Being a real authority

Interesting title ‘Local Authority’. I work for one and my interest is cultural change through innovation. And lately I’ve been looking at that name in a different light. Here in Shropshire, we’ve been slowly building a family of social media accounts across a range of services and the old stalwarts of Facebook & Twitter are the foundation stones. There’s still a bit of hearts-and-minds stuff to do to help colleagues see the benefits of going where the conversation is but we’re getting there. Now, my interest is turning towards service-related blogs.

Recently, I’ve been describing to colleagues the notion of being not just a local authority in the institutional sense but an authority on key matters, locally. So the term local authority can have a different meaning. Each part of our organisation has access to privileged information. Not privileged in the top secret sense, just privileged in the sense that we hear about it first. There’s an audience for that. A while back, we adopted the Birmingham City Council model of creating our own online newsroom as the primary source of council news. But social media can also empower frontline officers and managers to be the news provider for their service; becoming advocates for the work they do as well as responding to the conversations that the information sparks. Look at the work that Wolverhampton Parks have been doing on Twitter, for example or Acton Scott Museum here in Shropshire. But Twitter and Facebook have their limitations. A blog can tell the whole story. Our Shropshire Family Information Service has already shown colleagues the way in terms of blogging. And kudos to @katebentham for that.

There are multiple audiences for this kind of content. Broadly, our customers but also stakeholders, partners and businesses in the sector. Fellow professionals too as well as news agencies and the media in general. Guest blogs from any one of those groups adds a new dimension to the output and adds another level of advocacy.

There’s a wealth of stories to tell and who better to tell them? Even as we undergo unparalleled structural change we still need to communicate what we do and why we do it. In that context, maybe ‘doing’ social media starts to look less like a chore and more like a necessity.

Digital Futures12

I’ve attended a few local government innovation events over the last year or so.  Enough to spot something of a trend. Where conversations were once dominated by discussions around technology, platforms and apps and the user stats to back them up, the conversation is now tempered with more talk about changing culture and attitudes.

The recent Digital Futures 12 conference in Shrewsbury was a prime example. The speakers made reference to social media and digital engagement but not to reel off stats on Facebook & Twitter usage. Time and again we heard about the positive fallout from adopting social tools.

Nick Jones @nickjonesCOI set the tone with the quote “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”- a timely reminder of digital exclusion that was echoed by Alison Smith @peskypeople and here’s a link to her slides. Alison also made a good point about accessibility. It’s not about supporting a disadvantaged minority. An accessible web site is good for everyone. Vicky Sargent @vickysargent made a compelling argument for channel shift with an estimated £134M potential savings to English councils. Vicky also highlighted the need to provide data as maps as well as lists.

The day was littered with great quotes. Louise Kidney @loulouk suggested that social media were “a trojan horse for cultural change”. And while we’re on the subject of quotes Carrie bishop @carriebish called called for “open by default..digital by design.”

Consultation is a thorny issue for some but if we are to be ‘open by default’, we’ve got to get it right. Engaging people in the democratic process is another tricky one but Catherine Howe @curiousc made the point that a citizen engaged in consultation is engaged in the democratic process. And when it comes to the impact of social tools, she also underlined the ability of online to change offline behaviour; a notion summed up with the call to “think in public..listen publicly”. In other words, don’t go to your customers with a fully formed idea and ask them what they think of it, because that ‘aint consultation.

Nick Booth @podnosh spoke of the success of social media surgeries but highlighted the need for many more if we are to narrow the digital divide. He referred to what he calls the stock pot of social capital. Don’t assume that a community is necessarily in deficit. Begin by assuming that there is social capital and work out how to find it.

Harking back to the benefits of social media, Alison Hook @allyhook highlighted the fact that the Coventry City Council Facebook page accounts for 45% of their web traffic.

There were may more calls to arms during the day by the likes of Justin Griggs @justingriggs from the National Association of Local Councils. And it’s worth noting that if some local authorities are slow at taking up social media, some parish and town councils are even further behind; and a two tier approach to social media won’t help co-creation one jot.

So, my abiding image is pockets of future in a sea of present. The challenge is to join up the dots.

Right, where do we start?