CROSSROADS: 12 predictions for local government digital comms in 2013

3905842249_7dd2e55bf9_bNever make predictions, especially about the future. Wise words I feel.

With a bit of time to pass about 12 months ago I rather boldly made some 12 predictions for local government digital which is an area I work in a bit. You can read them here.

So, 12 months later I thought it maybe an interesting experiment in pointing and laughing at myself to see how accurate they were and make 12 more.

What was right? 

JFDI did die. What’s JFDI? It’s Just Flipping Do It. It’s putting something up as an experiment without having to go through layers of policy and permissions. Chucking up a Facebook page had the whiff of revolution in 2009. Now everyone is using it and there’s strategies wrapped in HR policies it’s hard to have the space to innovate.

Digital customer services are growing. Norfolk County Council have blazed a trial on Twitter that others are following.

Someone did do something really stupid and it didn’t see their operation shut down. Little did I think it would be my own organisation. A member of staff accidentally tweeted from the corporate account that they soon wished that hadn’t. It wasn’t fun. But it wasn’t fatal, thankfully.

Emergency planners are using digital channels as second nature. The gift of big-powerful-ultra-storm-but-not-quite-a-hurricane Sandy which struck New York showed how powerful real time updates, cleaning-up and myth-busting became.

The local government social media star was someone you’d never heard of in place you didn’t think was digital friendly. For me, this was @whocareswalsall who stage pop-up campaigns around social care. Their live tweeting from the home of a dementia sufferer and his carer was breathtakingly good. Why? It painted a personal story that would not have been possible without digital.

4734206265_cba1558b2d_bLinked social has grown. This is a move away from just a corporate account to a range of accounts and platforms from the same authority.

Good conferences had an unconference element. Or were unconferences. The days of £200 a ticket events have gone. The days of £100 a ticket seem dated. There was a lively online debate on the merit of unconferences but the best bits of inspiration I found came from barcamps and in the West Midlands there was an explosion of them.

Newspapers have carried on dying. Bit of a home banker of a prediction this. Although there are signs with live blogging and other tools that they are seeing the value of social media.

What was wrong?

Data journalism didn’t grow. Nationally, maybe. But locally not and bloggers were not in the main building mash-ups to hold instutions to account.

What was half right?

Comms is still fighting for control of social media and not sharing the sweets nicely, like they need to. They’ll learn eventually.

Data visualisation didn’t boom. There were isolated pockets of how it could be used well but it’s far from being an accepted part of the comms armoury.

Some amazing things happened in Scotland. There were events planned across the country on Twitter and people like Carolyne Mitchell, Leah Lockhart, David Grindlay, Kate Bond and others are doing great things but I get the feeling it’s not quite in the mainstream.

Here’s 12 rash predictions for 2013

1. Comms teams will become smaller. Always in the frontline for criticism they will become bigger targets.Which leads to…

2. Smart comms people in local government will realise that channel shift comms may be the reason they will survive. It costs money to talk to people face-t0-face. It’s cheaper on the web. But how do you tell people about the best way to get a job done? By good comms which needs to be evaluated to see how effective it has been not by a potential audience but by the number of people who stopped calling and started reporting online.

4399722909_b77b178be8_o3. Twitter defamation lawyers4u will become a reality. The wild west days of the social web will be over. The row over tweeting false allegations against Tory Ministers has changed the landscape. How soon before ambulance chasing gets replaced with tweet chasing? How soon before a local politician takes legal action over a rogue tweet?

4. Innovation will wither as as spare capacity is cut. With less people doing more things they room for ground breaking projects will shrink and ever disappear.

5. The private sector will be doing the best innovation. Up until now JFDI has taken the public sector very far. Well resourced private sector comms teams will do the best creative thinking. Seen what Gatwick Airport do with social media? You simplty must. Twitter as an engagenent channel. Pinterest to promote shops and offers. Soundcloud for audio books for children parents can play their fractious children. Brilliant.

6. Digital comms specialists are needed. Yes, we all need to be doing it. But there needs to be a hand on the tiller of any organisation just to steady the ship, see what is on the horizon and think creatively. Sorry. But there is. The evidence of Gatwick tells us this.

7. Digital box ticking needs to be guarded against. As the argument has been won it becomes mainstream. Bad social media will become more prevalent as the box marked ‘we’ve tweeted from our own special account’ is ticked.

8. People will see that social media isn’t a golden bullet. Social media has had a great run. It’s promised lots and has delivered an awful lot. But it’s one of several channels.

9. Facebook as a local government channel is over. With the change of algorithm Facebook at a stroke has reduced the number of people who see your updates to around 10 to 15 per cent. That’s like the postman keeping 90 per cent of your birthday cards. No, really it is. Matt Murray and Jim Garrow have blogged well on this subject.

