Today I’m at the Public Sector Forums web 2.0 conference in Manchester.
Conference picture
First up was Mike Saunt from Astun Technologies – setting the scene for the day with his thoughts on social media in public sector use. Early on Mike questioned whether people would want to follow council news on Twitter – it’s a fair question, but my take is that so far 272 people are following @medway_council on Twitter – it won’t be everyone’s desired way of hearing from their council, but if it reaches people who may not traditionally have received information from a council then it’s a good idea, especially as the barriers to entry for a basic news Twitter feed are quite low.
Mike’s presentation highlighted some examples of social media in use today:

  • – a good service for the end users, but Mike challenged the audience to think about the impact of a third party controlling the customer interaction
  • The much discussed FixMyStreet – again a third party service that’s providing a customer service interface between a council and its residents
  • Mashing up BBC Travel News live with Google Maps – via a bit of scripting to create traffic news maps
  • Cleveland Police – providing location based information, albeit not tagged with standards-compliant location data

Mike also had a useful example of how introducing location-specific information on a website (for waste and recycling) actually reduced inbound phone calls by around 1000 calls per month – a really good example of how effective use of the web can reduce avoidable contact (NI14).
Mike’s presentation concluded with a call to action for local authorities to free up their data, providing open and appropriately tagged RSS feeds, so that community can make the most of data in ways that suit them, rather than on the council’s terms.
Second up was Simon Smith from CMS suppliers GOSS Interactive.
Simon talked about how people’s expectations of how they receive information are changing, and that means we need to think about integrating these tools into what councils do on the web.
Simon also suggested that people don’t want to come to council websites to do stuff (which I’d argue with to an extent), which suggests councils need to get out there interacting where the people are already (which I’d agree with wholeheartedly).
The question of accessibility on third party social media sites like YouTube and Flickr is also worth considering – the public sector must make its content accessible to all, yet using social media sites alone doesn’t fulfill that obligation.
The value of RSS also formed part of Simon’s talk – along with being prepared for that data to be reused, possibly in ways that the council may not have originally envisaged. For me that’s an important point: opening up access to data isn’t just about providing feeds for everything, it’s about preparing the organisation culturally for a new level and speed of scrutiny from people who haven’t traditionally been empowered to scrutinise public sector activities – something that was traditionally the domain of mainstream media.
GOSS was also behind the website, which features extensive user customisation opportunities – something I’ve questioned the value of before. Simon was honest enough to admit no-one knows if it’ll work or not, but in his view it’s an approach worth trying. For the record, I’m not convinced about the value of widgety, customisable council homepages – because I think most council website users are probably very task focussed and visit fairly infrequently – so we should focus on making it easy to find the right information and conduct transactions online rather than letting people customise their own homepage.