Home Archive May 2009 Public displays of attention
Thursday, 11 June 2009 13:42

The public sector is embracing social networking. Historically characterised as the private sector’s poor relation in new technology, is a social media revolution taking place in town halls up and down the country? Neil  Gibbons investigates:

Which one factor is going to have the greatest impact on modern policing? CCTV? Crimewatch? Tasers? Less likely to figure on that list would be Facebook. Yet fast forward ten years and we may all be singing a very different tune.

Just as the likes of MySpace, YouTube and Twitter have come to play a major role in the way people interact with friends, there are some in the public sector who are staking their reputations on the same thing happening in the way public bodies communicate with their citizens.

One of those people is James Garley. A committed disciple of social media in his personal life, Garley is a web editor and one of the brains behind the recent launch of the Hertfordshire police force’s Facebook page. The page includes photographs of wanted criminals, community events and a Hertfordshire police blog. Members of the Facebook page are sent regular updates on crime trends as well as crime prevention  messages. The site also provides a healthy dose of interactivity by way of a discussion forum where locals can post questions.

It’s early days but he is optimistic about what social media can achieve. “Facebook gives us an opportunity
to interact with the community more effectively, particularly those members of the community that don’t feel comfortable talking to us face to face or by the telephone,” explains Garley.

Chris Reed, digital media specialist at PR agency Fishburn Hedges, sees this as key. “Would a young audience show up to local police station open days? Maybe not. Might they message their local police if they’re on Facebook? I think that’s a very realistic possibility.”

“At its most basic level, using social media ensures that public bodies can provide information in a way that their audiences want to receive it, as well as offering a way for them to communicate their concerns back to a public body.”

And just as more and more public bodies are using Facebook, so too are they making their presence felt on YouTube. Several local authorities now regularly post committee hearings to the free video uploading service. The content might not be glamorous but there’s no question that such actions help to keep local
government transparent. Essex Council meanwhile is one that goes further, posting videos about Adoption
Services, the 2012 Olympics and safe travel.

YouTube plays an important role in Hertfordshire police’s social media strategy too. Whereas Facebook is ideal for generating a sense of community, YouTube is an ideal resource for posting content with more detail and complexity. Hertfordshire police’s YouTube channel features videos on everything from avoiding muggings to the dangers of excess alcohol consumption.

Yet it is Twitter, the wildly popular micro-blogging site that throws up some of the most innovative and
unexpected social media activity in the public sector. Still privately held, Twitter already has some of the
biggest players in the media world sniffing around it. Undeterred by question marks over whether Google
got value for money in its purchase of YouTube or Rupert Murdoch in his of MySpace, Twitter looks set to go for serious money in the not too distant future. Certainly, user numbers are swelling almost exponentially, with celebrities like Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and Britney Spears leading the way. Yet even more than Facebook or YouTube, public sector bodies are taking to micro-blogging with relish.

At the time of writing, 88 local councils in Britain had their own Twitter pages. Devon County Council was one of the first. Visit its Twitter page – www.twitter.com/DevonCC – and you will find the sometimes complex and often detail-heavy world of local government rendered into updates of no more than 140 characters (the maximum permitted length of any Twitter posts). Everything from library competitions (‘Chance to win signed Anne Perry book at Honiton Library in April’) to young people getting involved in the political process (‘Devon’s new Youth Parliament Members take debate to Commons’) to planning applications (‘Okehampton College, Mill Road: Replacement of existing 3m high ball catch fence’). The council even used Twitter recently to publicise the recall of a batch of Fray Bentos meat and onion pies.

Every aspect of Devon county council’s activities is available via Twitter. Dig a little deeper however and even this degree of trail blazing has its limitations, believes Chris Reed. “It’s relatively easy to set up a Twitter feed to re-publish news from a website. But if your audience wants dialogue and you’re only providing “broadcast” then they will be disappointed.”

Whereas Devon’s efforts are laudable, they are openly promoted as an information source, not as  place to interact with the council. For an instance of a council that is making the effort to use Twitter as a two-way communication tool, Reed cites his colleague’s experience with the London borough of Camden. When the UK was hit by snow in early February, public affairs consultant Simon Redfern noted on his way into work that Russell Square was shut. He sent a tweet to the council – ‘Why is Russell Square locked. Bit  mean-spirited of LB Camden isn’t it?’ Within a couple of hours he’d received a response, explaining that all Camden’s parks were shut due to staff shortages. And the next day he got another one, letting him know that all the parks had been re-opened.

However, while this personal touch is impressive, it also costs, as Hertforshire police’s James Garley is ll too aware. “We have to be very careful as a Force about the use of resources and public money. We worked in close consultation with our Chief Officers, Professional Standards and IT Security.” Reed sounds a similar warning note. “The time taken to keep a site updated and truly interactive shouldn’t be underestimated,
and needs to be balanced against the numbers of people who you reach this way.”

Such are the differences in approach and adoption of social media within the public sector that it is hard
to make generalisations. Yet one theme emerges loud and clear. The age-old stereotype of public bodies
being technology laggards is comprehensively out of date. In fact, in many cases local authorities have
stolen a march on their private sector peers when it comes to their understanding and use of social media.
The real question is one of longevity and popular appeal. Will social media-led public services become
mainstream tools or will they remain a novelty? It is perhaps too early to tell, but all the signs are that it is
a medium that can only grow in influence. Watch this space.