I don’t normally write on the subject of web-based social networks because I don’t really claim to know much and it’s a tool not an outcome. However the last week or so has seen me reviewing the subject of local government’s relationship with the internet and social media for a talk (1). Some of the themes and issues it raised seemed to strike a chord with those present, so I thought I would give them a wider airing here.
Given the challenges that local government faces, social media used effectively could be an extremely important tool for improvement because they should help councils and community leaders interact with the public. They should also help citizens to avoid having to make use of many costly public services because they have information about how to access alternatives or work with providers to help themselves. Finally they should help the public to hold councils to account because of the availability of information.
This should be through customer engagement through transactional activities, user enablement through promotional materials and public transparency through information provision. However it is hard to see much evidence of this in real terms in many local government applications of social media technologies. We have just about managed to get our web sites to be on ‘send’ rather than as passive posters of information and we are far from being good at conversation with our public. Our services have yet to address personalisation across the business and we have yet to develop robust mechanisms for establishing the resource requirements for R&D in this area, let alone the resources needed for this aspect of the business going forward.
With high levels of internet access in some parts of the country we should be working harder at this. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 87% of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire households have internet access (Average 77% nationally), with 57% of the population having access to some form of social networking tool. With such a saturation of use, it must be possible to bridge what some call the digital divide with neighbourhood and community schemes to counter digital isolation and encourage enablement so that this can become the service access channel of choice for the sector. However we will have to be much better at listening as well as despatching information through digital channels and think hard about our councillors and staff and their development needs and ability to respond to these significant changes.
In many areas, there are community social networking resources which have overtaken council’s websites as the source of choice for news and gossip about what’s going on. The digitally enabled community want news and RSS feeds, responsive Twitter feeds and email subscriptions, and easy access to information. As a sector we are being left behind and will need to think hard about how we link into established networks.
Councillors in particular are polarising between those who are fully digitally enabled and using social media to have a public presence out of all proportion to the effort that such a profile would once have taken, and those who rely on the oldest methods of contact with their residents and risk being completely unresponsive and out of touch. Local government needs to think hard about how it responds to this, and political parties need to review how they develop candidates expectations of how to engage with citizens for the future.
Our staff are equally polarised, and there is a developing network of individuals who are widely connected through Twitter and blogs and increasingly popular and free ‘unconferences’ (2) who are giving this a lot of thought. The problem is that most senior managers are completely unaware that such thinking is going on and will initially struggle to understand it. Furthermore, whilst there are some great ideas coming forward they are developed outside of the political and strategic spheres and will require much further work to realise their potential.
There is some helpful guidance available however, and I have found the following to be extremely useful. Future Gov is a UK based think tank which has some great insights. For more general discussion on public sector social networking the Gartner foundation has some useful analysts and in particular Andrea DiMaio, who blogs regularly. He in turn assessed the material produced by the New Zealand Government as being extremely good, and I would agree. Follow this link for more details.
As I was writing up my presentation, I knew that there was a scrutiny committee going on at work. Sometimes I have watched from home on the webcast, where the papers are also available, but on this occasion I resisted the temptation. However I did have Twitter running and watched the posts coming up from one of our councillors on the questions he was about to ask. The meeting was holding another quasi-public agency, a rail company, to account for recent serious service problems. At the centre of part of the discussion was the lack of information that their staff have and can give, compared to the up to the minute information that their customers have on smartphones.
There is clearly no going back and the future development of social network use by public services is a key strategic issue. Accordingly in my talk I felt I could not provide many answers, but closed, as I do now, with these questions:
(1) I was asked to speak to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and senior managers (SOLACE) Eastern Region meeting. The subject I was given was the Networked Councils section of last year’s SOLACE Communique, which was a pithy description of the SOLACE offer to the local government world. Many thanks to those present for their thoughts.