Private enterprises commonly use various instruments aimed to attract knowledge of external stakeholders in order to increase the participation of the latter in enterprises’ decision making and, thus, foster product and service innovation. However, the use of open innovation tools is beneficial for public organizations as well. The main goals of the participatory approach to public administration are the improvement of the administrative system, development of meaningful relationships with citizens, and enhancement of capacities to meet their needs (Schmidthuber, et al., 2019). It means that by utilizing information contributed by external stakeholders, public organizations may alter their internal processes in a way that leads to positive social and public outcomes.
For a significant time, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) strived to promote openness within its public sector. The country has introduced an e-government system to increase customers’ accessibility to government services, improve those services, and add transparency and accountability (Al Shamsi, et al., 2018). Overall, the creation of e-government is in line with the increasing technology adoption trends among the members of the UAE population, but there is a need to employ more advanced communication tools to stimulate the government’s progress and be able to satisfy citizens’ interests with greater effectiveness.
It is valid to say that the use of social media as part of a participatory approach to public administration is promising in this regard since interactivity and user empowerment are among the core features of social media. Therefore, they provide a plethora of opportunities for the establishment of more trustful dialogues and relationships with citizens.
Research Goals and Questions
While the UAE has made tangible progress with regards to the openness of public sector, the actual results of the e-government initiatives have yet to be comprehensively evaluated. Therefore, at this point, it is essential that the evidence of the recent technology integration be gathered and thoroughly analyzed. Drawing on the aforementioned goals, the present research seeks to answer the following questions:
- What current evidence on the application of social media in public administration is there in the United Arab Emirates?
- What are the major advantages and disadvantages related to this practice in the UAE?
- Based on the evaluation of the evidence on social media use by the UAE government, to what extent is technology integrated in the local e-government system?
Public Participation and e-Participation in Governance
Definition of Public Participation
One of the main responsibilities of international governments is to respect the interests and needs of the general public. Therefore, public participation in governance is of significant importance since it ensures the openness of authorities to citizens’ voices and feedback. Public participation is defined as an essential tool for the development of a more democratic culture in society (Jamil, 2018). As stated by Jamil (2018), the main objectives of public participation include the promotion of social justice and inclusion in policy-making, the development of knowledge about the matters of common concern, and the enhancement of the decision-making process through the formulation of more informed solutions.
Thus, public engagement is advantageous since it allows authorities to take into account the opinions of diverse population groups, including those whose representation in governmental institutions may be limited. Besides, researchers distinguish such benefits of citizens’ participation as the increased public trust and interest in policy and community development matters (Jamil, 2018; Wang & Van Wart, 2007). In this way, improved information exchange between citizens and the government may lead to overall better governance outcomes.
Definition of e-Participation
Decades ago, public engagement was facilitated merely through traditional media, including magazines, radio, and television. However, modern information technologies are associated with better access to information and participation and allow the establishment of online political discourses supported by interactive and democratic processes (Jamil 2018; Zolotov, et al., 2018; Zhao, et al., 2017; Charalabidis & Loukis, 2012; Mukhtarov, et al., 2018).
For this reason, the concept of e-participation is now one of the central themes in research on governance quality and public administration. Citing the United Nations, Zolotov, et al. (2018) defined e-participation as “the process of engaging citizens through ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies] in policy and decision-making in order to make public administration participatory, inclusive, collaborative and deliberative for intrinsic and instrumental ends” (p. 351). It is valid to say that with the rising penetration and worldwide use of various ITCs, the governments may significantly increase public engagement rates by creating various e-participation channels and, therefore, consolidate the chances for the betterment of policy and decision making.
The Roles of Social Media in e-Participation
Social media are a part of the Web 2.0 movement. As stated by Karakiza (2015), the main features of Web 2.0 are “Transparency, Honesty, Trust and Reputation,” and unlike Web 1.0 that is embraces more static online media, such as websites, it is characterized by greater interactivity and involvement of users in the generation of new content (p. 387). As for social media, they are defined as online applications that allow the creation of new content by users and its dissemination (Karakiza, 2015).
