Local government and social media – the big questions

Local government and social media – the big questions

The IDeA‘s Ingrid Koehler has an interesting post on her blog asking about local government and social media.

Here are my thoughts and responses to add to the conversation:

What are the greatest areas of potential benefit in councils using social media?

While there are many roles social media can play in improving council services, I come at this from a communicator’s point of view.

To that end I think the benefits of social media to local government marketing and public relations are:

  • reaching a broader range of publics than the “traditional” council communications mix
  • moving towards a more genuine two-way dialogue with council publics, instead of a reliance on the outdated broadcast model of communications
  • effective networking with peers – council officers face similar (but not necessarily the same) challenges nationwide. Sharing knowledge and skills between practitioners is important – in the past this has typically meant conferences, email groups and local face-to-face forums. Social media explores the potential for this and increases the pace and breadth of innovation coming from effectively shared information (more info on networking for council communicators on a previous post here).

How can councils support local communities and individuals in becoming digitally enabled and empowered?

As a starting point I think councils still need to continue to provide digital access for those that, for whatever reason, don’t have a computer and internet access themselves. Alongside that councils need to play a role in providing education and skills training for people to equip them with a level of digital literacy to use the internet effectively.

Beyond that, it’s important that councils provide up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive service information and data on their websites and beyond through open data feeds. It’s also important that councils provide transactional capabilities on their websites – and that means usable, accessible services that are easy to use for the majority of residents – contributing to the delivery of the “unavoidable contact” national indicator as well as reducing transaction costs compared to other channels.

Thinking about communications, it’s important that councils deploy new media (note not just social media) carefully as part of an integrated mix of communications techniques – by providing information in this way they will drive more general adoption and usage of digital tools, particularly among those residents where trust may be barrier to broader use. I believe the .gov.uk domain suffix has a role to play in demonstrating a site/service that can be trusted – although this positioning carries some responsibilities too.

How can local and hyper-local social networks increase community cohesion and empowerment?

I see this as being a case where digital social networks can enhance existing “in the flesh” networks that already exist in neighbourhoods – extending the reach of these and making them more active than face to face interaction alone allows.

There’s also the potential for the creation of new networks – demonstrated by the emergence of local networks like those discussed here. This is where it gets really exciting as we’ll start to see new groupings in society that will rapidly start to demand a role in how places are shaped – online activity like this makes this happen much more rapidly and effectively than could happen without the digital connections that social networks bring. These networks have the potential to encompass people that are excluded from the traditional council circles of influence and discourse.

The challenge for local government is to be aware of the groups in the digital landscape to the same degree as they’re aware of traditional power groupings in their area and understand the different “rules of engagement” for these group.

How can councillors develop their leadership and communication skills using social media?

I sense a real demand from councillors in many areas now to understand more about social media. There’s clearly a recognition that councillors need to know more about social media, coming in part I suspect from the Obama campaign in the US.

I think councillors can develop their skills using social media through listening to existing social media conversations and then, once they’re comfortable with the way it works, engaging either through commenting on other people’s content or creating content themselves.

I think there’s also a need for awareness of risk – helping councillors understand the power of social media extends to negative messages as well as positive messages, and considering the role of social media as a source for traditional media.

How can councils create the space for community conversations without overpowering them?

I don’t see this as being about creating “space” in the sense of a dedicated space for conversations – be it a website, wiki, blog or the like. I think councils need to engage with residents on their terms – so choosing a tool bearing in mind the audience and objectives for the project.

However I think what’s equally important is engaging with residents “on their patch” in social media – having the mechanisms in place to monitor online conversations that relate to a council and be prepared and able to participate in those conversations in an appropriate way. While on the surface that may seem simple, in practice it demands an organisational awareness of how social media is changing communications and a responsive and skilled communications team to make it happen.

How can social media be used for more effective social marketing encouraging the behaviour change necessary to achieve complex outcomes?

As part of an integrated approach – social marketing demands a complex mix of activities depending on the campaign objectives and social media is just one of those tools.

What’s the “next practice” in social media, including virtual worlds and more?

I find this a hard question to answer, as “next practice” in social media in local government is probably about more adoption of the tools that are out there now, just as ten years ago organisations were grappling with the introduction of a new tool called email.

Looking beyond this I think the importance of providing data in open, accessible and flexible ways will be important for government (local and central) to make sure that government is able to be an active participant in a future internet (whatever that brings!).

You can also see Stuart Bruce’s perspective on this here (particularly interesting as he comes at it from two angles: as a professional communicator and a former elected member of a council).


I work with technology-centric businesses as an interim Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for scaling technology businesses and I write a newsletter called Build for leaders who are building brilliant companies.