When you’re a nerd like me you it’s easy to think that a website is the solution to everything, so I try to remind myself that it probably isn’t.
When I went to Local by Social yesterday I was determined to maintain a detached skepticism – either I was seduced by the confrency world of balancing cups and saucers of pump-action coffee while trying to avoid conversational lapses with people I’ve never met before (unlikely), or I need to be bit more optimistic. Only briefly did the event feel like pie-in-the-sky geekery.
Local by Social was a discussion of the ways in which local governments can utilise social media, taking an extraordinarily broad definition of that term. Topics ranged from the stratospheric stature of reports complied for the Havard Kennedy School of Government to the more prosaic (and eternal) question of how to get doubting officials to engage with social media.
From the more philosophical end of the spectrum I was surprised discover an aspect of the web which I’ve not really come across before. My assumption was that debate would all be around some variety of communication between government and people, probably something to do with eschewing the broadcast model and adopting a many-to-many, responsive approach to social media – a message we’ve all heard before.
But Local by Social was way ahead of me with the concept of “social innovation”, or “Public Service 2.0” (I’ve never heard the “2.0” suffix used so much). The concept is to close the loop of Official-Public-Official conversation by having, to varying degrees, the public actually solve problems themselves.
Examples included Washington’s “Snowageedeon”, where citizens used Google maps to allocate the work of clearing snow between themselves when the authorities were overwhelmed and Brighton Council using Twitter to find volunteer van drivers for meals on wheels during another bout inclemency. Or Fix My Tweet, which allows you to tell the council where pot holes are. The difference here is that work that would once have been carried out by an authority is being done for free through social media magic.
Instead of hulking, snail-paced governmental organisations facilitating this processes we were asked to imagine social entrepreneurs setting up not-for-profits to delivering these types of service. The question of what would happen when someone tried to monetise their successful website was left hanging in the air. Being new to the world of e-Government I was surprised these stories don’t seem to be more prevalent in the general web-trend reporting press, but perhaps that’s because the sites I follow tend to come from the marketing angle.
Another theme was adversity as a catalyst. The above examples were not the only times that snow precipitated social innovation. But, as Dominic Campbell (founder of FutureGov) explained in literally Churchillean terms (“We will innovate on the beaches…”), the most important opportunity in adversity was the coming cuts in public spending. Referencing Schumpeter’s creative destruction he pointed out that more than ever authorities are receptive to novel cost-saving ideas. Big stupid bureaucracies listening to exciting web start ups to good to be true? Well, if you listen to David Cameron’s TED Talk and his Big Society rhetoric (which I willing to concede might be just slightly more than electioneering) then perhaps there is room for a chink of optimism.
Am I maintaining detached skepticism? I’m trying… honest. Here’s a dose: Twitter doesn’t seem to me like it’s important for local councils. In a break-out session at the end of the day a lot of local government people were bemoaning the fact that councillors wouldn’t Tweet, but I don’t think they really need to.
It might be useful as a means of disseminating press releases to journalists, but that doesn’t mean that you can garner the ear of the populous using Twitter. Only 30,000 Twitter users tweeted about the election on election night. That’s one in 2,000 people, and a close run general election is a lot more interesting than local government.
Much more exciting to me is the possibility of local government making itself known on existing localised communities. Filippo Ciampini, who is writing a masters on the subject of government public relations, told me that there are lots of ethnically based online communities and forums – citing Islington’s Chinese forum as a vibrant example – which seems to me the perfect place to use the web to communicate with hard-to-reach people. Filippo added that although they are mainly used by second and third generation immigrants, these are the people who probably have most contact with first generation immigrants – a group that the council traditionally has great difficulty reaching.
None of the local government mandarins in our group said their council was using existing message boards as a means of outreach, one indicated that there was a perception that to engage on these forums might somehow undermine the legitimacy of local government’s voice.
But it’s such a missed opportunity. Hugh Flouch of Harringay Online told us that his hyper-local community has 3000 members (though we might question how many are active), while the area it covers has a population on 17,000. As he pointed out, that’s more penetration that BBC Two.
Little tidbit from our break out group: apparently Coca Cola’s social media principlesare a great place to start if you need to write guidelines for an organisation that is precious about it’s brand, on which front I’m sure Coca Cola is unimpeachable.
We also discussed the fear many higher up the organisational chain have of saying the wrong thing online. I don’t think there is anywhere to hide from the internet’s wrath. Recently a representative of Hackney council gave duff information on the phone (decidedly an old medium), only to find a recording posted on Private Eye’s website (incidentally, also a Luddite publication which dislikes the internet). So it’s time for local councils to take a dip their toes into the wide social media sea, it might not look enticing, but sooner or later someone is going to throw you in anyway.
Have I trodden the line of disinterested rationality? I hope so, but to end on a positive note, the more you engage with people on the web the more they love you. Paul Hodgkin of Patient Opiniontold us that his service which allows patients to… give their opinion receives only around 20% purely negative feedback. Amazingly, after they have been moderated, about 10% of feedback leads to some kind of change is hospital practice, and the 20% of feedback which was completely positive was a huge boost to staff morale.
Research from Hugo Flouch (he of Harringay Online) suggests that the more officials engage with online communities the better users perceptions of them are. That was true for MPs, council workers, councillors themselves and police.
So, to sum up in a completely equivocal manner: budget cuts lead to a world where municipal work is carried out for free by the people who do it out the goodness of their own hearts and then thank each other through feedback services provided by not-for-profit social entrepreneurs. And no one who isn’t completely comfortable with Twitter will be forced to use it as part of a box-ticking drive to engage with Interweb 2.0.