Social Media in the Public Sector: Opportunities & Threats (#publicsectoronline)

I haven’t had the opportunity to live tweet from my own Twitter account for a while, so great to get to this event organised by inside government. Usual problems of poor connections and limited battery life means I’m doing this blog post to talk about some of the things I didn’t get the chance to during the sessions themselves.

Despite those blips, the conference brought together a wide range of social media types from public sector organisations including central Government (BIS had the keynote speaker), the NHS local Government and other public sector organisations including the police. There was a good sprinkling of research presented too.

My colleague Paul’s  keynote speech focused on changes within the Government Digital landscape (including yesterday’s launch of the professionally focused single Government website beta, Inside Government (not to be confused with the conference organisers!)).  He highlighted how campaigns like the recently-launched #businessinyou have showcased how social media can effectively drive traffic to messaging, while crowdsourcing exercises like the Red  Tape Challenge (and hopefully our new Clipboard Challenge) are changing the landscape and allowing different types of  engagement to what has previously happened.  We now have our own network of digital champions within BIS, so it was great they got a mention too.  And,  not for the first time at the conference, the sliding scale of engagement was mentioned: for some people, listening to social media conversations will be enough to convince them of the potential for social media – and some will be inspired to engage further.

Next up was Brighton and Hove’s Social Media Officer – representing one of the first local government authorities to have such a post.   Like our team, she works with discreet teams within her own organisation to get them interested and engaged in social media.  There seemed to be an open culture of experimentation, with different teams taking their own approaches and being given the chance – when appropriate – to have social media presences.  I loved her idea of giving the teams 3 to 6 month trial periods to test their commitment and ability to deliver with the tools available.

Alex Talbott, from NHS London, has already shared his slides from the day. As founder of the #nhssm weekly twitter chats on the use of social media he had plenty to say on both the challenges and the value of introducing social media conversations into public sector spaces. The NHS was an interesting example, as technology has, in some cases changed the nature of the patient-doctor relationship, turning it completely on its head and putting the patient more in control.

The difficulty (but necessity) of evaluating social media engagement was mentioned several times during the day – with research from Ipsos Mori’s Tara Beard-Knowland suggesting that it’s actually futile to try and measure ROI of this type of activity: instead she recommended changing the language of the business case and being creative about establishing new measures of success.

Two presentations discussed the role of social media in the Summer 2011 riots, one from the London Brough of Hillingdon’s Head of Corporate Comms showing how a local authority used Twitter and Flickr to provide information and evidence of the situation on the ground to reassure citizens.  Amanda Coleman – from Greater Manchester Police and part of the team responsible for the GMP24 initiative – explored how Twitter had gone from being “nice to have” to essential in that organisation even before August’s riots, leaving them well-placed to engage with communities online during that time. Interesting that the prospect of having their photo uploaded to Flickr may have had a psychological deterrent impact on potential rioters.

The Greater Manchester Police presentation inspired for another reason – all Comms colleagues are able to tweet and run corporate social media channels giving real scope for engagement.

I’m looking forward to seeing the slides from the final presentation that I sadly had to miss, Vlatka Hlupic from Westminster Business School discussing how there needs to be a change in organisational culture and management style to “foster effective use of social media”.  It left me wondering whether those of us in digital engagement should be learning from the work that was done for Sciencewise on organisational readiness for public dialogue and changing both language and approach to suit the situation in which social media is to be applied.  Do we need an equivalent Social Media (or Digital Engagement) Index? (Someone might tell me there already is one now!)

David Harte, who chaired the conference, has posted a podcast of the day.  Meanwhile, I want to explore the Social Media Benchmarking survey which was mentioned the presentation by David Thorp.

A final thought – there was a recognition of the importance of experimentation in this space – are public sector organisations any more or less able to do this than their counterparts in other sectors in current financial climates?

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