For various reasons I’ve been spending more time talking to engagement and communications teams recently.  That, combined with the usual work with democratic services has made me think about the way that technology changes the relationship with the citizen and that the emphasis on interaction requires a ‘coming together’ of communications, citizen engagement and formal democracy around the individual.  As I write this it seems like a statement of the bl**ding obvious however that clearly hasn’t been the case before with these three activities happening in parallel silos within Councils.  It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise – as the one stop shop approach has been introduced for transactional engagement with the citizen it makes sense that this would also be appropriate for democratic participation.

But social media is very different transactional services and the pressures of the network society and the subsequent social web should bring about a change in the way that local government is at least thinking about engaging with citizens democratically beyond a simple (!) reorganisation of council structures.

  • The first change is that each of these teams within an organisation are needing more skills that have traditionally belonged to the others.  Communication teams are needing to learn how to manage interaction and not concentrate of broadcasting messages, engagement people need to think about how to produce engaging content online and all parties need to think about how to use the formal decision making process of democracy to ensure that the public are not disappointed by new interactions with the council – that they have a good democratic experience.  This is not about centralising the work as there are still, in my view, three different strands of work here – but it is about internal knowledge management and skills exchange.
  • The second change is in the expectations of the public.  You will look very foolish if you do not synchronise your public persona across social media sites.  I think its really important that you allow individuals to establish their own voice in the crowd (or tweet in the flock!) but it needs to be clear that they are also talking to each other internally
  • And finally you will need to start your clock running in Internet rather than local government time.  I always thinks of internet years being like dog years – 7 times as fast.  If we then say that Local Government years are like tortoise years and 7 times slower we are after a increase of speed of X49!!!!

Carl Haggerty over in Devon is running a trial of internal social networking tools and says this:

“my view was that if we could learn to professionally experience Social Networking inside the council and start to engage with staff in new and exciting ways, it wouldn’t be too much of a step to engage with the public in similar spaces.”

And this seems a very sensible starting point to get people comfortable with the tools and the develop their voice.  However, once the tools and embedded,  it probably needs more than that – it will need these three teams to sit down together and really figure out how they want to manage the relationship with the citizen.

Its another strand of the work that is needed to take our use of the social web beyond enthusiastic dabbling towards something that we get real value from – all part of the campaign to make it useful!