Building networks in Twitter

Neil Williams has a nice post about the way he has built up his network using Twitter:

Twitter, the micro-blogging site to rule them all, has introduced me to more relevant contacts more quickly than any other web 2.0 tool. Or other human being for that matter.

Some people just don’t like Twitter, and that’s fair enough, although I think that much of the time it’s more that they don’t like the way some people use it. One example of terrific use of it, though, comes from local government, of all places.

Quite a few local authorities have Twitter feeds now, as an extra channel of communication between the council and the folk who live in the area. OK, so there are unlikely to be that many Twitter users in each authority’s locality, but as an add-on bit of comms stuff, it’s pretty cool.

However, quite a few of the web teams behind these feeds have set up extra ones, which represent just the webbies themselves. So, not a feed with information about council, but actualy with news of what the web guys are doing and which they use to talk ides through with others. These feeds are seeing a considerable amount of activity and are increasing the interactions between these teams to an extent which I really don’t think happened before.

What’s even better though is the fact that others are being drawn into these conversations as well – it being Twitter, this is no walled garden. So when one local gov web team asks what people think about some of the stuff they are doing, they get responses from not just other local authority folk but also feedback from people like me, who might have a different perspective on things.

It’s a great example of the use that these social networks can bring, as long as you approach them in an open, and collaborative way, of course.

The local gov web team twitter feeds are:

  • http://twitter.com/sdcwebteam
  • http://twitter.com/shcinternetteam
  • http://twitter.com/SBCDevTeam

Have I missed any?

How councils can get started with social media

A sunday morning tweet from Tom Watson set my mind racing this morning:

Which is a very interesting question, not least for me as I have a considerable interest in loca government’s use of social media, as facilitator of the Social Media and Online Collaboration Community of Practice, the developer of the local government search engine and as the one-time author of a blog about using this stuff in local gov.

I actually think there are tremendous opportunities here, possibly more so than in central government, because at the local level, there is already a connection between the people and the government organisation, even if it is just through the collection of council tax, or the picking up of refuse. Local government doesn’t necessarily need to develop common ground with the people it serves, because the locality already act as a common denominator. Councils have a real opportunity to help develop the use of social media in a grographical area, to take a lead, say, in the definition and promotion of common tags to use so that locally generated content can be easily found and shared. The local authority could act as a convener, helping to draw people together online, including individual bloggers/photo sharers/etc, the local press, community groups and so on. I wrote more about this here.

There is plenty of good stuff going on already, but it is in pockets and I’m not sure how well the great work that is going on is being communicated to other authorities. Dominic Campbell is up to some terrific stuff in Barnet, and Simon Wakeman at Medway. I’ve written before about some of their stuff. Then there is Stratford, whose homepage features their Twitter feed, a flickr badge, and links to Stratford’s presence on various social networks, as well as a rather cool way to find out when your bins will be collected. Other councils are also starting to use Twitter as another channel to communicate their stuff – I’m collecting them here. Carl Haggerty at Devon has produced a plan for an externally facing onine community site for the people of Devon to use to connect, share and talk with each other, which looks great.

Lot’s of ideas were discussed at the workshop held by Simon Berry during his time at CLG earlier this year. I wrote up my thoughts in terms of using the social web to make local government a bit less boring. What was clear from the session was that there was tonnes of stuff that councils could be doing to revitalise their relationship with the people using the web.

So, after all that background, how can a Council dip their toes into social media waters?

First, start listening. Stop relying on Google Alerts and start using RSS. Maybe iGoogle, Pageflakes or Netvibes to start with. Subscribe to searches, but also to feeds for Flickr tags and groups related to your area, to delicious bookmarks that are appropriately tagged, likewise YouTube and other video sites. Start checking the local forums and noting where the Council comes in for criticism or even praise. Look on Facebook to see if there are any groups or pages formed around the area – if they are public then you can see what’s being said without having to join at this stage. Identify the people with an obvious love for the area, with genuine enthusiasm and commitment.

Next, start acknowledging and responding. Respond where appropriate in blog comments and in forums. Make sure that the Council’s message is being heard where people want to hear it, don’t rely on them checking your website for press releases or news items, or reading the local paper cover-to-cover. Make use of creative commons licenced images on flickr on your own website, and make sure you include a crediting link. Link from your site to those containing some good news, related to the local area.

Thirdly, start to engage yourself. Start public blogs for big council projects, so that people can be kept in the know – if they want to be – and can leave comments or ask questions, and then make sure someone responds to them. Maybe senior managers should blog too, to help get messages out that people can read without them first going through the filter of the local press. How about creating a blog to publicise the services that the council provides, by having a different team blog every couple of weeks about what they do. Create video content and make it shareable on YouTube, etc, encouraging others to display council content on their sites. Make the copyright on council content as relaxed as possible so that others can use it however they choose. Put meetings online, even if it isn’t live streamed, make them available as podcasts, put any slides on services like SlideShare.

Where should this all be done? Try and use existing services where you can. Don’t try and recreate existing networks where they are already working. If people are happy uploading to a flickr group, let them, don’t try and force them to use an online photo gallery you have just developed. In fact, rather than developing it, spend the money showing folk who don’t know about flickr how to use it. Likewise with blogs – you need a really good argument, in my opinion, not to just use WordPress.com. It’s just so quick and easy – and free.