They can be either expressive or collaborative; the former type implies self-expression through various means, including text and photographs, whereas the second type is linked to the sharing of knowledge and mobilization of resources needed to attain certain common goals (Karakiza, 2015). Besides that, new media foster greater visibility and accessibility of relevant information to users from diverse backgrounds (Jamil, 2018). Thus, it is possible to say that the employment of collaborative social media can provide governments with substantial advantages since they allow a mutual exchange of information and, thus, may result in the strengthening of public engagement.
Evidence on the Effects of Social Media Use in the Public Sector
The favorable impacts of social media on public engagement in politics and governance are verified in multiple studies. When examining the effects of social media on public participation in a political campaign in Pakistan, Jamil (2018) revealed that the local authorities use social media primarily to evaluate public attitudes, communicate with voters, and raise public awareness cost-effectively. Among the major effects of using such platforms as Facebook and Twitter were the improvement of citizens’ knowledge of political issues, their engagement in online discussions, and more active participation in the elections (Jamil, 2018). It means that consistently with the theory of public participation, social media allow greater public engagement in the decision-making process.
Overall, the abovementioned findings are high-quality but characterized by some limitations. Jamil (2018) obtained them by utilizing the mixed research design that involved the collection of empirical data through in-depth interviews and the analysis of statistical data gathered by using surveys. As part of the study, Jamil (2018) recruited the members of local Pakistani political parties and journalists from mainstream media (n=21) through the purposeful sampling and also surveyed 100 randomly selected university students from six different districts.
It is valid to say that the choice of the study population is associated with a risk of bias since the experiences of students cannot be generalized to the overall population. At the same time, the involvement of competent experts by using purposeful sampling was advantageous since it allowed getting information-rich answers on the topic of interest, that is, the trends of social media use in the Pakistani public sector.
Regardless of potential quality issues linked to the study results discussed above, they are supported by findings from other studies. For example, a thematic literature review of 115 research articles conducted by Dwivedi et al. (2017) indicated that Web 2.0 technologies can indeed lead to citizens’ increased participation in public administration and politics. Social media may positively impact the level of transparency and accountability and contribute to better engagement by providing efficient tools for citizen-government interactions and, thus, igniting individuals’ interest in political and policy matters (Dwivedi, et al., 2017).
The selected literature review helps to form a comprehensive picture of social media use in the public sector and to identify practical implications. However, the fact that the researchers included studies that employed insufficiently rigorous methods (including case studies and expert opinions) could decrease the validity of their findings.
It is worth noting that along with multiple beneficial effects, social media use in the public sector has several drawbacks. The results of the mixed-method study on the impacts of social media-mediated participation of citizens in the planning of a bus route in China indicated that Web 2.0 allowed to increase the efficacy of communication with the authorities, yet the engagement of diverse citizens and actors was unequal (Zhao, et al., 2017). For example, people without access to the Internet and those illiterate in terms of modern technology use were not able to participate in the discussion and, thus, certain population groups (especially elites, such as experts and professionals) had the power to impact decision making through social media to a greater extent (Zhao, et al., 2017).
The same observations were made in the studies by Dwivedi, et al. (2017) and Jamil (2018). For example, Jamil (2018) concluded that the idea about citizens’ empowerment and equal representation through social media is not true. It follows that the differences in individuals’ knowledge of technology and its possession create a significant barrier to democratic participation in public administration activities. It is valid to presume, that to eliminate this obstacle and make participation more inclusive, it is essential to ensure a high literacy rate among the members of the general population and strengthen the infrastructures.
It should be noted that social media used by governments does not present disadvantages solely for citizens. Mergel (2012) points out that by adopting an electronic initiative, the government might as well put itself in a risky, vulnerable position. The author provides an example of the US government’s attempts to build a stronger online presence and warns about potential threats. According to Mergel (2012), when it comes to non-electronic innovation, policy makers have more agency and governance over the process. In contrast to that, the Internet remains for many of them an unknown territory with no clear rules as to how to navigate it. When it comes to e-government service delivery and communication, policymakers often have to rely on external vendors with the latter being able to gain disproportionate leverage (Mergel 2012).
