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UK: Social Media is Key for Engagement Between Councils and Residents
Source: guardian.co.uk
Source Date: Monday, November 29, 2010
Focus: E-Education
Country: Europe
Created: Nov 29, 2010

Local government faces greater scrutiny than ever before and communications departments must do everything they can to maximise their ability to keep residents informed.

Local government press departments now face greater scrutiny than ever as they attempt to ensure residents are well-informed about the effects of recently announced cuts with reduced resources and personnel. With experts predicting that council comms teams could be slashed by a third over the next three years while facing ever bigger challenges, they need to do something different in order to show their value.

Communication teams know that they have a vital role to play in explaining what councils are doing in terms of delivering efficiencies and making changes to services as well as involving residents in decision making. "Our role is to put a local context around the national picture" said Simon Jones, head of communications for Hammersmith and Fulham borough council. "People understand that council's face tough spending decisions, but we need to be clear about what exactly this means locally and what the priorities are in moving forward."

The last thing that council comms teams need is residents thinking that they are a waste of money so they need to adapt their current strategy to make it clear they're providing better value for money than ever before. To that end, North Lincolnshire council and Tower Hamlets council recently announced plans to cut their printed publications after Eric Pickles launched an attack on council freesheets and newsletters and their cost to citizens.

"There is a danger that local government communications teams could be seen as a luxury so it us up to us to prove our worth" said David Holdstock, head of corporate communications at Hillingdon council and chair of LG Communications, an association of council authority members that works to drive excellence in local government communications, "public sector communicators have to deliver efficient, cost-effective communications in a way that is appropriate for their residents."

Proving your worth
But how do communications managers go about doing this and, more importantly, making the most of their limited resources? The recent Local by Social online conference brought together 1,100 experts from 193 councils across the UK to discuss this issue, and the potential social media and open data had to solve the problem.

What came out of the conference was a feeling that social media could be an excellent way of forging a relationship with residents, whilst doing away with the overheads that come with assembling printed publications. Many councils already have Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (a study by Socitm reported in February this year that 154 have Twitter and 78 Facebook pages) but few use them as effectively as they should, too often using them to "push out" information rather than participate in the conversation or responding to feedback about council services.

"Social media doesn't necessarily mean that councils have to create fancy Facebook pages that nobody will read" said Jones, whose council team won a local government reputation award for value for money in 2009. "We need to better understand how our audiences are already engaging using social media and engage on their terms, not ours."

Social media success
It's not an enviable task but some council's have proven it is possible to engage with residents. One example of a successful social media project is Shape Your Place, a website set up by Cambridgeshire county council to improve community cohesion with the Fenland town of Wisbech and the surrounding area. The site, developed in 2009, allows residents to raise issues which a member of the local council, police or fire service will respond to within 10 days. "In essence it's another tool or channel to help determine local priorities and encourage actions to address those priorities." said Michelle Ide-Smith, the council's web strategy manager who set up the site, on the Local by Social forum.

But, whilst social media like Twitter and projects like Shape Your Place are a valuable resource, its impact should not be over-estimated. "We use social media a lot with our young people" said Steve Beynon, chief executive for the Isle of Wight Council, "but a recent survey showed that the majority of our residents do not habitually use it. We must target our resources to serve media that is known to be widely used and trusted rather than the media that is simply 'fashionable'."

Open data
Another way to connect with residents is open data resources, where sets of information are made freely accessible for residents to access at their own leisure. Although the extent to which councils have used open data so far is varied, there are examples where councils have had success. Kent county council's Pic and Mix project has proven to be a good example of a "mash-up" open data source, whereby users can access web-based information to their own ends and create data that is most relevant to them.

"I think that transparency will help to capture the imagination of some residents who may not have previously engaged with local government" said Holdstock, whose council, Hillingdon, already have a healthy data store complete with up-to-date information on council expenditure and the whereabouts of CCTV cameras. "It also demonstrates a commitment to transparency and shown how we are spending taxpayer's money." Once a provision has been put in place to make data comparable across councils, the possibilities for transparency are unparalleled.

Engaging citizens could be the push that local authorities need to embrace social media. If communications teams can show both financial and social value then the rest of local government will just to have to accept that they're moving into the 21st century. Like it, or not.


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