Key Questions: Local Government and Social Media

What this blog post says.

Ingrid Koehler at the IDeA Srategy Unit poses seven good questions. Here are my thoughts, although they boil don’t to one key answer

Get involved and act like normal people do.

1 What are the greatest areas of potential benefit in councils using social media. These spring from the culture change which social media can help to drive, or rather requires you to adopt. Organisations which are alive to how social media can build trust, strengthen relationships and allow people to collaborate will eventually benefit from being able to work much better with the people they are there to serve. It helps make you a council which learns quickly, acts quickly, collaborates well inside and outside the organisation, is transparent and more trusted.

2 How can councils support individuals in becoming digitally enabled and empowered?  I think the answer is to start with your own staff. Councils employ a goodly proportion of those in work in any area and if they get it then that will reach many others. Give them access to organised yet informal help on how to use social media for their work. Reward those who share what they know and make sure they know they have permission to help the ‘citizen’ to also learn how to use the social web. Why doesn’t a housing repair team use social media to talk about what they do – why can’t they then share these skills with the people they meet in their work? Support would include identifying digital mentors in your teams and offering social media surgeries, some for insiders, some for outsiders and some for both. Don’t underestimate how much people enjoy using the social web and treat that as an opportunity.  Oh, and open up internet access to council staff.

3 How can local and hyper-local social networks increase community cohesion and empowerment.  At it’s simplest these networks help people know each other. That in turn allows them to see what they have in common and to begin to organise around shared problems or opportunties. Don’t imagine that a council run ning for each neighbourhood is the answer though.  Often councils have to go to where networks have begun to spring up. Don’t expect people to come to you. Equaly don’t think of these online very local networks (they could cluster around a blog or series of blogs, perhaps even people on twitter) are separate from you as a local authority. Just be sincerely part of them.

4 How can councillors develop their leader and communication skills using social media?  The key here is not the tools but the habits. If they participate in the conversation as normal human beings they will develop more sophisticated collaborative and conversational communications skills and be more accountable as leaders. If they learn to seek help from their networks and in turn help people within those networks they can build a great deal of social capital – which is core to being a leader. On the other hand,  if they use the tools as a one way broadcast mechanism they won’t gain much benefit from social media.

5 How can councils create the space for community conversations without overpowering them?  Usually it will be wrong for a council to think they can make a space and it will work. (I’d prefer to say always – because the usually could be the excuse for thousands of moribund council created ‘social’ sites). People working in councils have to be granted permission to think and act as part of a network. You wouldn’t blunder into your knitting club and start saying that things are going to a certain way because you are in charge. You would help to negoatiate what’s best.

6 How can social media be used for more effective social marketing, encouraging the behaviour change necessary to achieve complex outcomes? People using social media are already beginning to collaborate on solving complex problems – often with ad hoc networks of expertise attracted to particular issues. So the answer to this question can’t be prescriptive other than to say officers and politicians in local authorities need to begin contributing professionally to other people problem solving. They need to use their skills and reosurces beyond their normal areas or permission. That way they can learn techniques which they can then apply to their own proferssional problems.

7 What’s the “next practice” in social media, including virtual worlds and more?  Virtual worlds are essentially a slightly clutsy toy at the moment (sweepeing genralisation I know – and much of the work being done is valuable) .  There may well be something new about how information internally is processed – internal (perhaps semantic) search offering the right stuff to the right person at the right time. Included in that stuff will be information coming from bloggers as much as newspeprs or academia. So digital media literacy and refined critical skills for information processing will be critical.

More importantly local authorities have not yet particularly begun to ‘get’ current practice in social media. The key is to learn to share openly and generously. Social media practice includes being wiling to give away what you know, help people solve their problems in the knowledge that they in turn will help you solve yours, praise, support, respect people for what they do and know, not their status and relax.  Social media is like government – it’s never finished so don’t behave as if it should be.
See also:

Stuart Bruce, including a very wise “don’t aim too high”.

Simon Wakeman is very practical in his well throught through answers.

Like me, Carl Haggerty comes at it very much from the perspective of saying culture change is the thing.


  1. Tim Davies says:

    This is a really interesting set of answers Nick.

    I think #6 is particularly interesting. As you identity – people are already using social media to solve complex problems. It seems a key role for LAs is not only to join the existing problem-solving activity – but also to catalyse problem solving around problems that the existing social-media-connected networks may not usually turn their activities and efforts to…

Comments are closed.