: they can’t stop the functioning of the economy, or impact the everyday life of the ordinary citizens. The impact of diplomats’ strike is very limited and could happen only in the long term. That’s why the public support for their demand was so critical.
But why should the public support the diplomats? After all, diplomatic service is considered as a prestigious and exclusive club and has always had an image mixing mystery, luxury and dolce vita. Israelis of course, are no exception and have the same image of diplomacy and diplomats. So why should the public support this struggle? From the very first days of the strike this question was asked by many people in the Facebook, which is very the most popular social network  in Israel, more than Twitter or LinkedIn)

It’s so popular, that more than 50% of the Foreign Ministry employees have their personal accounts in Facebook. That’s why when people started to ask questions about our strike, we started to answer them in Facebook. And then, somebody wrote in the discussion I took part: Why diplomats won’t open their support page on Facebook? I immediately sent this proposition to the strikers’ committee, and on the very next day the new page was already there.

This page allowed us to have direct access to all the news related to the strike. It allowed us to explain why we think our struggle was just and why it’s not us, but the Ministry of Finance and the Prime Minister who were responsible for this situation. Diplomats showed in Internet  their salary checks, explained conditions of their life abroad, and also diffused through  Youtube videos  that explained this point. The Facebook page  also allowed citizens to come to our page and ask us questions and express their opinion on the strike.
Diplomats also used the traditional media and many of us sent articles to the central newspapers where we explained why we have no other choice but to strike. We diffuse these articles  in Facebook.  We also participated in the two biggest internet forums in Israel: Y-net and Haaretz and made sure that  our messages werepresent  there as well.

Our media action was only part of the effort.  Many official visits to Israel or by Israeli ministers abroad were cancelled because of the strike. We of course diffused reports on these events with the help of social media.
As a result of this outreach, the citizens started to express their understanding of our demand. The traditional media expressed its support as well. The Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Finance were hold responsible for this situation - and after 35 days of strike the government accepted most of our demands.

What are my conclusions from this amazing social media encounter between the public and the public sector?

First, many public servants are already using Facebook for their personal purposes. They get familiar with its logic and functions.

Second, public sector employees can ask for public support when in need. And if the demands are seen as reasonable, the public support can become crucial.

Third, in order to be convinced, citizens should get more understanding about the public sector. The public sector should be demystified, should become more open and transparent.

Fourth, if this is not Gov 2.0, I don’t know what is. There was a real exchange of opinions, views, ideas and information in all the social media venues. Not a semi-automatic diffusion of messages one-way to the public, but an EXCHANGE.  Diplomats, as well as other public employees ,should multiply these encounters and learn to be more open, more responsive, and, yes, more responsible. I think this kind of encounter is the real way to build an Open Governmentl. And not the “revelations” of Wikileaks, with all due respect …

And finally, for us, diplomats, it was a closed encounter of the third kind with our own public… Because, usually, diplomats work  vis-à-vis foreign audiences when they have to  explain Israel’s policies. This time we had to explain things to our own public. And in fact, it was not that bad…

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