In Praise of the Crowd

The communities of practice set up under the auspices of Local Government Improvement and Development (Idea.gov.uk) and the USA equivalent Govloop have become vibrant and dynamic platforms for discussion and sharing best practice. The notion that an isolated local government officer can now tap into the combined experience of thousands of colleagues has the potential to improve business practice so long as the institutions themselves embrace the challenge of change in culture this represents (see Meeting in the Middle) . So now we have precedent for the application of crowdsourcing in the realm of local governance.  

Meanwhile in the 3rd sector there is another community less concerned with the teeth grinding and intense navel gazing of local government transformation because they are still struggling with a curve ball called Big Society. The question they are asking is ‘Where is the leadership?’ .  The concept may have come from central government but, like the cuts in levels of funding, you can be certain that local government will be expected to deal with the fall out. It’s easy to be cynical about the Big Society but given another name like localism, it’s pretty much the direction of travel we need to go in anyway. So I wonder whether expanding the CoP principle to hyperlocal and cross-community collaboration online is perhaps a quick win while we’re waiting for clear direction from Westminster.

That way, even if it never materialises, we have a functioning model of shared solutions that can grow organically and is sustainable. It doesn’t immediately answer the question of who delivers a given service or solution but aren’t we more likely to answer that question as a public sector community than as a local authority in isolation?

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What is the function of Comms?

 

Perhaps asking ‘what was the function of Comms?’ is a more pertinent question.

The traditional role was to issue press releases, get portfolio holders in the media, oversee the ‘presence’ of the Council brand and manage reputation.

With a radical transformation agenda unfolding, it is timely to reflect on the changing landscape and the vital role that Comms must play in assisting local authorities to respond to the dual pressures of smaller budgets and public expectations.

The landscape has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. The internet and email was a major cultural shift for many organisations and society in general. With ready access to information via a world wide web, it marked the beginning of the democratisation of knowledge. What some organisations have failed to recognise is that the creation of the internet was only the beginning. In the last ten years online technology and applications have accelerated the process of democratisation, tools designed for social interaction have been co-opted to allow grass roots activism to flourish.

There is no evidence that internet access is decreasing, that the digital divide is growing, that mobile phone ownership is slowing down, that people are reverting to print media and terrestrial television, that online transactions are a fad or that Facebook is on its last legs. All the evidence is to the contrary. This is the world today.

Online, the big conversation has been underway for some time and many Councils haven’t even been eavesdropping let alone engaging. If Big Society is to work, if we are truly going to engage with the third sector and citizens in general then communication must become a conversation.

As council’s transforms themselves, every aspect of delivery will come under scrutiny from an increasingly tech-savvy, vocal populace who chatter incessantly online . We need to support staff and managers and give them the tools and techniques they will increasingly need to be part of that conversation if we are to succeed as an organisation. Moreover we can use these tools to engage with residents and encourage them to join us on the journey and contribute to the debate.

We should embrace social media not because it’s trendy but because it’s cheaper than any alternative and it works.

A number of transformation work streams are building a new infrastructure. Customer intelligence and tell-me-once technology will help streamline transactions and open up the potential for targeted, cost-effective marketing. These facilities alongside the potential of social media to open direct channels to the public are just the beginning. Staff should be given guidance on optimising the return from this investment in time and effort.

Comms is ideally placed to provide that guidance and to manage a central presence in the online community. It can devise ever more creative ways of engaging the public in dialogue and consultation. By providing information directly to the public through the new technologies and relying less on local media we can enlighten our customers and provoke informed debate.

A final word on reputation;

Reputation Management has historically been delivered through a control mechanism – manage the message. The reality is that control is never an exact science when we rely on local media as the mouthpiece. Today, Twitter streams and blogs circumvent the local media and are beyond the control of local authorities. We may be suspicious of what people are saying about us online but unless we engage through the medium, how can we know what is being said? The notion of Control is a delusion and the perception of Comms as a controlling or censorial influence may have been justified but it’s damaging to the reputation of the department. Old habits may be hard to break and persuading colleagues that we’ve changed may be even harder. But change we must. Facilitating, inspiring, empowering and supporting should become the watchwords and practice. It is by engagement that we will enhance the future reputation of our councils and begin to build the Big Society. Engagement is the function of Comms.

Wired

  Social Media do not entirely replace traditional means of communication and consultation but it is a more dynamic and cost-effective tool. During times of emergency, it accelerates the speed at which we can inform residents. It allows us to report decisions when they are made via streams such as Twitter and Facebook. Think Planning, Severe Weather, Gritting, School Closures, Cabinet Decisions – all of these can be reported in real time and via a medium that allows recipients to forward the information to their friends. Plugging in to Social Media wire the council to a vibrant, inter-connected medium. More significantly, when it is the council that is issuing the information, the nature of social media – forwarding, alerting, re-tweeting, imbedded links to Council web pages, means the message is far more likely to retain its integrity and accuracy than when issued through traditional channels such as the local media where the pursuit of headlines is the main driver. This approach will not eliminate entirely the appearance of misinformation or urban myths but it will improve our batting average and create a new, trusted outlet for Council information.