The argument that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) – by engaging “online micro-influencers” to publicise the upcoming Budget – is “keeping up with the times” is so problematic. Because social media impressions do not necessarily translate into either knowledge or action (especially when the captions are so poorly crafted), because increasing the awareness of young Singaporeans is not equivalent to the promotion of merchandise (which is what these “micro-influencers” primarily do), and because it may even mask deeper, structural reasons as to why levels of sustainable and meaningful engagement on such issues have remained persistently low.
What, in other words, explains our lethargy or apathy of policies like the Budget? Definitely not the fact that we never chanced upon a sponsored Instagram post urging us to “check out my link on my bio now”.
Long-term solutions to the problems of youth lethargy or apathy – premised upon a healthy scepticism of government policies and the belief that individuals can make a difference – lie in civic engagement, through the education system and through activities within the community. Be that as it may, for now, having already tapped on the social media “micro-influencers” in 2017 and 2018, and with the finance minister due to deliver his Budget speech in a few weeks, five short-term strategies can be considered (potentially for the future too):
1. Reach out to the same “micro-influencers” again, but encourage them to do more beyond the Instagram posts
With more than 50 “micro-influencers” involved this year – and probably dozens more from Budget 2017 – MOF could encourage them to participate in the different pre-Budget feedback avenues, or to even submit and publicise their own feedback. Conversion of social media engagement to actual involvement could provide some justification for the current campaign. Notwithstanding the imprecise and unhelpful estimate that more than 225,000 users will be “reached” on Instagram, engagement numbers should include not only the number of young Singaporeans who may be aware of the upcoming Budget, but also those who understand its implications and who are also prompted to subsequently share their perspectives.
2. Don’t overwhelm: Frame the discussion by highlighting key issues
The Budget itself can be overwhelming. For someone who wishes to find out more about how the Budget process or how the government manages its revenue and expense, the microsite does provide useful data and information, yet getting started with engagement or feedback – on key issues – is difficult, unless one is already cognisant. Highlighting key issues for the year, therefore, allows for more focused discussions. For Budget 2018, some of the more interesting focuses could include income taxes (with recent attempts to quantify and visualise Singapore’s class divide), the goods and services tax (with talk about a possible hike), and social spending (with an ageing population as well as changing social and family dynamics).
3. Let young Singaporeans set the agenda, on their economic or financial concerns
With young Singaporeans, however, more immediate economic or financial concerns may feature. A proposal to aggregate feedback from undergraduates on their job-search experience – or even beyond that, as they for instance start families, have children, and think about caring for their aged parents – is constructive and easy to implement: “One imagines a Facebook Live with the Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, who can address frank questions of the day, can be engaging“. The underlying point is for more young individuals and families to be more forthcoming with their different needs or concerns, and in doing so empower the government with actionable information. Exploratory research can help too.
4. Take the first steps towards (the exploration of) participatory budgeting
About two weeks ago 76 “citizen jurors”, who had worked for seven weeks since October 2017, presented a set of 12 recommendations to help the government’s fight against diabetes. Singapore’s very first “Citizens’ Jury” is described as an engagement model “which taps on the ideas of citizens to co-create and co-deliver new approaches to significant national issues“, and in the context of the Budget participatory budgeting is an eponymous process wherein citizens discuss and decide how a particular budget might be allocated. To be involved in the Singapore Budget in such an extensive manner from the get-go is understandably a stretch, so for a start MOF could – having set the agenda through the preceding strategies – identify key issues or ministries for discussion. Even by speaking to public servants involved in the budgeting process, young Singaporeans would stand to gain.
Such a process, furthermore, is reminiscent of the well-intended “Our Singapore Conversation” project between 2013 and 2014.
5. Document these exchanges in an interactive fashion
Those most likely to be receptive to strategies two to four are likely to be self-motivated and hence have records of past involvement – for example through conventional dialogue sessions or even self-initiated projects – so finding more innovative and interactive ways to specify issues of focus, to set the agenda, and to start some form of participatory budgeting, especially through social media, could draw in fresh participants. In this vein, and in response to the perceived superficiality of the captions or calls to action in the Instagram posts, the “micro-infuencers” mentioned in the first strategy can use such documentation to bridge the attention and action gaps more effectively.