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Six Ways Local Governments Can Use Social Media to Promote Energy Conservation

Author’s Note: I originally published this on my blog on September 16, 2008. I’m republishing it here to see if anyone would like to discuss the ideas presented here.

Six Ways Local Governments Can Use Social Media to Promote Energy Conservation

By Dennis D. McDonald

Here are six ways local governments can use social media to help promote energy conservation. If you think of more please comment below this post or send an email to [email protected]:

1. Establish a gateway or portal site on the municipality’s web site.
2. Publicize named experts.
3. Establish neighborhood working groups.
4. Work with energy utilities.
5. Openly investigate procurement of alternative energy sources.
6. Promote transparency in the municipality’s own energy consumption.

1. Establish a gateway or portal site on the municipality’s web site.

Your city probably already has a municipal web site that describes municipal services, organizations, and departments. There should also be a clearly identified and linked page or region specifically devoted to energy conservation that provides a constantly updated view of information people, discussions, and groups involved in energy conservation.

This page should display a master calendar of energy related events and should connect with social media tools such as blogs, networks, and discussion threads that reflect ongoing conservation activities and interests.

Some of the elements on this “front page” should be automatically generated and some should be created and edited by city staff. Make sure to keep this page constantly refreshed and changing. Also, provide a way that people can subscribe to receive updates via email and RSS subscription techniques.

Finally, offer an online search tool that web site visitors can “tune” to target the energy portion of the web site or the city’s whole web site.

2. Publicize Named Experts

Make it easy for the public to identify and contact individuals within the city government who are responsible either for managing specific conservation activities or who are tasked to track specific energy related topics or activities. Provide each of them with a page they maintain themselves that provides a description of their own areas or expertise, their contact information, and automatically generated links that reflect their involvement in discussion groups and their own calendared activities.

Individual blogging (i.e., individually maintained web sites where articles and discussion threads can be posted) should be an option where each “expert” can express his or her views on topics of interest and establish direct communication with the public.

Behind the scenes, provide communication and tracking support to ensure that contacts made by the public via phone, email, or posted comments on each expert’s blog are responded to by a human — ideally an expert — within 24 hours. Auto-generated responses should be minimized.

3. Build Neighborhood Working Groups

The concept here is “neighbors helping neighbors save energy.” For each identifiable neighborhood the city should provide an easily generated social network that is linked to the main conservation web site but which is open to participation only by members of that community. Neighborhood calendar, blogs, discussion threads, picture galleries, and voluntary “citizen profiles” should be quickly and easily available.

Each “neighborhood” should be assigned a city employee who shares network administrator responsibilities with a neighborhood volunteer and who serves to monitor and promote the group’s activities.

The city may promote certain conservation activities city wide via blanket approaches and each neighborhood should be encouraged to develop its own approach to promoting and sharing ideas about conservation, energy saving, recycling, ride-sharing, use of public transportation, carpooling, hybrid vehicles, and related topics. Ideas that are particularly useful can be made available to other neighborhood networks with the agreement of their originators.

The city may also use each “neighborhood community” web site for advertising or posting information about city wide activities, but each neighborhood would be encouraged to create its own identity reflecting unique interests.

4. Work With Energy Utilities

The city should take the lead in working with gas and electric utilities to make data available to the city and to each neighborhood that reflects the unique consumption profile of each. This might be based on the use of “smart meter” generated data or through some other geographically-targeted reporting method that can be provided by the utility as a byproduct of its own customer service or customer relations program.

The goal is to provide local, relevant, and where possible, graphic illustrations of the a mount, type, volume, and costs associated with energy consumption.

5. Openly investigate procurement of alternative energy sources

Solar technology for household electricity generation is still expensive. Nevertheless, private sector and public sector initiatives are emerging to directly and through financial subsidies and tax incentives promote energy generation at the household and neighborhood level.

The city should establish a program to investigate the feasibility of a city-sponsored investment in solar and alternative electricity generating methods and publicize its efforts via a social publishing and networking vehicle such as an off-the-shelf blog or wiki platform. Private sector involvement should be encouraged as should involvement by all relevant city departments including attorney general, finance, public works, engineering, communications, and related utilities.

Plans, maps, and documents for public review and comment should be made available online. Subscription features should be incorporated so that changes or additions can be immediately “broadcast” to subscribers.

6. Promote transparency in the municipality’s own energy consumption

A key part of the municipality’s “conservation” web site should be an ongoing display of all energy related purchases made by or on behalf of the city, including fuel, vehicles, equipment, reimbursement for official travel, gas and electricity purchases (see item 4 above), investments in energy related business enterprises, conservation-related education and training, and cost of energy web site maintenance and support. Such data should be available over time and methods should also be available for public comment and suggestions for improved efficiency.


