Can social media save local government?

Opinion

Can social media save local government?

The great Ernest Hemingway once said: "There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges", so when it comes to finding a really good read, local government publications can normally be found somewhere near the bottom of any bedtime book choice. Not that town halls don't try very hard to reach out to the public in every conceivable way but by its very nature, even the brightest and most positive news stories from the public sector rarely attract the traffic they might deserve.

Most lately, you may have seen on the BBC Politics Show, criticism surrounding Brighton and Hove City Council, which advertised for a new social media officer with "expertise" on both Facebook and Twitter at a time when other staff are facing pay cuts. The council offered the reason for this appointment as: "Increasing visibility, building our brand and learning about our audiences by utilising social media."

For the cynics among you, this may sound like one more extravagant example of a wild idea being funded by the public finances, in the finest tradition of the Guardian appointments section but Brighton's experience may prompt a broader debate, one which may yet capture the interest of local authorities across the country.

No different perhaps to newspapers and television channels, local councils are facing two quite separate challenges in the new media world of the internet. The first of these, is that they have to compete for an increasingly narrow public attention span against other sources of news and the second, that the proliferation of local weblogs, some heavily politicised or with a particular agenda and others good, bad and indifferent, leave councils ill-equipped to challenge a corrosive climate of rumour, allegation and occasionally, purposeful disinformation, often repeated as fact without proper checks by the local media.

Efforts to leverage the social networking phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube are a natural reaction on the part of councillors and council officers to an expanding world of instant communication that many don't understand and others would simply prefer to ignore.

Historically, local councils spend a great deal of money on printed communication, leafleting and their own websites, with RSS news feeds now making a welcome appearance for more 'up-to-the minute' information. However, the challenge remains that community-focused news is rarely compelling or even interesting to many people; the average citizen perhaps preferring to read something scurrilous about their council on a weblog, than a laudable official press release on social housing targets or successful dog fouling prosecutions.

So how can councils use the internet and engage the new social networking technology in more interesting and proactive ways? As I think more deeply about the challenges facing us at my own council, I am convinced that like ticking a series of 'new media' boxes, joining the headlong rush to embrace social networking is symptomatic of a much wider communications problem that needs solving and which by simply having a presence, does not offer more than an illusory answer.

By all means experiment and engage but at the same time, local government as a whole, needs a collective review of an increasingly tired-looking communications strategy, which places its well-established channels at a distinct disadvantage, at a time when blogs and tweets and pokes are increasingly a popular source of information and news for the public-at-large.

Simon Moores, is vice-chairman (policy development) at The Conservative Technology Forum and Conservative district councillor for Westgate-on Sea

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This was first published in September 2009

 

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