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Using Social Media to Bridge the Public With Local Government and City Services

I heard this story on the radio this morning, and it got me thinking. Why are there not more city services, such as those run by a city hall in any township, using more elements of social media?

One local politician wants the Vancouver Park Board to get in on the act.

A motion going before the Board Monday night will ask members to look at not only posting audio of their meetings on-line but also to explore providing citizens with regular updates via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. […]

“I think that with all this social media that we have there is just so much that we can do. The more we can bring people in, the more we’ll know about what people want and the better job we can do.”

Blyth says the web is a good way to keep people informed about issues covered in upcoming meetings, as well as little known Park Board events. [news1130]

Now before you start rolling your eyes at the notion of another pusher of the Facebook and Twitter bandwagon, you need to start considering the ramifications of what these free and easy tools of direct contact really are.

Let me say those keywords again. Free and easy. Direct contact.

These terms should be enough for those organizations and committees to perk up a little bit if you have ever heard or said the notion of things getting done in local government but the public doesn’t get involved. Perhaps they judge interest on who shows up at those meetings in which anyone can attend.

Even better, how many times have you heard of something being decided by a city council to only have it be exactly the opposite of what the majority of the public wanted to have happen? Usually that happens because the public was unaware of it even being a matter of discussion because, and let’s be completely honest, reading those city council minutes are not the top priority of every single person that they affect.

So, to give you some basic idea of what your local government could be doing, here are some tips that I brainstormed this morning. Consider them starting points because you can really push things much further depending on how far you want to take these concepts.

facebook-small-logo Facebook: I’ll start here because there are some brilliant ways to use this service. Most importantly, starting Groups and then using it to announce and invite members to Events are great. It gets added to their profile and they can see when, where, and who is going to be there. And since you don’t need one person to moderate the group, you can utilize your whole organization to interact with the community online and in person. In fact, you never know if your members will start having meetups, outside of official meetings.

twitter Twitter: Say what you will, but Twitter has a reach that is tough to beat. Announce scheduled meetings, send out updates, remind followers of scheduled events, take feedback from your followers, make live updates of what is going on at meetings or events, send out links to your agendas and minutes as soon as they are published to your website, etc. The possibilities are really endless.

ustream UStream: In the past month, I’ve seen more and more high schools using UStream’s free, live video streaming service to show basketball games as they happen. So why can’t more local governments being using the same technology to “webcast” city council meetings or school board meetings? You don’t need a local cable access channel to do it. All it takes is an Internet connection, a laptop with decent audio input, and a webcam. It might not be the ideal setup, but you can embed that video into your organization’s website where anyone can watch and listen from home. You’ll also want to send out an update on Twitter to let everyone know that the video stream is live and that the meeting is about to start.

612px-youtube_logosvg YouTube: President Barack Obama is using YouTube to do his weekly address to the nation, so why can’t your local mayor do the same thing? Get a video camera, edit, upload, and release it. Embed that to your city’s website and keep the people informed on a regular basis all the while giving your mayor a face and a voice rather than just a name. Twitter that as well when the new video is posted.

Podcasting: More often than none, official, city meetings usually have a PA system in the rooms they are held in. Get something you can record audio with and find out how you can get a feed off of the system in the room so you can record it, and then you can post every recording as an episode of the official podcast of your local city council. Even if you have some device you can stick in the middle of the room that can capture all of the conversations in an audible enough manner, that’s perfect, too. It might take some work to edit and publish every episode, but the more you do this, the more archives you’ll create over time. Oh, and be sure to post an update on Twitter that the latest podcast episode is up as well as a link directly to it.

WordPress Icon Square Blogs: Text is always going to be the saving grace of any official organization, and creating content that is search-able is key. If you have a new resident to a community, what better way is there to get to know a community than to have an official blog from the office of the mayor with his weekly/bi-weekly/monthly video addresses, thoughts on events going on in or around the area, progress reports on his or her city plan, or announcements of great community events that you should go check out because the mayor will be there as well? I think the new person in town might have to subscribe to the RSS feed of the mayor’s blog because it seems like a good way to stay informed about this new city they are now living in.

On top of that, the more text based content you have, the better your search engine optimization (SEO) goes up when some one tries to search for something on Google about your community. Wouldn’t it be best if some of the first search results that come up are those coming directly from the folks running the city? That would seem very important to people involved in local tourism and chamber of commerces. Of course, Twitter any and all updates to the blog or website so your followers are reminded to check it out.

By no means are all of these thoughts complete or are they everything that one could do when taking social media into consideration for a governmental organization that run cities large or small. The fact is, the tools are there and within easy grasp of using, and it’s not out of the question to get going on some of these concepts within a matter of days, on little to no budget. The results might surprise you as suddenly a public service actually opens itself up to the public it is meant to serve.

If you have additional ideas or even examples of cities doing concepts like this, feel free to share them in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Using Social Media to Bridge the Public With Local Government and City Services”

  1. You may wish to check out the Metagovernment project. The purpose of this international software development group is to serve this community governance function, but without the city council. In other words, we believe web technologies are now sophisticated enough that people can collaborate on local governance without having to rely on representation.

    The concept is more complex than simple direct democracy: we are working toward a distributed mesh of communities where people get involved in the communities of interest which most motivate them, and let other people work on other communities. If you would like to explore the project, check out our website:
    and for more information, read our archives or get involved. it is of course open to everyone:

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  3. In addition, here is a post by Dave Fleet re: social media and government.

    I think the bigger issue is how social media can be used in a bureaucracy with many policies that sometimes seems at odds with different department.

    Other issues to address is WHY or HOW it delivers value to citizens along with an analysis of the current costs of delivering government services.

    And by the way, I tried to connect to City of Vancouver’s twitter and it is locked.

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