None of the items suggested above requires technology that cannot be purchased, leased, or accessed “off the shelf.” All proposed functionality is currently available from a variety of self-hosted and remotely hosted tools and vendors.

Some of the functionality can even be supported via a mix of “free” tools although it is noted that there are limits to the customizability and connectability of “free” tools, some of which are advertiser supported in ways that might not be viewed with favor in a public sector application.

One challenge to implementing the above suggested initiates is organizational and political. Energy conservation as defined above is inherently a multidisciplinary and multi-departmental affair. There are potentially complex governance issues raised by providing a publicly unified approach via web based portal that must provide new “social” features while at the same time integrating when necessary with existing web- and non-web-based systems.

Another challenge is that the above approaches, when taken together, provide multiple opportunities for citizen involvement that assume more direct interaction between government officials and citizens than may have been the case in the past. The opportunity to collaborate on policy development, for example, will be viewed as threatening to some traditionalists who are accustomed to formal development, release, and review cycles.

Still, it is this very real involvement that provides the opportunity for the greatest participation by the public. Efforts that only expose the operations of government without also providing a mechanism for involvement will be viewed by some as public relations window dressing, and dismissed.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

Originally published at:


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I really like the idea of a citizen of having my own portal that is easy to use where I can quickly customize to get the information I need. For me, I would like my property tax records and info, library records, energy meters, and information about upcoming local events.

I also like the idea of using citizens to pinpoint and fix problems. The fixmystreets UK example is great. The local 311 and 411 movements are somewhat similar. I’d love to go online and report issues I’m running into such as trash building up, neighbors being too loud, and potholes I’m running into. I’m not going to really call to report these issues but I would comment online and they can start aggregating trends.

Dennis McDonald

Steve – I agree with your ideas. But a major issue that we need to address is that not everyone is web enabled and, even for those people who are web enabled, getting involved in social networking is not a slam dunk. That’s why I’m interested in getting feedback on these ideas

Elizabeth Rosas

Great post, Dennis. I like your vision of the local portal. I would hesitate to call it a “citizens” portal, however. We serve a lot of residents who are not citizens. In Santa Clara County, we are just now implementing a wiki to support the development of our Climate Action Plan. The major challenges I see have to do with culture and process. For one thing, the project manager is having trouble getting people to participate. The idea is that a wiki should help flatten out some of the organizational hierarchies and empower everyone to contribute – in theory, yes… but in practice, people just aren’t used to working that way. I also think people are resistant to change what other people are writing without telling them, like it’s disrespectful. Finally, in terms of the wiki technology itself, I think my customer’s initial perception is that it would be “self managing” and I met a lot of resistance trying to develop event a basic information architecture – the idea being that “the group” would create it, but that has not happened. As a service provider, while I understand this is a very different technology (e.g., perpetual beta), I still need a customer to funnel group requests to meet the project scope and budget. This is our first wide-spread use of wikis with non-technical staff – there are about 50 people on the core team, across multiple departments, with other occasional reviewers. It will be interesting to see how it plays out…


Interesting read, Dennis. My agency has been considering social media to be more transparent, but I hadn’t thought of using it as an energy saving mechanism. Our caution has been that we are in the education reform arena, which tends to be a lightening rod issue here in DC. Do you know of any good resources where we can learn how to appropriately/effectively use social media in situations like these?

Mark Danielson

Good stuff Dennis.

I love the green, timely, portal idea. We’ve got the fix my streets (and other things broken) page and the municipal electric utility cost calculator; some great interactive GIS mapping for zoning and planning, and of course electronic bill pay etc. We have lots of events and general information available. We have emails for all employees and some terrific groups working.

I’m finding the design of the website is interlocked with two-way citizen/government communications – It is easy to bury something good and then it doesn’t get used.

My hope is that the fear of the past 1.0 forum world will be replaced by enthusiasm for communicating and being responsible for what you say. People being citizens online as well as in person.

I’m hoping to break through the city “billboard” with appropriately placed “contact us” links. People understand email. I think that with the “contact us” program, we can break through the small government online “billboard mentality” barrier. Thank you, MD

Dennis McDonald

Mark – thanks for providing some “ground truth.” I don’t envy folks responsible for designing and maintaining complex portal sites that need to appeal to so many different constituencies. So many times the resulting”front page” is confusing and ugly with so many internal constituencies vying for attention. There has to be a way to rapidly type the incoming request and provide tailored navigation features.

Dennis McDonald


I am NOT a strong believer in “self managing systems,” so I sympathize. I think the trick to collaboration is figuring out the best collaboration strategy for the given activity; the strategy should take into account how people collaborate naturally and evolve from there. The objective, after all, is to solve a particular problem, not to promote the use of one particular tool or another.