Local authorities and social media – the future

SimonGeneral

This is the second of a three part series of posts looking at use of social media in local government communications in 2008. First post is here. More tomorrow.

A proportion of local authorities are using a range of social media in their communications, although the numbers using such tools regularly are small. There’s also an appetite among a larger number of local authorities to use the most popular social media tools in their communications within the next six months.

That said, there is a significant proportion of local authorities that have no plan to use social media tools in their communications mix. This proportion is greatest when considering social media tools beyond blogs and podcasts. It ranges from 42.1% (video sharing and social networks) to 78.9% (virtual worlds).

Communicators that don’t use social media tools personally are much less likely to use social media tools in their work than those that do use them personally. There is also a correlation between a communicator’s age and their personal use of social media tools, meaning that councils with older communicators are less likely to be using social media than those with younger communicators.

However there isn’t a strong correlation between level of personal use of social media tools as a whole and level of professional use within a council communications mix. This implies that there are other reasons why social media is not used beyond personal familiarity with the tool.

Using an appropriate tool for a campaign’s objectives and one that is used by a campaign’s target audience ranked highly as factors in channel choice for campaigns.

This could account for a proportion of the non-use among councils, especially due to some of the relatively distinct demographic groups using certain types of social media tool. However this argument doesn’t sit as comfortably with the fact that most councils have a duty to communicate with a variety of different publics, a number of which will be those that do have high levels of social media usage.

That means there are therefore a significant number of councils with a responsibility to communicate with social media-using publics that are not using social media tools in their campaigns.

The research suggests a number of other challenges exist for communicators wishing to use social media in their communications. The most commonly cited barrier to use of social media was the lack of support from ICT teams within councils. This was due to factors including a lack of technical knowledge of the tools being considered, apathy and, in some cases, active blocking of social media tools through firewall policies.

The majority of communicators surveyed considered reputational risk from critical coverage/responses as an important factor in chosing which communications channels they used. It could be argued that this concern about critical coverage, probably linked in part to the political nature of the local government environment, is a challenge for local authorities wishing to use social media tools.

Social media tools reduce or eliminate the ability of councils to influence coverage of their organisation’s message. Considering traditional media relations with mainstream media outlets, the perception of control within councils is probably greater than the actual control that a council can exert.

However the use of social media requires a much more significant shift in organisational attitude to allow councils to give up this perception of message control and use social media to engage in conversations with publics. These conversations may well be difficult in terms of relationship with council policy, subject matter or tone.

While some of these risks can be mitigated through clear “rules of engagement” for social media participations and moderation, they don’t fundamentally change the shift in organisational attitude that is required.

The broader picture

The context for local government communications in the UK is changing.

The 1999 Local Government Act gave councils a duty to consult with publics on matters of policy.

There is also a clearly recognised link between councils that are effective in communications with publics and those that are highly rated by their residents. This alone presents opportunities for councils to use social media to enhance existing consultation and communications activities.

Thanks to the Lyons review, the concept of place shaping at the heart of the future for local government. Place shaping is at the heart of the new local area agreements and other assessment frameworks for local government.

Place shaping is about how “local government can work with residents to develop and deliver high-quality public services that meet the needs and preferences of local people”.

Social media tools would appear to be very suitable for local government and its partners to engage in two-way dialogue with local publics about place and the impact on public services.

The online participatory nature of such tools is likely to extend the range of such communications beyond members of publics that will typically attend public meetings and engage with other commonly used local government consultation techniques.

However it’s also worth noting the concept of digital exclusion. Councils have a duty to engage with publics that will include members that do not have access to online services such as social media.

While councils have sought to reduce the impact of this through provision of free online access, for example in libraries, this divide still exists. This means digital exclusion must be considered when using social media as part of the communications mix.

In July 2008 central government published the “Communities in control: real people, real power” white paper. This wide-ranging white paper seeks to enhance the ability of communities to influence the delivery of local services more strongly and, in turn, strengthen local democracy by increasing participation.

It aims to “help citizens to get involved when they want to on their own terms”. I believe this policy agenda will further increase the importance of social media tools as a means to engage with a broader range of publics using social media tools that they are familiar with and active users of.

This is the second of a three part series of posts looking at use of social media in local government communications in 2008. First post is here. Tomorrow I’ll be identifying four roles for social media in local government communications.