10. The localgov digital project is a good  idea whose time has come. A practitioner network with support from the LGA and DCLG this has potential. Big potential if there is enough time and resources.
11. Social media is fracturing. It’s not a case of Facebook + Twitter. It’s knowing YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Soundcloud, Audioboo, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram and other emerging platforms in the right place and at the right time. That may be a series of small communities to service.
12. Digital projects to make a difference must be big. If we’re still here talking about Twitter Gritter as the finest use of digital in local government we’ll have all failed horribly. Small projects are great. Ones that tackle big issues are what are needed to make a difference.
Creative commons credits

LINKED SOCIAL: Eight steps of social media evolution in local government

It’s clear there’s been a quiet revolution. It’s not if we use social media, it’s how.

Old media is still here. But they’re now part of the landscape they used to dominate.

In the UK, 28 million are registered on Facebook, more than 5 million on Twitter and a village as small as Beer in Devon has 6,000 images of it on Flickr.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

But where are we going next?

I’ve thought a lot of late on the path we’ve taken and where we’re headed.

A few pieces I’ve read helped crystalise my thinking.

Firstly, an excellent, witty and well thought out piece in The Guardian on SXSWi the annual event that sees cutting edge geeks talk to other geeks and pitch for funding.

They took a wry pinch of salt to the current hot terms. It’s all gamification, apparently.

A conclusion? The internet is over. Well, sort of.

The internet where you actively go to do things will be. The web which is unthinkingly enmeshed in day-to-day lives is where we’re headed.

You call a friend because you saw they were having a bad time from a Facebook update you saw after you booked tickets online. All on your phone. That’s day-to-day. Twenty years ago it would be sci-fi.

But don’t let’s any of us fall into the trap that we’re all on the innovation curve frantically trying to gamify the wastebin experience. We’re simply not.

I’ve been reminded recently that so many in local government are still on the starting blocks or filled with fear at the task ahead.

It’s fine to be worried about the Himalayan range of technology ahead of you. Everyone starts at the bottom of the hill. Just relax a bit. Do it a bit at a time. Chris Bonnington started small and got bigger. He didn’t start ice climbing. Maybe all you need to do is stroll up a hill rather than Everest.

We’re all learning. You don’t need a chartered qualification or a session with a socmed guru to start climbing the curve.

So where does this all leave local government and the web?

The public sector local government is beginning to actively put out a stream of information on digital channels.

Yes, there’s open data. This will grow but this has some distance to travel before it becomes an enmeshed part of my Dad’s life.

Look at the real time experiments. Greater Manchester Police’s ground breaking live tweeting of calls to it is one.

Our own Walsall 24 is another that I’m really proud of.

Southampton University hospital’s live tweeting of a shift in the children’s heart unit took it to another level by putting a human face on what they do.

Live tweeting and streaming a village cricket match is another fun example of real time updates. The Twicket experiment in the Lancashire village of Wray drew a worldwide audience.

A Philadelphia local government blogger Jim Garrow talked this when he described how things like this are changing communications.

If we communicate so much more what we do through social media will there be a need for crisis communications? .

Here’s a scenario to consider.

Imagine a situation in local government where each department and each office had a social feed. That it would be as common as a telephone or an email address. That you could pick and choose the streams you wanted to tune into.

That an organisation could tap into those streams to tell people what it’s doing. That’s – for want of a better phrase – as linked social. As the number of smart phones in our pockets grow that’s where we’re headed in the long term. I’m sure of it.

Here’s what the local government social media evolution curve looks like to me. Because I’m fond of lists it’s in a list form and there’s eight steps.

The eight stages of local government social media evolution

1. Ignorance: We may have heard of the social web. Just. But we’ve never really heard of Facebook or if we have, we’ve not seen the film. We heard a caller to Nicky Cambell’s phone in saying it’s the worst thing ever invented. We agree with the Daily Mail. It gives you cancer.

2. Fear: We – or our boss – think we need to use it. We don’t know how to get started.

3. JFDI: The Dave Briggs rule of Just F***ing Do It. We’re experimenting. We’re not really asking much in the way of permission. It may grow into something bigger. We’re experimenting and innovating. In Dave’s axis, there’s a trade off between JFDI and being boring. You’ll get more done by JFDI but it’s far less sustainable.

4. Boring: It’s getting bigger. We need a social media strategy like this one from Wolverhampton Homes. It keeps people higher up happy. That makes people lower down happy too. We’re starting to mainstream things. Slooowly.

5. Lone social. We have a single Twitter account for the organisation. We have a single Facebook page. We’ve not heard of Flickr. Or Foursquare.

6. Chattering social. We’ve let others use digital platforms too. So long as they stick to the basic common sense advice. We have different voices talking about different things.

7. Linked social. We’re now talking on one offs about the same issue from a different perspective. Like Walsall 24. We’ve got something bigger than the sum of the parts.

8. Mainstream linked social: We’re doing this as routine. We have a stream on what the countryside ranger is doing at a nature reserve. And what the litter hit squad are doing at the same site. We’re using the same hashtag. Some of this is automated. For example, there’s an RSS feed linked to bin wagons. Ten days a year in the snow it really comes into it’s own.

That’s my map of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Feel free to disagree.

Creative commons credits:

Smiling man and woman



Twicket by Mike Ashton

The JFDI versus Boring axis by Dave Briggs.

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