SOCIAL SURGERY: Building the Art of Good Listening

“Oh, so it wasn’t actually local government that won a prize for Social Media Surgeries?

“That’s a shame isn’t it?”

That’s more or less what someone from a local government organisation said to me. They weren’t really listening and it got me thinking.

What’s a social media surgery? It’s volunteers with digital know how being put together in a room with voluntary groups and charities who would like to know.

It’s about giving a voice to groups who really need a voice.

It’s an idea that emerged three or four years ago from the vibrant community of Birmingham bloggers.

Nick Booth of Podnosh has turned that idea into something truly remarkable that has outgrown the West Midlands (disclaimer: I just think Nick is great.)

Podnosh won a Big Society award for the project hence the conversation I start this blog with.

I’ve helped out at a handful social media surgeries. Not as many as I would have liked. But enough to know why people do it and enough to be applauding wildly those who truly deserve the award.

Is it sad local government didnt win this?

Not at all. Because this isn’t a local government idea. It’s a community one.

But it also got me thinking about local government’s role.

A lot of the early volunteers come from local government. Birmingham City Council’s Digital Birmingham arm recognised it’s worth quite early on and helped get volunteers, for example.

At the last Walsall Social Media surgeries, which is one of more than 80 registered, the majority of surgeons happened to be from local government too.

That’s more a yardstick of there being decent people at councils rather than some strategic thing.

But social media surgeries, from what I see, are built on far more than volunteers from local government and I wouldn’t want to overstate their role.

Social media is transforming council communications. Gritting updates now come via Twitter. Libraries have Facebook pages.

But local government is founded in Victorian Britain and can still act like it at times. Even the best Twitter stream unplugged into officers who don’t want to listen will ultimately fail.

Just recently, I’ve helped start a Facebook page to help regeneration officers understand how they can make Walsall a town where creative people will live and work.

It’s called ‘Can We Make Walsall A More Creative Place?’

It won’t change the world, but I’m gobsmacked at how if you plug into networks and listen they’ll crackle with electricity and they’ll tell you things. I’m a bit excited at how its playing out.

Just recently I spent a really inspiring hour or so at Shropshire Council with Nigel Bishop, Jon King and others. Part of what they are doing is looking at how to embed social media in every corner of the council and at every step of the way. Not just as the end stuck on as a megaphone to tell people. Jon writes about it here. In short, they’re after better listening as well as communicating. That’s quietly brilliant.

So, what can local government really get out of what’s built at social media surgeries?

They can be places to help build good listening.

That strikes me as being very important.


Andy Mabbett on Social Media Surgeries

Social Media Surgery Plus

10 Downing Street: The Social Media Surgery is the latest Big Society award winner


Chris and Mary

Laughing at Dudley Social Media Surgery

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you. The comment you mention about the award not being for local government (#ffs #sigh) dismay’s me a little, but not a lot. I think good surgeries have volunteers from the community and from public services. Some of the surgeons will be paid, some unpaid.

    What brings them together effectively is a shared sense of being a citizen too – that’s why they give the people they are helping the best advice. (not the advice that best serves the interest of themselves or employers) That’s also why they listen, because they are interested in the people around them and what they are hoping to achieve.

    It’s a very buzzy bee in my bonnet, this business of people as citizen’s too. Every time we here at Podnosh get to do our best work it’s because the people sitting across the table and planning and working with us are behaving as much like citizens as they are servants of their own organisation or interests. And so are we.

    1. Absolutely right about leaving your work self at the door at a social media surgery.

      It’s liberating just thinking of the best approach rather than the one you *ought* to be giving.

  2. To me a Social Media Surgery is simply a group of people who know stuff about the web and how it can transform communities meeting with a group of inquisitive people who want to see change. Together we make a difference. I’ve attended and run them under the umbrella of organisations, but I’ve also paid in my own time and money to attend them. Just because I can see how they change things.
    Yes, local government (wider, not looking at you Dan!) probably should wake-up to see these groups within their communities getting to grips with using social media. They will use the tools to amplify their voice and to campaign for action.
    But I bet if you try to run them as official activities they’d not be as successful as ones where the community simply organise and put them on.

    1. Agree with that, Paul.

      If there was a weakness with social media surgeries, and I’m full of admiration for those who invest time, love and energy in them, then its working harder to make sure once that voice is created its pointed at the right people and the right people listen.

      But really, that’s the A level grade when what’s really needed is just to get people started.

  3. Great post, Dan, and timely for me as I’m working with a couple of other people in Edinburgh to figure out how we can revive Edinbuzz, community run and community based social media surgeries for grassroots groups.

    From what I’ve experienced as a local gov bod volunteering as a social media surgeon in a community run group, I agree with Paul that council run surgeries might not be as popular as citizen run sessions. I’m surprised that someone would assume social media surgeries would/should be council led- I’ll echo Nick’s #ffs- especially considering (*giant overgeneralisation warning*) most local authorities don’t allow their own staff to use social media or are not using social media at all or much themselves as an organisation. They are not helping their staff to gain the skills needed to be able to hold a surgery!

    You’re right- surgeries are community idea. LAs can’t provide a service for citizens that they are not providing for themselves. I think surgeries are for people who can’t afford to hire a ‘social media consultant’ or who just don’t know where to start with learning and who just need a few tips and tools to get them started in the right direction. It’s about sharing knowledge for the greater good of a community and whether or not an award sits with local government is irrelevant. Well done to Podnosh!

    1. Cheers, Leah. Agree with every word of that. Some things work because they’re not ‘the council.’ And vica versa too. Social media surgeries that I’ve seen work because they’re good people helping good people. Targets or work streams just don’t get into it…

  4. Enjoyed the final thought the most.

    Also the art of listening is probably to first shut up. It seems from my meagre observations that Local Authorities tend to speak first and then listen. Sometimes it’s better the other round.

    “This is what we’re doing what do you think?” becomes “What do you think we should be doing?” or preferably “…” (just listening to the communities).

    From again just observation (I should get out more) Social Media Surgeons seem to sit listening for the challenges that Social Patients bring to them.

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