Should municipalities use Social Media?

While businesses are quickly identifying the benefits of using social media tools to listen to what people have to say about them, and then participate in the discussion, governments have been almost completely absent. In71183-12 fact, many are spending thousands of dollars building up “electronic walls” to block the use of these tools. But why would a city not want to have a conversation with it’s residents?

I firmly believe that government has always trailed public sector concerns in technology and most things by 10-15 years. Local cities and municipalities are literally just getting around to putting up firewalls that protect sensitive data and privacy concerns. The consultants that government officials customarily rely on are much older as a demographic and not entirely in-tune with current technologies. And finally, government learns from its mistakes, if it has ever “over-shared” information in the past, more rules and regulations are quickly developed to prevent sharing that information anymore. All of these components have created a less-than transparent government that has difficulty understanding what is truly important to its constituencies. Many times government  has to guess what is important, or even more disastrous and costly, hire a public relations consultant to tell the city officials what causes residents to be so adversarial and untrusting of their government.

My suggestion to cities that find these complexities within their council chambers, city management or municipal services (police, fire, water) would be to introduce cost effective, and policy driven social media. This campaign would have a single goal of creating an “open and transparent” government that brings together open dialogue, open content and open data.

  • Build blogs and wikis, as well as facebook and twitter outposts to initiate and then foster a two way communication between City Council and the community.
  • Encourage community contribution of local knowledge to collaborative spaces such as Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.
  • Releasing City Council materials, when possible, under a Creative Commons license “to promote the use and dissemination of Council’s materials while retaining Council’s rights of authorship”
  • Building of an application programming interface (API) to that information so others can use it. (to build iPhone apps, economic development tools, etc.)

To support these commitments, the City must encourage and train councilmen and women to use these internet tools in their official capacity. The City should also support and mentor community members who are active online or who wish to be and to provide training and support for less digitally-engaged citizens (using the City’s social media champions to provide peer-led training). Likewise, senior staff, managers and key professional officers will be kept abreast of the outcomes of online community engagement strategies.

If you wish that your City Government would begin engaging the citizens of your town using the most powerful and cost effective tools available to them today, you should contact your City Council or County and municipal leaders and let them know.

If you are seeking professional support in starting a community engagement strategy for your city, please contact me for guidance and training support.

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