Social Media in the Public Sector - Why?

Government agencies and public bodies of all kinds are using social media tools more and more as a mechanism to disseminate information and engage with the general public. In this series of guides we will be looking at the best practice of the public sector when it comes to using Social Media effectively as an engagement tool. We will be looking at everything from what engagement type you should take (public vs private vs none) to type of language used and social media crisis management. Although we will be focusing heavily on the Public Sector and in particular councils, all of these guides can be used for any organisation using social media.

Why the Public Sector should use Social Media...

Not very long ago, Social Media networks were being blocked by all kinds of public bodies, primarily because many management teams believed that employees would waste time at work if they were to allow access to such websites. Thankfully, those same teams are now beginning to understand the power of social media and how when used effectively it can actually help to boost productivity and potentially reduce overheads - which during this time of austerity is very important to any public body.

Looking at local governance - Councillors, Councils and partner agencies are looking to use social media for a wide range of purposes. Some are looking to spark ideas within communities, others are looking to drive efficiency (such as asking the community to report issues using social media rather than by phone) and more still are looking to use social media as a tool to engage with the local population.

Examples of How Councils are Using Social Media

There are many uses of social media for public bodies, here are a few examples which are commonly cited by councils in the UK:

  1. Reporting local authority news
  2. Giving relevant public alerts (including school and road closures)
  3. Sharing information about upcoming events
  4. Distributing photos of previous / on going events
  5. Promotion of recycling in a borough
  6. Letting residents report issues (including street lights being out)
  7. Sharing of results and relevant information during "Voting Day"
  8. To promote local engagement intensives (such as community conversations)
  9. Answering questions and resolving complaints
  10. As a sounding board for ideas
  11. Sharing statistics and interesting details from the Council's work
  12. To allow councillors and officers to engage with residents

Real-life Examples of Councils Using Social Media

Listening and communicating reports of local issues

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Alerting the public of school closures

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Promotion of Recycling in a borough

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Putting Social Media into Context for Local Government

public sector social mediaSocial Media, as you've just read, has many uses for all kinds of public bodies. The world we live in is changing, and the way Councils communicate also has to evolve. A few years ago you needed a computer to browser social media, get updates and post updates - today we've high powered mini-computers in our pockets in the form of smart phones, everyone is just a few clicks from reading your updates or letting you know about issues they have, and because it's social media they won't be afraid to tell you about the issue. The barrier to entry today for communications with councils is near zero.

In 2008 the world plummeted into a Global Recession which has changed the face of local government over recent years. Council now have much much less money to operate with and need to find ways to deliver better services at a lower cost - social media is playing it's part in this efficiency drive for many public bodies.

As part of the recession and politics in general over recent years in the UK, we've seen the public grow sceptical about "government" and it's role at all levels of society. There has been a decline in public trust of any government body, local or national, but with the help of social media as a clear communication tool this trust can be rebuilt, even at a time when the UK overall is a poorer, more cautious and divided place to live. In the digital age in which we live, social media is (and will continue to be) a critical tool in responding to these challenges.

Obstacles to Public Sector Social Media Success

As much as I encourage all public bodies to get on social media as soon as possible with a good social media strategy, there are a few things to consider. There are a few barriers which some councils will need to overcome.

  • Access to Social Media is routinely blocked on council computers
  • Not having a social media strategy for councillors and officers
  • Lack of clarity / policy between websites and social media connections
  • Communications strategies rarely include social media
  • Council computers are often ill-equipped to deal with social media (eg old browsers)
  • Lack of "buy in" from Councillors and Council Leaders

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Coming in the Next Post...

Next time, we will be looking at what is needed to put social media into practice for a council. We'll be looking at things like leadership, engagement, honesty, strategies, resources and more.

Your Experiences

As part of this series of posts, we would like to know about your experiences with public body engagement using social media. Leave a comment below and tell us how your council or public body uses social media - tell us the good and the bad stories, and don't forget to link us to their accounts.