This surely creates an uneasy situation and jeopardizes the government’s reputation. Maintaining a good reputation online differs from traditional reputation management practices. Daugherty and Hoffman (2014) ponder the nature of the so-called electronic word-of-mouth and point out that information travels quicker once it makes it to the Internet. Any misstep made in the process of establishing an e-government is visible and may cause a societal backlash or even mistrust on citizens’ part.
Daughterty and Hoffman (2014) explain that a social media post that has not been exactly well thought-through can reach a considerably large audience. It can be saved, and reposted, which allows it to resurface even after its deletion from the original source. This leads to yet another defining feature of social media: the permanence of information. Hence, the government needs to be extremely careful when interacting with citizens through social media, which might be impeded if third parties have a part in this process.
Challenges of Establishing an E-Government and Barriers to Social Media Use in Public Sector
Building an online presence comes with its own set of challenges that need to be overcome in order to launch an efficient e-government. According to Mergel (2012) , the use of social media applications in the public sector implies much more than merely creating another communication channel. In essence, by opening itself to interactions on social media platforms, governments transform their relationships with citizens in a radical way (Mergel, 2012).
Mergel (2012) explains that normally, policy makers receive fairly limited feedback from citizens, for instance, every four years during elections. Social media interactions hinge on the premise of instant responsiveness and fast decision-making (Curran & Hesmondhalgh, 2019). This means that by entering the social media awareness stream, a government commits to certain continuous changes. Policymakers now have to process feedback faster and be more responsive because silence could be interpreted as an agreement with a problematic situation (Carroll, 2016). Effectively, by going online, a government embarks on a new stage in a relationship with citizens, which requires constant work.
Apart from heightened responsiveness, it is likely that social media users will raise their expectations with regards to transparency. Mergel (2012) argues that radical transparency that is seen by many as one of the end goals of establishing an e-government might not be exactly plausible. The first dilemma that policy makers are likely to face and are facing now is the uncertainty about where to draw the line between transparency and private interactions (Mergel 2012).
In other words, social media use may as well go as far as erasing the boundaries between political information that is supposed to be handled by a limited circle of policy makers and publicly available information. What aggravates the situation is that at present, it is becoming quite difficult to feign transparency. Mergel (2012) explains that some political activists work relentlessly on leaking private information to the public. If citizens notice that there is a discrepancy between what the government publishes and what it is actually undertaking, it will increase the mistrust.
An issue that is closely related to the demand for quick responsiveness is organizational barriers to social media use in the public sector. Both Meijer (2015) and Mergel (2012) describe the features of public institutional structures that might be not exactly compatible with technological innovations. The researchers argue that the greatest organizational barriers include bureaucratic control and top-down handling of updates. This unsurprisingly leads to communication delays because each step (writing, editing, publishing, and others) needs to be confirmed at many levels. In summation, it appears that the greatest challenges to social media use in the public sector stem from its rigidity. Because the system is rigid, it is not adaptable to changing expectations nor is it capable of maintaining the same level of responsiveness that social media users are used to.
Framework for Social Media Adoption
Given the complexity of social media adoption by the public sector, it is essential that policy makers settle on a working strategy. It will help overcome the aforementioned challenges and barriers as well as mitigate the disadvantages. Sharif, Troshani, and Davidson (2015) propose the so-called TOE framework, which stands for technology-organization-environment. The researchers explain that unsuccessful online strategies fail to heed all the elements, typically focusing on of them. What is important is to realize the role that each element plays and adjust the strategy accordingly. In the framework put forward by Sharif, Troshani, and Davidson (2015), the technological context includes a plethora of technologies analyzed from the standpoint of gains and barriers.
The organizational context helps to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and unique needs of a system. In the case of the government, one may point out resourcefulness as an apparent strength while rigidity as a weakness. The organizational context also includes the quality of the workforce and their ability to embrace and introduce innovation. Lastly, the environmental context includes external forces that shape social media adoption by an institution. This category may include the public sentiment, policies, and regulations.
