A lively kick off to LocalGovCamp Lincoln with this session on ideas and experience of social networking in local government as suggested and lead by Chris Schubert of East Lindsay District Council.

This session started with a discussion about whether council’s should use Facebook or whether people are going to Facebook for purely social reasons and therefore council services are irrelevant. This lead to a brief spin around whether council services are social or not – certainly for county and unitary councils there are more ‘social style’ services (cultural for example) that would fit more neatly with the idea people are only using Facebook for this sort of activity.

There were some interesting examples of how councils are currently using Facebook – a portal page for the whole council to sign post to information elsewhere online, for disseminating emergency information and specific pages for specific services. In all cases the people in the session were advocating using it as an additional channel rather than a replacement for existing online information.

The talk moved on to how it might be run in the future – would services take responsibility for their own pages? Would it be a centralised web team task or fall into the remit of the contact centre? How much time was needed to run, manage and engage in social networks and was this attainable / correct resourcing given the current numbers of people choosing these as their preferred contact channel?

The conversation moved on now, with Paul Canning asking whether councils were going for the low hanging fruit by joining social networks rather than implementing RSS on their sites (for example). The facts were stated that there are more councils on Twitter than have basic RSS feeds running from their websites and the question asked to why this is. The Mash The State campaign was referenced and a few people offered forth their opinion on the matter.

There seems to be a lack of understanding about RSS and its importance. This may be why Twitter is proving more popular with councils at the moment – it is easy to set up, the audience is clear and it is a direct channel. RSS needs some technical knowledge and access to the set up of your website in order to implement, it’s also more about making data free for anyone to use or re-use rather than a direct channel between organisation and citizen.

Again there seemed to be a general consensus in the group that RSS was important and something we all felt our councils should be doing or could be doing better. However, saying and doing are two seperate things and I do hope that from discussions such as this one greater understanding and therefore wider implementation will happen.

Moving away from the social web now to email – still one of the biggest entry points to online information and there aren’t many council’s using it correctly as a communication channel. There is an untapped efficiency to be made in publishing once and letting the information flow – and this includes re-purposing information through email newsletters (and RSS can help here to).

This lead to the session turning their attention to social networks for internal communications. This is particularly interesting to me as I’ll be looking at the issue for my dissertation next year (or will I? My topic is currently under review!) – at the moment the research will be along the lines of whether employees are looking for information or interaction.

There were questions raised about whether internal communications and intranets really need social web tools and to some extent I suppose this depends whether you are using your intranet as a document store, a communication or a collaboration tool. I am really interested at the moment on how councils are preparing for the workforce of the future and optimising their efficiency by tapping into the collective knowledge of the workforce through a social intranet. A internal serendipity engine could help an organisation make leaps and bounds forward while also engaging the workforce in a positive way – it could, maybe not yet but it could.

Some interesting points were raised by Helen Williams about some of getting this type of project underway was down to how it is ‘sold’ internally. She said Carl Haggerty of Devon County Council had re-branded social networking as business networking in order to get chief officers to look past what they thought they knew toward the potential of such a system. More about the pilot Devon has run here.

Time to sum up then – most of the conversation today has been about the big, media darling networks of Facebook and Twitter but there are many more and some may be more appropriate to council services than others. Chris Schubert has done a piece of work to list more than 300 networks including details of the age group and whether membership is open or not. Hopefully this is the sort of information which can be shared across the sector with Knowledge Hub. In the meantime it is certainly worth remembering that there are networks beyond the obvious and a proper channel analysis should be carried out before launching in any online space.

And there is more to choosing and launching on a network. You’ll need proper monitoring and sometimes this might mean paying for the depth of analysis needed to report back to chief officers and service areas. It is also about reputation management and if each service area is acting independently without any central involvement this task will be increasingly difficult.

There was lots more to talk about than we had time for in this session but it was really useful to hear how other councils are thinking about or already getting involved with the social web. The emphasis at the moment seems to be on internal communications but there could be real benefits and more efficient working to come out of using some of the tools as internal implementations. And there is still a lot to learn about the number and type of network out there, how this relates to council services, how we monitor before and after launching and how we manage an organisations reputation when there is no longer a central publishing team but real devolved authorship through services managing profiles across a number of different networks.

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