Who should be doing this? In terms of listening, everyone in the Council. If that’s unrealistic, then at least someone in each team should be monitoring what’s going on, not just communications departments. In terms of acknowledging and responding, then officers with responsibility for what is being discussed should feel empowered to state the council’s position on relevant issues online – again they shouldn’t feel the need to leave it to the communications officer. As for enagaging, then anyone with an enthusiasm for connecting locally online should be provided with the tools to do so. Nobody should be forced into it, but those with a passion to spread the word about the good work they, and other council officers, do should be empowered to do so.

Another important point to make is that social media doesn’t take the place of other forms of communication and enagagement, and really ought to be considered an “as well as”. You’ll still need to do your newsletters and stuff, bu you might be able to integrate the two – maybe by putting links to your online content in your newsletters, for instance. It also mean that you still need to use face to face means of consulting – whilst online social methods can bring great results, it is vital to blend in the offline too, so as to ensure that you are not excluding anyone, and so that as many different voices can be heard.*

What is clear is that this stuff is not the responsibility of the web team, nor the comms team. It should be in service teams that the ideas should be produced and the comms and web folk should just provide the means for that idea to flourish. You do need to have the boss onside though, which is where notes from Cabinet Office ministers come into play.

* This bit added thanks to Lloyd’s comment below. Thanks Lloyd!

Stratford Bin Calendar

Not the most enticing of titles, possibly, but Stratford-on-Avon Council have launched a neat new service allowing people to easily look up when their bins should be collected (strikes permitting, of course) without the need for scanning long tables of towns, roads and dates. They announced it on their twitter feed.

You simple tell the system whereabouts in the district you live, and it tells you when your waste is collected. Easy.

Local government on Twitter!

I’m delighted to note that Stratford-on-Avon District Council has its own account on Twitter. What is even better is that they display the badge on their homepage!

This is just the sort of intiative that we’re looking for in various places, like the Social Media CoP, for example. Fine, there are arguments about Twitter, in terms of how many folk actually use it, its notorious flakiness, etc etc… but sometime you just have to give things a go. And it’s great that someone in local government is doing just that.

Social media & local government

Have come across some interesting bits and pieces recently on the topic of how local government should be using the social web to better communicate and collaborate – exactly the sort of thing we are trying to promote on the Community of Practice.

First up is a presentation by Simon Wakeman, who is Head of Marketing and PR at Medway Council in Kent. Simon’s slides include some interesting research results, plus some details of how Medway have used podcasts to reach out to younger people:

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Second is some slides from Dominic Campbell, who was lucky enough to be appointed Social Media Manager at Barnet Council recently. Dominic discusses how web 2.0 can help Barnet implement their Communications and Engagement Strategy.

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Another tip from Dominic led me to Barnet’s YouTube page (yes! They have one!) which feature some great clips of Charles Leadbeater – he of We-Think fame – talking to the Council about the future shape of local government and local governance in the UK.

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There are some great initiatives going on out there in local government where forward-thinking folk are making the most of web technology to bring councils closer to the people they serve. As with the eDemocracy debate though – is this stuff too fragmented? How can we bring everyone together?

Get satisfaction with your council

Jon Bounds has come up with another brilliant idea – using the ‘people powered customer support’ site GetSatisfaction to create a community around the services provided by Birmingham City Council.

So, I thought, could this work for a local council? Imagine time saved by council officials if knowledgeable citizens helped answer questions, imagine the resources available (once someone had explained how to apply for a licence, the information would be there for everyone), imagine a monolithic body “joining the conversation”.

Rather than deciding to attempt to persuade my local council (Birmingham City Council – one of the largest in the UK) that this would be a good idea, I discovered that – as the site is “a space for an open conversation between you and other people with interests and passions in this organization.” – anyone can set a company page up. So I have.

It ill be interesting to see whether the City Council gets involved. I guess it is like a Fix My Street but for all Council services. Might just have to make one for my local council in Kettering…

lgSHOUT!

lgSHOUT!

lgSHOUT! is another little service I have put together for local government, following on from LGSearch, which went a little way to fixing the problem of getting relevant search results. lgSHOUT! tries to do something about communication.

The idea behind it is that it’s a Twitter for local government types. People can easily sign up and then post short messages to the rest of the community using a box on the home page, so no need to mess about with complicated blog editors and the like. People can respond to others by directly commenting on a shout, or by posting a shout of their own. Everyone can have an avatar and at the moment that’s handled by Gravatar.

So what sort of things might people want to use this service for?

  • Posting interesting links they’ve seen on the web
  • Yelling for help on something
  • Sharing good practice
  • Having a bit of a chat

It’s built on WordPress and the Prologue theme, and as such took about an hour to put together. The biggest problem was getting URLs that were pasted into the box to be parsed into clickable links – in the end I found this plugin. Bits of work to do include:

  • Trying to get it to work with TinyURL like what Twitter does
  • Giving the option of hosting avatars at lgSHOUT! as well as using Gravatar
  • Tidying up the design a bit

So, I hope it’s useful to local gov folk. If you’ve got any queries about it, or fancy having something similar for another sector, just let me know!