How are local authorities using social media?

As I have mentioned before, we recently ran an event especially for social media managers working in the public sector. As part of the preparation for this event we asked the attendees to complete a short survey to give us an idea of how they were using social media and the challenges that they were facing. The results were fascinating so I want to share them with you in this blog post.

Which social networks are most used in local government?

We started by asking people which social networks they were currently using in their organisations. As you can see, penetration of Facebook and Twitter is universal. All the organisations that our attendees represented were using both of them. We also found extensive use of YouTube, which many councils use widely to disseminate video content. Image-based social networks such as Pinterest and Instagram are not yet as widely used, largely because there seem to be fewer obvious applications for them. Despite Google’s best efforts, Google+ has really not taken off in the local government sector at all. Discussion during the day also revealed growing use of instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and SnapChat, and interest in them from those not currently using them, so if we repeated this research in six months time I’d expect to see them featuring in the list as well.

social media usage chart

Social networks in use in local government organisations

What does local government use social media for?

Respondents told us about a wide range of different applications for social media within their organisations.

  • Keeping citizens informed – 95% of our respondents told us they used social media for this purpose and on the day we heard many different examples of the ways in which organisations are keeping in touch with stakeholders via social media. For example, many councils use Twitter as a quick and easy way of alerting people to current news such as traffic problems, fallen trees, gritting lorries on the road and so on. Traditionally they’d have to make announcements like these via local radio but social media means it’s quick and easy to let people know about ongoing situations as they’re happening. Twitter also lends itself to some highly specialised announcement feeds – for example in Somerset there’s a daily Twitter feed letting parents know what’s on the menu in schools that week.
  • Engaging with citizens – 87% of the group didn’t only use social media as a method of broadcasting announcements to people but took it to the next level and used it as a way of really engaging with citizens as part of a two way dialogue and to improve public perception of or knowledge about their services. The Isles of Scilly Police Facebook page is a great example of creative use of social media in this way, and currently has more than 50,000 likes from all over the world.
  • Consulting with citizens – 70% of the respondents said that their organisation was using social media as a formal part of the public consultation process. Monmouthshire County Council is a great example of this. It publicises upcoming consultations across all its social networks and uses the particular features of each one as part of the process as well – for example by running 24 hour polls on Twitter getting people’s answers to relevant questions. Social media offers a big benefit when used in this way as it enables a much wider range of people to take part in consultations than simply those who can physically attend meetings.
  • Reducing calls to contact centres – 47% of the survey respondents said that their organisations were using social media explicitly as part of a channel shift strategy designed to reduce the number of calls into their contact centres. I believe there’s a missed opportunity here for other organisations who are not doing this. Social media can be an extremely cost effective part of a channel shift strategy and it doesn’t just offer benefits to the organisation but to citizens as well, as it enables them to report issues and deal with simple enquiries quickly and easily via their mobiles when they’re out and about.
  • Reducing costs – along similar lines as the previous point, almost half (49%) of the group said they were using social media proactively as a way of reducing costs. This is in line with research showing that the typical contact centre face to face enquiry costs a local authority £8.23 to deal with, compared to £3.21 to deal with the same transaction by telephone and just 39p if it can be moved online.
  • Communicate with hard to access groups – 44% of the organisations surveyed said that one of the ways in which they used social media was to communicate with groups of citizens that they were struggling to reach through traditional channels such as younger people, disabled and housebound people and also older people as social media use is fast growing amongst the older demographic.
  • Highlighting commitment to openness and transparency – 44% of survey respondents told us that their organisations used social media as a way of being more transparent and open about their operations. Having a wide range of social media feeds from different parts of the organisation can help citizens to better understand what it is that different departments of the local authority are doing on their behalf, day to day.
  • Encouraging people to report issues – 39% of respondents were explicitly encouraging citizens to report issues to them via social media. Twitter, in particular, lends itself well to getting people to report issues such as fly tipping or abandoned vehicles as they spot them when they are out and about.
  • Supporting and encouraging community citizenship via retweeting – a relatively small number of people (22%) were using social media as a way of highlighting the work that different voluntary groups were doing within their communities by retweeting their tweets or sharing their Facebook posts. Doing this can be a great way of encouraging people to get involved in voluntary work as well as highlighting the help that’s available from such groups that people might not otherwise be aware of.

Overall we were impressed with the wide variety of different uses for social media and the creative approaches that many council’s are taking, generally with very limited budgets, to get the most value out of their social media activities. Hopefully there are some ideas here that might be of use to you in your own organisation, and we would love to hear about interesting ways in which you’re using social media yourself.

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