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A brief look at open government, UK style

I recently exchanged thoughts with Tom Stannard, the Director of Policy and Communications for the Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council. While the US is clearly pushing forward with its version of Open Government, leveraging social media, the UK is as well. What follows is my e-mail based conversation with Tom.

Q. Thank you for the interview Tom. What is your current role in the government in Blackburn and what does it entail?

A. I am the director for policy and communications at the borough council. This includes all aspects of policy/strategy development across all our services, and all aspects of marketing and communications. I am also responsible for community cohesion (eg social/race relations and equalities). We are a unitary local authority, or in normalspeak, we run all the main services an English Council is able to such as education, social care for the vulnerable, housing, environmental services and economic regeneration.

Q. In the US the Open Government Directive (OGD) has given agencies and politicians a mandate to become more open, more transparent. How is OGD viewed in the UK?

A. I think the reception was mixed. Freedom of Information provided a sound basis for some of these changes in the UK and many agencies particularly mine at a local level have been practicing open government for many years. The question as ever is what the directive adds to the business of government. What has been useful in particular is OGD in the US has been symbolically important and those of us who are strong advocates of this approach in the UK are able to cite the stronger government push on this in the US as a further support to what we have been trying to do for some time in the UK.

Q. In the UK, are there similar mandates as OGD in the US?

A. The main mandate is via Freedom of Information under which the public may request detailed information from government and local agencies and we are required to publish information schemes demonstrating what we will publish and how local people can access it. It can be demanding responding to these “FOI” requests but they represent an important principle of openness and transparency in UK government.

Q. Are there social media usage policies that you follow?

A. Yes – this is at the discretion of each council in the UK and not subject to national government directives in any way. In Blackburn we developed a brand new communications strategy with a substantial social media component last year. We have deliberately promoted an open access approach to social media with a strong business case to support it, unlike a lot of UK councils who ban staff from using social media channels. I think it requires bravery on the part of agencies to trust their staff to exploit the benefits of these channels for the business and this is precisely the approach we have taken in Blackburn.

Q. In your opinion, what government agencies or officials are leading the charge in this area?

A. I would say this – but I think my Council is a leading agency in this area because of our strategy shown above.

There are more and more councils and agencies using these channels today but many are not using them as a means of 2 way dialogue and openness with citizens as we are. What annoys me as a comms professional is when councils in the UK say “yes we are on twitter” etc but all they do is use them as an extra feed for press releases and make no attempt to promote or develop them as engagement channels.

Q. How has the use of social media benefited the citizens that you represent?

A. It benefits on a number of levels. Firstly it is symbolically important as it signals my organisation is open and transparent and not just prepared to engage when asked, but actively seeking a 2 way dialogue with local citizens. IN addition it helps us in practical ways – for example in the recent terrible winter weather in the UK we “discovered” citizens in Blackburn via Twitter who were either stuck in the snow or who had not had their rubbish collected by our trucks. Some of these people contacted me direct to complain or to highlight a problem. By engaging in this case on twitter we were able to rapidly target our response and improved satisfaction by engaging directly and personally over these channels, showing we cared about people with these problems, and doing something about them.

Q. Are you unique in the UK Government or do other officials leverage social tools in the same manner?

A. See my response on leading edge etc. We are not unique, but practice is mixed. Many organisations for instance will only have a corporate account and will just use a feed rather like RSS which in my view defeats the object. Our Twitter strategy as a case in point combines corporate presence with in my case a personal profile of directors of the council – we think this is critical to online transparency but also to authenticity as citizens can engage with individuals not just an abstract corporate entity. This is proving to be one of the most interesting and exciting development areas in the online behaviours of UK government agencies at the present time.

Q. From a high-level perspective, what are the reasons that you make use of social media tools like Twitter?

A. All of the above – new platforms for 2 way engagement with citizens and interest groups is the most important, but also transparency, openness and authentic voice for the organisation. The human face is often what is lacking in corporate behaviour and it is key to try and bring this to bear on our business.

Q. Do you have any success stories, based upon the use of social media, that you could share?

A. We have improved electoral turnout via social media projects (a voter turnout video on our YouTube channel), better citizen responsiveness in the severe weather, and we also use social media as an automatic “right of reply” to correct messages or when journalists choose not to consult us. Again they are direct and positive channels for all of the above.

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