As Sharif, Troshani, and Davidson (2015) explain, the framework seeks to balance social media adoption in a way that it is sustainable in the long run. For instance, when all three elements are taken into account, technologies are not merely contrasted against each other. Instead, they are chosen based on how they fit the existing procedures within an organization and comply with the higher order policies. Apart from that, a good framework helps to combat excessive rigidity through robust analysis. An institution may come to understand its weaknesses and work around them to make the internal environment more technology-friendly.
Challenges of Evaluating the Evidence on Social Media Use
A separate issue that deserves being noted is the uncertainty about how the success of e-government initiatives should be critically measured. Mergel (2013) explains that as of now, there is no reliable frameworks for evaluating and interpreting social media interactions between governments and citizens. It remains unclear as to exactly how the public sector should assess citizens’ satisfaction. Mergel (2013) argues that the methods should differ drastically for those accepted and recognized in the private sector. The researcher writes that there are two common ways of interpreting social media interactions, neither of which are completely valid.
The first one is the so-called Melitskiy four-step model that describes the evolution of a website in four stages. Based on the usefulness and impactfulness of a web platform, it can be assigned one of the four labels: static, interactive, transactional, and informative (Mergel 2013). A static platform merely provides information while an interactive one takes user experience to another level, prompting two-way communication. The transactional use of social media allows users to achieve their goals, for example, by using the services. Lastly, transformative web platforms shape social opinions and influence users at a deeper level.
Another interpretation method entails measuring input, output, and outcomes, which is often quantified for the convenience of the analysis. Mergel (2013) claims that while both methods may make sense from a logical standpoint, they still remain too detached from reality. Numbers and figures are hardly able to describe such complex concepts and phenomena as citizens’ satisfaction. Therefore, it is safe to assume that evaluating social media adoption by the public sector is still a work in progress. Governments that embark on building an online presence might need to decide for themselves how they define usefulness that goes beyond spreading information and educating citizens.
The UAE Experience
The UAE has been one of the leading countries in adopting digital technologies to enhance the efficiency and overall quality of governance. The county has established the e-government system as part of its 2011-2013 strategy aimed “to improve government services and bring them in line with the international standards” (Al Khouri, 2011, p. 25). Eight years after the initiative was launched, it seems that some of the ambitious plans of the UAE government have yet to come to fruition.
In his theoretical study that had a purpose to evaluate the effectiveness of the UAE’s e-government practices and develop a framework aimed to provide some practical implications for the improvement of the digital governance system, Al Khouri (2011) identified that by 2011 the UAE mainly used its e-government platform for information sharing (57%). Other tasks that the country’s public organizations accomplished through web-based tools are transactions or electronic delivery of certain services and documents (23%) and interactions (20%) (Al Khouri, 2011).
At the same time, such an essential stage in the use of digital governance tools as transformation, which implies “electronic delivery of services where more than one department may be involved in processing a service request or service,” was still not attained (Al Khouri, 2011). According to Al Khouri (2011), the lack of inter-agency integration within the UAE e-government is the primary barrier to the development of a more citizen-centered platform. It can be argued that besides a change in the internal e-government infrastructure, increased implementation of social media can assist the authorities in the achievement of that goal as well.
Web 2.0 technologies can contribute to the development of more customer-centered governance frameworks. They can also help the UAE public sector to expand the number of activities performed in the digital space. While the present-day e-government system in the country mainly concentrates of the delivery of services, the findings of a theoretical study by Charalabidis and Loukis (2012) indicate that besides all previously discussed positive effects of social media on governance, including democratic participation and improvement of service quality, Web 2.0 may provide multiple opportunities for innovation.
Along with this, social media can have a substantial structural and cultural impact on organizations. According to Charalabidis and Loukis (2012), social media facilitate the shift from a “monolithic government” to a citizen-centered “Government 2.0” that comprises a plethora of “governance webs” or, in other words, “digitally enabled networks of public, private and/or civil society participants, which perform activities that previously were the exclusive domain of single public agencies” (p. 81). Overall, in comparison to traditional hierarchical governance models, Government 2.0 is characterized by a more equal and wide distribution of power, leading to the development of knowledge and innovation.
