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Social Media Stages/Themes for Local Government

I read with interest Dan Slee’s blog post “Linked Social: Eight steps of social media evolution in local government” and whilst I agree with Dan I commented on his post with a slightly different perspective.

I recommend that you can read the post directly but I have included a bit of my comment below:

With regard to social media and wider social technologies there are lots and lots and lots of people using them and very much engaged in them and they are part of an unwritten future we are heading towards. The potential application of the variety of social technologies are creating a unique set of opportunities to transform not just the public sector but generally our way of life….from broadcast to conversations to collectively decisions to location based services to event driven location services to a seamless offering of content and services based on who and where i am. And the role of local government and the web in this context looks different to me.

So I’d suggest something like this in terms of an evolution which simply places your view into a slightly different context and one i think you may have eluded to before, but can’t seem to find a link…

I don’t really see these as a hierarchy or a straight path from 1 through to 6, more a set of themes which have different approaches and challenges depending on where your ambition is and where your current state is….

1) Ignorance and defiance

2) One way communication

3) Dialogue and conversation

4) Collective decision making

5) “check in” for content and services around me and for me

6) “push notification” for content and services around me and for me

The above applies for internal (staff) and external (residents and citizens) delivery

To be honest, I’ve blogged on a similar topic before but hadn’t really expressed my view on the stages or themes on the use of social technologies in this way before as I do kind of prefer self discovery with some of this, but here is a first stab at explaining in a bit more detail what I think about each of these stages / themes.

However the rule that I proposed in that blog post a couple of years ago is still very much valid:
Rule Number One:
Don’t focus on the technology, technology itself doesn’t do anything, there is a saying that we use in my council “there is no such thing as an IT project, there are only business projects”. The key message here is YOU need to focus on business problems and issues and if social media tools are part of the solution then great. But don’t force social media where it isn’t needed or wanted. To put it another way, try using a social media tool that offers you no value for me something like friendfeed is that tool, i don’t get it or understand it, so i don’t use it, at this point in time it doesn’t solve any problem i have.
I’m not claiming that this is ground breaking because it certainly isn’t but it has helped me understand how much you can or can’t progress depending on your organisations ambition with regard to social technologies.

1) Ignorance and defiance
Straight forward stage really, this represents organisations who may have isolated staff trying to push forward social technologies but those people struggle to get acceptance and open access to sites.

There seems to be a strong defiance to progressing this agenda in the current climate and most of the views held by decision makers are this is a disruptive technology and is counter productive to the aims of the organisation or council.

The defiance and ignorance isn’t restricted to external use only, there is also culture that restricts internal opportunities to use social solutions.

For people who work in such organisations I blogged recently about some do’s and don’ts for getting buy-in by senior managers – these may help, but they don’t come with a guarantee.

2) One way communication

This stage/theme is characterised by organisations and councils who only see the more mainstream social media tools to amplify their existing broadcast channels. This is often represented and seen as a continuous stream of one way traffic made up of press releases. You won’t see much conversation or retweeting of other people’s content.

To be fair this is a common approach and one which allows organisations and councils to experience the social media approach within a very narrow field – I’m not saying it is right or wrong, however the challenge here is moving beyond simply one way broadcast within a reasonable time period so that you don’t lose the opportunity to engage a new audience with your content and or services.

3) Dialogue and conversation

This is where I sense most councils are looking to aim toward in the short-term, it certainly seems the most logical and on reflection looks as though it can create some value.

This is really about changing the way your organisation sees and understands internet based communication tools. My personal view is organisations are happy to allow staff to enter into some kind of email conversation with a customer/citizen providing that they are providing accurate and relevant information or signposting, perhaps even a service directly.

Moving this approach into a more real-time environment seems to present challenges to organisations around relevance, reputation, behaviour etc which currently exist within our traditional communications channels such as phone, face to face and email.

My experience is that organisations and councils have “over time” created a set of consistent standards relating to each channel that they expect their staff to adhere to, thus ensuring that any risks are mitigated and the customer/citizen is engaged with appropriately.

The simple answer is that we all need to develop the same kind of standards for the new channels (easier said than done of course). This in itself presents more challenges which are related to the first stage (Ignorance and Defiance) as there are still perceptions that “social” is not “business”.

I refer back to Rule Number 1 at this point as this is, in my opinion, the approach you will need to take to ensure that you deliver value and take the focus away from the actual tool and seek to simply create a solution to an existing and emerging problem.

4) Collective Decision Making

In most conversations I hear about social technologies, the one area that really does fascinate me is the whole issue of democratic engagement and how social technologies can support and change the way in which citizens are involved in decision-making at a local, national and international level.

I’m not going to go into huge detail about what I believe this is, as I believe this space is still emerging and progress is being made by other people, we just need to learn before a wider set of organisations actually start progressing this area.

One person who I admire and whose blog I enjoy reading around this area is Catherine Howe (Chief Executive of Public i). On her blog you can read all about the Virtual Town Hall project as well as understand her thinking into all of this.

You can of course read about others experiences and views on this area, a couple more people I enjoy reading are: Richard Wilson (Izwe), Carl Whistlecraft (Kirklees Council) and Dave McKenna (Swansea Council)

5) “check in” for content and services around me and for me

I am not currently aware of any council really progressing this aspect, but I know some are using services such as foursquare and Facebook places as a method to engage customers/citizens.

Essentially it is about using the location-based services as a means to access particular services or content. An example might be within libraries, someone checks in and then is made aware of a particular offer or event that is being promoted, a simple process really but it does take some planning and co-ordination across channels in order to maximise the opportunity.

An internal example here might be a public sector worker checks into a public building and is pushed tasks via workflow.

This idea builds on the concept that colleague Martin Howitt articulates in his Location Based Architecture blog post.

6) “push notification” for content and services around me and for me

This is the only evolutionary step in these stages/themes as this is really pushing the previous stage/theme to a more proactive level and again building on the location-based architecture approach.

The main difference in this area is that i wouldn’t need to check in, in order to be pushed tasks, my smart device which naturally has GPS (ok this is a future thing as we need connectivity and devices to catch up), knows where I am and pushes a notification as I pass within a reasonable distance of a public building/space where I have tasks to complete.

Stages/themes 5 and 6 both require a significant underlying architecture and infrastructure in order to maximise the value and opportunity. This post is not the post to explain the infrastructure, that will have to be another time.

I know that each of these stages present different opportunities and challenges and solutions are already emerging which help organisations support their goals within each area. It will be down to each individual organisation to understand its own ambitions.

The only aspect i didn’t refer to is the cultural challenges in transitioning from a traditional business to a social business…that is definitely another blog post.

Filed under: Architecture, Knowledge Share, Learning, Local Government Tagged: internal social networking, location based architecture, location based social networks, social media, social networks

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Christina Morrison

Great post Carl, I think this is a good breakdown on the stages – and I definitely agree with your “Rule Number One.” Social media tools are only helpful if they help you accomplish a business problem or issue. I’m excited to see the results as more agencies begin to invest in the technologies out there today that will help them touch on all of these themes, including #5 and #6.

Carl Haggerty

Thanks Christina, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the variety of stuff that will emerge and reading it about it via blogs and social networks also 🙂