Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Adopting Web 2.0 in local government

What is Web 2.0?
The term 'Web 2.0' has been attributed to Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media. He coined the term to refer to the applications and software technologies that promote the sharing of digital information between users.

Web 2.0 is very often used synonymously with the terms 'social media' and 'social networking'. Indeed, they are often so similar that in most cases they can be used interchangeably (and so will this blog).

Web 2.0 represents a group of technologies including blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, podcasts etc. Together, they provide a more socially connected web, where everyone is able to update the information space. This is obviously a much more egalitarian model, and so the web also becomes a good leveller.

Web 2.0 and local government
As Web 2.0 allows users to update the information space, irrespective of who they are, it is therefore more than ably suited to be used within local government, where social democracy is important to its constituents.

The use of social media is one way in which a local council can become more transparent, accountable and possibly even increase it's levels of trust amongst its constituents.

As stated earlier, Web 2.0 provides an egalitarian playing field, where every citizen can have their voice heard. In a Web 2.0 world, you do not need to be a celebrity, famous or powerful. However, having a web presence is not necessarily the same thing as having a voice, and the two should not be confused. This is where local councils can play a major part by giving their citizens a voice they may not have otherwise. This promotes the ideals of citizen empowerment.

Uses of Web 2.0 in local government
There are many examples of Web 2.0 being used within local governments. Lichfield District Council, in partnership with Jadu Content Management Systems, have implemented a Twitter feed for their planning applications, and developed an application called Twitterplan to allow citizens to receive more specific planning notifications.

Redbridge council used online polls to solicit feedback from its citizens in relation to the closure of Post Offices. Their web site is generally considered cutting edge, whether it is to your personal tastes or not.

One very important trend in the use of Web 2.0 within the local government space, is to engage with a wider, harder to reach audience, such as teenagers and young adults. Through the use of social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, local councils have a far greater ability to engage with these younger demographic groups. Such channels are also more cost effective than the alternatives.

Employee access to social media sites
There still seems to be a mis-conception that using social media sites leads to a lowering of productivity, and so in many places of employment (including local councils), there is a move to ban all such sites. So although the citizens may benefit from the adoption of social media, it seems that its staff seem to be losing out.

This position is misguided. To use social media effectively, you need to engage with it. How can you efffectively use Facebook or Twitter, unless you actively use them yourself.

Thankfully, there do appear to be some forward thinking managers working in local government. To quote David Wilde, Chief Information Officer at the London Borough of Waltham Forest 'For managers it can be difficult to know what exactly their employees are doing. But the organisation needs to be outcome-based, and I don't think we should be using technology to prevent access to social networking sites. If there are staff performance issues, we should address them directly'.

Some guidelines for using Web 2.0
  • Don't look at social media as purely about technology. Look at it as about being more effective, saving time and making cost savings. These are issues that citizens will greatly appreciate.
  • Think about what resources you have. There is little point having a Twitter feed, or a blog, if there is no-one to respond to the incoming tweets / comments.
  • A local government blog should be seen as a council wide communcations platform, not as a side project for a handful of keen individuals.
  • Consider a Web 2.0 strategy. What social media channels will be used, and what will they be used for?
  • Ensure you have a staff policy on the use of social media sites during working hours.

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