The need for more widespread integration of social media and modern technologies in the UAE public sector to improve government-citizen communication and service innovation is recognized by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. In his open letter posted on Twitter, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai acknowledged that people increasingly demand to diversify the means of communication with the government (The National, 2019)).
At the same time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid noted that many governmental entities currently fail to implement modern means of communication and stated that this situation contradicts the government’s main mission of serving people (The National, 2019). These statements are in line with recent research findings indicating that the integration of social media into the UAE e-government system is still insufficient.
In an empirical study on the effectiveness of social media use by the UAE government, Darwish (2017) noted that in 2011, the authorities released guidelines for social media use by various governmental entities, yet not all the entities use social media nowadays. Besides, Darwish (2017) argued that it was not clear how do public and governmental organizations in the country utilize social media to increase citizen participation.
As a result of a comprehensive analysis of statistical data and social media use trends, the researcher revealed that the implementation of Web 2.0 in the UAE is relatively effective, but the government still applies traditional communication techniques to a larger degree (Darwish, 2017). The authorities mainly disseminate information through social media, but there is no evidence that they undertake efforts to actively engage with the public (Darwish, 2017). Overall, it means that the government uses Web 2.0 technologies as a marketing tool but not as an instrument for stakeholder empowerment.
The above mentioned study is one of the few empirical research projects dedicated to the matter of social media use within the UAE e-government system. The findings may be considered credible since Darwish (2017) employed rigorous quantitative methodology. Besides, his findings are consistent with those obtained in another high-quality study. The results of a national survey completed by Mourtada and Alkhatib (2014) demonstrate that approximately 10% of citizens utilize the governmental social media to leave feedback and communicate with the authorities, whereas the majority of respondents (78%) visit them merely in order to access necessary information.
Regardless of that, 85% of respondents in the study were convinced that the application of social media for the improvement of services and enhancement of communication between stakeholders and the authorities can be beneficial (Mourtada & Alkhatib, 2014). Therefore, the government needs to increase its capacities needed to stimulate citizens’ engagement in service design and policy-making through social media and to maximize the benefits associated with the use of Web 2.0 within the public sector.
While recent research evidence suggests that the UAE government still does not implement social media to collaborate with citizens and involve them in the decision-making process, some examples show that social media use can indeed promote the enhancement of service quality and accelerate organizational decision-making. In April 2019, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum posted a message on his Twitter account criticizing the quality of services at the UAE official postal operator, Emirates Post (Khaleej Times, 2019).
In response to the Prime Minister’s post, the service speed and quality has drastically increased in the organization along with customer satisfaction within a period of just a few months (Tesorero, 2019). The case of Emirates Post shows that the government is dedicated to the promotion of excellence and transparency among its different entities. Besides, it demonstrates that social media can be used as a powerful tool in the public sector. It may be argued that the further integration of Web 2.0 in the UAE’s e-government system can lead to substantial positive changes in terms of decision making and innovation.
It is possible to say that the UAE currently has all the necessary resources to initiate the transition to Government 2.0 framework. The social trends in terms of technology use provide a favorable outlook for the shift. As a result of a comprehensive analysis of statistics, the study on the use of social media by the UAE government by Mourtada and Alkhatib (2014) revealed that the popularity of various social media platforms is increasing in the country. For instance, as for 2014, 60.4% of the UAE population utilized Facebook, and it is observed that the number of users had increased by 200% since 2010 (Mourtada & Alkhatib, 2014). The growing penetration of social media in society can facilitate the government’s use of Web 2.0 for collaboration with citizens and stimulation of policy and social improvements.
Determinants of E-Government Success
In order to successfully realize its ambitious plans, the UAE government needs to ensure that all of the contributing positive factors are in place. In his systematic literature review, Al-Khouri (2012) analyzes the current situation in the UAE from the standpoint of the presence of pre-interactional and interactional factors. The first essential pre-interactional factor outlined by Al-Khouri (2012) is individual citizen behavioral attributes.
The researcher explains that no matter how well-developed electronic services are, they may as well fall flat if their end users, i.e. citizens, are not motivated enough to use them. At that, as explained by Al-Khouri (2012), they need to possess such personal qualities as propensity to trust, honesty, openness, and general intention to use electronic services. Drawing on the findings presented above, it seems that while more UAE citizens than ever use social media, only a small part of them is actively interacting with the e-government, which might undermine its mission and purpose.
