The Independent View: Local government, social media and what the public really wants

To many, social media seems the ideal way for government – especially local government –  to engage in more dialogue with communities in a way that is low cost, time-efficient and allows a two way (or indeed a multidirectional) relationship.

But how many normal people follow their council on Twitter? Research done by the LGiU found that in the vast majority of cases it is about 1% of the constituency.

Social media has the potential to play a huge role In engaging people with political system whilst saving cash. Examples like the BwD Winter  page – which Blackburn with Darwent Council believe saved them 10,000 phone calls and nearly £8,000 last winter – give encouraging evidence of this.

However, we are far from the tipping point for when this becomes the day-to-day mainstream. The demand from the public is simply not yet there, although it is certainly rising.

This raises the further question of whether governments are ready to deal with a growing expectation from the public to interact with their politicians online. As David Plouffe, manager of the 2008 Obama for America campaign, said, “So many people are living their lives through technology – how can we expect their interactions with politics to be any different?”

Our findings raise some worries. Of the 245 councils surveyed, less than 30% feel that they possess the skills, technology and training capacity to deal with the ‘digital by default’ approach the Cabinet Office is calling for. In many cases, social media was blocked to anyone outside the communications department.

On a more positive note, we did find that 15-25 per cent of a local authorities communications budget could be saved through more digitally minded delivery. Face-to-face contact costs £14, whereas an online exchange is around 17p.

Government communications should reflect the digital ecosystem of the community, or audience, they want to connect and engage with. They must be where the peoples eyeballs are and fitted around the spaces citizens are already using to network with each other and the institutions and services around them.

In practice, this looks like a fusion of email notifications, social media and a proactive participation in the growing number of ‘hyperlocal’ websites or online community forums (for more info on hyperlocal websites, please see this post about a Lib Dem councillor in the London Borough of Southwark).

To achieve the right balance, councils need to undertake work in three areas. First, understanding the problem to assess what action is required. Second, improving content, delivery and reach of existing information produced. Third, signposting to council services, external providers, voluntary and charitable organisers to equip people with the information they need.

In the report we make 14 recommendations of good practice that governments – both national and local – should consider adopting. The report is available to download for free here and I would welcome the opportunity to hear your opinion about our analysis.

* Rob Dale is the LGiU’s online engagement lead and can be contacted on [email protected] or through Twitter at @robandale.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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This entry was posted in Online politics, Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Oct '11 - 8:06pm

    “Government communications should reflect the digital ecosystem of the community, or audience, they want to connect and engage with. They must be where the peoples eyeballs are and fitted around the spaces citizens are already using to network with each other and the institutions and services around them.”


  • Interaction is all very well. However using very old fashioned email I chased up some empty grit bins last winter and was told they had been re-filled. When I met residents they suggested that this may not be the case (actually the language was a bit more graphic!).

    I then had to chase them further – eventually emailing the Chief Exec at the weekend – before they conceeded that the bins had probably not been refilled but their systems didn’t provide for any sort of check.

    So getting the social media stuff right is all well and good – but you need to have the basic quality of service in place to underpin that first. No point if there are 37 different ways to report an empty grit bin if the damn thing doesn’t get filled up 🙂

  • These digital maniacs need to come back to the real world! Hywel has expressed it more politely, but weneed to stop this obsession that we are going to save billions by going exclusively digital. Many, many people will continue to want to interact by more personal methods, and we should be encouraging that as well as via the arrogantly titled “social media”. As Liberals we should be fighting these constant attempts to force everyone down the same channels.

  • 1% of the constituency is still 1% and that matters, surely. Furthermore, whilst this may be the ‘average’ over the whole country I am sure that in wards where a councillor is active, in more ‘social-media-active’ wards, it would be higher.

  • @Tim13 – you are right, but I do not know of too many people who are ‘going exclusively digital’. Personally, I communicate by telephone, paper, surgery, door-knocking, surveying, and social media.

  • tim13 – I don’t think anyone is being forced down any channel.

    However I think your right that this shouldn’t be looked at as a money saving exercise. Eg the BwD winter page would have required extra staff time to set up and maintain (albeit it a very small amount) – but I bet it also generates additional work in terms of requests for grit bins, additions to the gritting programme, bin refill requests etc. IN pure money cost terms that means more ends up being spent – though of course you get a better service.

    It is a very good example of communicating on a significant issue which people need information on – eg which roads are open, are schools closed, identifying problems at an earlier stage. Just as an example if people are told that a gritting waggon has broken down so streets in area X aren’t being dealt with as quickly as they’d like then people will understand what is happening rather than the usual “useless council” mutterings.

    Don’t underestimate the reach of social media – whilst my counci’s twitter feed as a esoteric range of followers (I don’t konw what the Catholic dioceses of Phoenix Arizona gets from it!) there are quite a few groups and people I could identify as community leaders in some shape or form – that makes it a good way to get information disseminated.

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