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K-TOC and the public

Our project selection pilot outreach is (at last) up on K-TOC. It took about three weeks to get everything posted, so there’s no Ta-Da! moment, but October community traffic is up about 65 percent over August traffic. We might reach 2,000 unique visitors this month, which would be a record for us. A more detailed look at October’s traffic is available here.

The most interesting development on the community–and certainly most encouraging–was the first sign of a dawning public awareness of the possibilities of the medium. A user in northeast Kansas assembled and distributed to local stakeholders a short K-TOC primer providing instructions on how to download material from and post comments to the community. The result was a brisk discussion of a proposed KDOT project on U.S. Highway 75. The proposed project is a $67 million upgrade of a 13-mile section of the highway, but the discussion returns repeatedly to one particular intersection and the problems associated with it.

This is evidence that, social-media-wise, K-TOC is almost there. The forum is established. There exists a back-and-forth between the agency and the public. The public is even talking among themselves–the acid test of social media success–but their most significant conversations have happened off the grid, in the form of the email circulated among stakeholders. We’re not there yet, but we’re real close. That’s the glass-half-full reading.

There have been challenges, as well. I’ve learned not to overestimate the social media savvy of the public. Organizing and interacting with government online is still a distinctly avant-garde notion for the great majority of people. Operating social media software is beyond the capability of many, which causes frustration all-around. Part of that is due to the software, a lot of it is a product of highly variable levels of online literacy among the public. (I’ve had some excruciating conversations with frustrated users, including one who didn’t understand the concept of “URL” or “bookmark.”)

Thus it’s important to studiously maintain all conventional outreach efforts while introducing new forms of digital outreach, because the size of the digital audience is still limited. My experience suggests that when conducting an outreach like ours–an outreach built around documents–staff should minimize the amount of time spent tutoring individual users on software operations and instead simply email them the documents they’re looking for. And there are other concerns, not least the near-irresistible tendency to devolve social media sites into simple webpages promulgating conventional push content. That’s the glass-half-empty reading.

I’ve no idea which reading says the most about the future. Probably both.

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