Aside from personal qualities, there are also demographic properties that might as well be impactful with regards to how UAE citizens view the e-government. Al Athmay (2015) conducted a multifactor analysis, seeking to pinpoint how gender, age, education, and type of employment impact attitude toward electronic services. The researcher discovered that younger people were more accepting of the e-government than older citizens. Men were more in favor of the two-dimension government than women; besides, the latter were more passive in their interactions. A higher level of education positively correlated with a person’s openness to the idea of an e-government.
Lastly, individuals employed within the public sector appreciated the e-government more than those working in the private sector and students. The study by Al Athmay (2015) had its limitations such as the sample that was non-representative of certain social groups. Yet, its findings might be useful for singling out particular demographics and working with them to raise their awareness.
Another pre-interactional factor is trustworthiness that is essentially two-fold. On the one hand, citizens need to find the government trustworthy to trust the e-government equally. On the other hand, policy makers need to make conscious attempts to increase and maintain their credibility. As Salem (2007) reports, before the official launch of the e-government, UAE citizens ranked high based on the ICT (information and communication technology) acceptance and demonstrated general readiness. The government in turn maintains this trust by improving services and showing dedication to the right cause by responding to negative feedback (Tesorero, 2019). From the existing body of evidence, it appears that in the case of the UAE, the both sides of trustworthiness are sufficiently represented.
The third and the last pre-interactional factor outlined by Al-Khouri (2012) is the state of technology in a given country. An innovative transformation is not exactly plausible if a country does not have sufficient resources at hand to bring about the necessary change.
As Maceda (2018) reports, the UAE has been recently recognized as one of the most advanced digital economies in the world. As of 2018, it ranked among the top 20 worldwide and first in the Arab world, all according to the newest edition of IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking. The UAE ascended from the 18th to the 17th place, leaving Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, France, Japan, and other developed economies behind. This global recognition of the UAE accomplishments makes it safe to say that the country has enough resources for maintaining the e-government.
As for the interactional factors, Al-Khouri (2012) argues for the importance of product attributes and information contents. At present, there are very few students that would evaluate e-government services from this standpoint and that would focus on assessing the public sentiment. However, some research has been conducted by independent experts who sought to identify accessibility barriers in interacting with the e-government in the UAE.
According to Al-Mourad and Kamoun (2013), all federal sites were accessible safe for some elements that still require more thought and consideration. Al-Mourad and Kamoun (2013) report that the sites were not exactly convenient to use for users with vision impairment or those who did not have good Internet service. Namely, it was identified that the majority of sites did not have a textual description for visual elements. Apart from that, there was no static backup for animated elements, which might have been causing inconvenience for some users.
The review of the literature and the theory of public participation make it clear that the implementation of social media for the stimulation of citizens’ engagement in public administration can be advantageous. A few of the potential benefits of the practice include greater citizen-government communication efficacy, increased public awareness of various political and governance issues, improvement of services through co-design, promotion of innovation by tapping into collective knowledge.
However, while the theory suggests that social media use in the public sector may lead to citizen empowerment and democratization of the decision-making process, the available evidence did not support this statement and, on the contrary, indicated an unequal involvement of diverse individuals in the discussion of governance issues on governmental forums.
The analysis of the UAE experience also revealed that the government now mainly uses social media for communication and information sharing, but is less effective in using Web 2.0 for collaboration with stakeholders. At the current stage, there is no evidence that the governmental entities use social media to involve citizens in decision making and gather their knowledge to stimulate innovation.
However, the case of the Emirates Post shows that it is indeed possible to encourage significant improvements and organizational changes with the assistance of social media platforms. However, the UAE needs to implement a system that would allow not only recording not only the opinions of the influential political figures but also gathering public opinions in a systematic matter. Considering the scarcity of research on the effects of social media utilization within the UAE public sector, and especially their impacts on administrative decision making, there is a need to investigate this issue further and develop recommendations for the improvement of public engagement in the country.
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