Local governments taking lead in being social

NOTE: This was first published in the April 30 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

Have you “liked” your town lately?

According to a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois-Chicago, government agencies are embracing social media as a way to inform and engage the public. The study ranked Naperville, Aurora, Elgin, Arlington Heights and Skokie among suburbs that are at the top of staying in touch and informing its constituency through social and online platforms.

But government’s use of social media goes well beyond posting pictures of the mayor with his BFFs. When coupled with existing online platforms, social media is providing new avenues for an agency to keep its public informed and create a new “transparency” in providing easy access to information.

“The unique thing about government usage of social media is in who is initiating the communication,” said Don Gingold, president of Sprocket Websites in Naperville. “In business, it’s almost always the sales and/or marketing departments. Their message is one of persuasion. With government, their message is one of information. They are trying to engage, but not to sell. Instead, it’s to create information flow.

“Governments want to engage with citizens about budgets, construction projects and the delivery and quality of services. For real-time communication, governments want to receive the quickest possible notice of crimes in progress, natural disasters or developing communication bottlenecks so that they can deploy resources to deal with the situation,” he added. “Conversely, they want to be able to rapidly inform citizens in real time about local emergencies, weather alerts and other time-sensitive issues.”

Sprocket has worked with several government agencies to develop and maintain websites, and recently began migrating to what they term “digital governance,” combining online and social media strategies to fully engage local government and the public. For example, Sprocket recently worked with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s office to hold a Twitter town hall meeting on government corruption and solicited questions for the event through the social media platform.

“(DeKalb Co. State’s Attorney) Clay Campbell has a well-maintained Facebook page and active Twitter stream, along with a thorough, interactive website,” Gingold noted. “We believe it is the first occurrence of such at the local government level.”

While communities are developing “communities” on Facebook and Twitter, each platform serves a very different purpose from the local government perspective.

“Facebook is mainly used to engage residents regarding local issues and to inform them about the activities of an officeholder, agency or government unit,” he said. “Facebook lends itself well to this purpose because of the ample number of characters that can be employed in wall postings — 5,000 as opposed to Twitter’s 140 character limit. The ability to attach links to useful websites, video, audio and  applications that can be used with a Facebook page.

“In contrast to Facebook, Twitter lends itself better to the real-time reporting of events and especially emergencies because of the instant indexing of all messages and the ‘trending topics’ sidebar.”

And while most government agencies focus their social media efforts on the big players like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Gingold said some agencies are experimenting with newer platforms, such as Google+ and the photo ‘pinning’ site Pinterest.

“Many cities — even smaller ones like Tyler, Texas — have Pinterest accounts where the city and its residents have created dozens of ‘boards’ with photos of their town and its attractions,” he said.

“That said, the bulk of communication is happening on the tried and true platforms, since the bulk of the social media population is there.” He added, “and the rest of the online population will look for information on the government website, so government entities should be sure their site is maintained as they venture into social media.”

In addition, some cities have looked to mobile apps as a way to get real-time information to residents faster.

“Governments use apps in two major ways: to use resources more effectively and to supply citizens with critical information when the need it the most,” Gingold said. “In the city of Chicago, for example, an app called Snow Tracker has been developed that permits citizens to use mobile devices to monitor the location of snowplows in order to see how soon their street will be plowed.

“Now that this app has come available, city emergency lines no longer need be overwhelmed with irate citizens wondering when their street will be plowed, while citizens can plan their lives more easily knowing when they will be able to move freely,” he added.

With the help of Stephen Haliczer, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University and an expert on the topic, Sproket is making a push to local governments around the state to offer digital governance strategies and solutions. Gingold noted they’ve also added the expertise of Jill Schuch, a social media instructor based in Scottsdale, Ariz., to offer governments website and social media management.

Gingold stresses that a solid strategy employs both website and social media applications, and one does not replace the other.

“Social media platforms do not replace your website, and best practice is to integrate both,” he said. “At least show links between the two, but a savvy organization would show their Facebook or Twitter streams on their own website, and would refer to website pages in their social media posts.” For more, go to http://www.sprocketwebsites.com.