formationWe’ve written before about the impact on the public sector of the fact that consumers are getting more demanding. We are all more used to being able to research online before buying, engage with our favourite brands and build relationships, and communicate instantly, and this affects how we approach public services, from cities through healthcare to policing. But are public services getting more savvy about this? We look at use of social media in the public sector to see.

Greater Manchester Police took a bold step about three years ago, and placed their social media messaging in the hands of individual officers. If they saw something worth tweeting, or putting on Facebook, they could do so. The role of a central communications team changed from that of handling all formal public and media messaging to one of providing guidance and encouragement. Inevitably, there have been some ‘misses’, including an insensitive tweet about bullying on Facebook, which eventually resulted in an apology. But there have also been some ‘hits’, such as when a drunken football fan rang the emergency number after his team lost in the League Cup, and police put a note on Facebook to remind everyone that however traumatic losing a football game was, 999 was still only for emergencies. This won media coverage nationwide, and 5000 shares on Facebook.

Rules for public sector social media engagement

Matt Jukes, head of digital for the Office of National Statistics, has his own list of principles, which he has published on his blog, Digital by Default. He reckons that being himself is crucial, which he couples with honesty, while not over-sharing. He also tries to be helpful, and to share other people’s content as least as much as using his own. He has learnt not to worry about either trolls or numbers following him: he focuses instead on engaging people.

Finally, he points out that ‘mistakes happen. Admit them. Move on’, which may be one of the most difficult issues for the public sector to grasp. Greater Manchester Police have obviously got to grips with that, but many other organisations still believe that all online content must be perfect, and perfectly managed. But this doesn’t happen in the real world, and we value authenticity. With the ability to react instantly to something you dislike online, organisations could find themselves punished for this approach.

Two-way conversation

All these rules sound very much like they’re about getting messages out there. But is there anyone who is successfully engaging citizens in a two-way conversation, for example, over policy development?

Amsterdam, as we’ve written before, is generally reckoned to be ‘first among equals’ in developing and harnessing smart technology. It is also experimenting with open data to engage its occupants in improving the city. One such initiative is Verbeterdebuurt, the Dutch version of fixmystreet, which allows people to report problems with roads, but also suggest new ideas, and comment and vote on each other’s ideas.

There are also some good examples of cities making an effort to engage their populations to develop strategies for the future. For example, Tualatin, in Oregon, USA, developed a community-driven vision back in 2007, and updated it last year using an online portal, Tualatin Tomorrow, developed by Granicus, that allowed users to log on, enter their ideas, discuss and comment on others’ ideas and generally engage with the project.  The updated vision document states that the portal received over 1000 ideas during the process. The City of Markham, in Southern Ontario, Canada, has developed an online tool to engage its citizens in budget development. It’s a positive move, but so far, only 135 people have engaged and completed it, which isn’t all that many from a city of 260,000 or so. However, both these examples are very much bespoke applications for a very specific purpose, rather than a more general and ongoing use of Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, which is far less common, perhaps because the public sector is still a little afraid of what it might hear.

Looking ahead

The use of public sector social media is still in its infancy, and much of the activity is still driven by corporate communications teams. The most successful use seems to be where it has been put in the hands of individual public-facing employees, giving them freedom to engage their ‘customers’. This ‘human-to-human’ contact seems to be vital in both public and private sector, and is probably linked to our increased sophistication as consumers. We can detect ‘official messages’ very fast, and we tend to disengage from them. Public services need to understand that for two-way communication to work, it needs to be between people.

Image credit: Tony

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