How online community management could really matter for public services

One of the key skills (or roles) that I bang on about a lot when I am delivering training to customers is community management. I talk about it a fair bit on this blog too.

One of the first things I ever did online was start up and manage a community – a simple forum for people who like reading books. It’s still running, in a sort of half life, which isn’t bad given that it was started back in 2003.

It turns out that the community was managed – largely by accident – fairly well. Rules were kept to a bare minimum (something along the lines of “don’t be an idiot” was the main one) and a healthy culture of respect and friendliness emerged over time. Membership was always fairly small, certainly compared to some of the huge book related boards out there, but I suspect that the tightness of the group contributed to its success.

Anyhow, these days I’m more concerned about public services – with my own particular fetish of course being local government. How could good community management practice help in this context?

I’ve written before about bringing local panels up to date with an idea about a mobile solution combined with a bit of micro-participation (go read the post – it’s really good!). An organisation could however do something similar by developing a community – whether one of its own creation or perhaps by engaging with an existing one.

Many interactions between, say, a council and citizens tend to be one off affairs – a question is answered, a consultation response received, some feedback provided, and then that’s it.

For a lot of folk, of course, that’s just how they like it. An ongoing conversation with their local authority would probably fill them with boredom, if not dread.

But perhaps by facilitating a space in which local issues are discussed on an ongoing basis, solutions could be teased out. Often when digital engagement takes place on what feels like a one-off basis, it’s too easy for people to drop in, be negative, and then leave again. By taking a long term approach, results might be a lot more constructive.

Also, it ought to save time and therefore money. After all, why rebuild communities or groups or even just lists of people, every single time you have a new campaign to launch, or a new policy to consult on? Why not keep adding people to your community, who can dip in and out of issues as suits their interest?

The kingpin of online community development is Rich Millington, who I seem to namecheck every week on this blog. In a recent email newsletter (sign up for it here), Rich outlines some success factors for online communities:

  • Start small
  • Start interesting discussions
  • Engage in micro-interactions
  • Encourage off topic conversations
  • Create a sense of identity for members

A lot of this is about letting go and allowing the community to manage themselves. The facilitation role is about seeding discussions, encouraging activity and recruiting members. This takes time and needs resource allocating to it – which is why Rich advocates that successful communities need full time managers.

That might be difficult to swing in these straightened times, but if you’re serious about your digital engagement, it’s a role that needs filling, and activity that needs doing.

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