How can social media really make a difference to local government ?
Ann Griffiths, Head of Policy, Ealing Council, 6 June, 2012

Social media is very fashionable at the moment. But at a recent NLGN event I was challenged to demonstrate how it can really make a difference. What can it achieve that couldn’t have been done anyway, through more traditional methods?

It’s easy to assume that engaging with new technology is somehow by default innovative, efficient and transformative. Yet local government has traditionally tended to use technology to support work that is already underway, or as the basis for discrete innovation projects that are seldom scaled up to transform the organisation.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but perhaps we’d also benefit from considering whether there are broader, unique opportunities to add value, created by the changes happening so rapidly around us.

Technology seems to be changing people’s expectations and behaviours, and I’d argue it’s within this change that the greatest opportunities for step change lie. Generations who’ll be future services users and local representatives are used to a world in which not being able to do something online – or through their phones – is increasingly unthinkable.

They know when the next bus is coming through the app on their phone; they can link from a poster to detailed info about an event within seconds through a handily-placed QR code; it’s feasible that a footballer or an MP might engage in a conversation with them using twitter. They learn how to fix something by watching a video online; get customer service support from other people who’ve got the same product rather than a contact centre; judge whether to buy something by online reviews and ratings; and work hard to create an online presence reflecting an image they want to create.

Immediate and direct access, user-centric and personalised systems, real time data availability, online marketplaces to share resources, and user-generated advice and solutions to issues, are increasingly reaching beyond the ‘early adopters’ and into the mainstream.

Events and conferences have already been transformed by twitter – anyone who has followed a hashtag will know that they create a parallel discussion, commenting on speeches and feeding questions to the chair in real time. People become less tolerant of sitting and listening, want to influence the agenda, and interact with speakers and others in the audience during the debate.

Relationship building through the virtual world, sharing updates on developments, sharing ideas and resources, and generating interest in issues can happen more quickly and broadly than previously possible. Communities have new ways to form, generate interest, and draw people together. Elected representatives have new ways to contact local people and keep them up to date in real time, no clearly than in times of emergency like the riots last summer.

Answers to surveys, solutions to problems, ideas for projects and views on suggestions can be crowdsourced, and people engaged with more quickly, broadly and directly than ever before, with new audiences, new channels and new analysis sources developing.

Public services can learn from these changes. While we mustn’t assume everyone is affected in the same way, easily engaged, or that new technology and social media are somehow risk or challenge free, ever-increasing numbers of people are willing – and expecting – to use tech for so many things, the opportunities are only expanding. New ways of encouraging customer service channel shift, presenting information, coordinating projects and appointments, keeping people informed, delivering training and learning, increasing accessibility, driving community enablement and development, are evolving daily, and we need to keep up with the game-changing opportunities they could offer if we think creatively enough about their application.

Design for user experience, openness to user-generated content, and interactivity are likely to become more and more important, and are probably under-represented in our current ways of doing things. We must do more to embrace the changes happening around us, to understand the impact tech is having, the behaviour change it may be driving, the tangible outcomes and improvement it can create. Do we really know how rapid changes in the use of new technology are affecting our communities’ and organisations’ activities, expectations, and the opportunities and challenges that creates? What might we be missing?

Ann Griffiths is Head of Policy at Ealing Council. She is writing in a personal capacity.

Click to enlarge
Figure 1: Traditional areas of use of technology in public services? Where are the new opportunities, and how will this evolve?