TWITTER GRITTER: Beware Inferior Private Sector Product

We’re told local government should be more like the private sector.

If that means charging £20,000 to make a change to a Government website then I’d rather not, thanks.

This week the website, built in-house by geeks using open source (ie free) software was launched.

I’m not a webbie but even I can see the value in being able to make changes and tweaks suggested by people and there’s a great piece on it here on the Cabinet Office digital blog.

In an entirely different scale and in an entirely different corner of the digital allotment there was a public versus private issue in local government I stumbled across.

A private company is approaching councils offering to take over grit alerts.

That’s an area I do know something about as Walsall Council, I’m proud to say, was amongst the pioneers of the Twitter Gritter model along with places like Derbyshire County Council and Kirklees Council. Our engineers looked at us a bit funny at first, heard us out, trialled it and now are big advocates for it. It’s cost us £0 in three years but we’ve connected scores of times with people.

What’s Twitter Gritter?

It’s real time alerts keeping people up to speed on what their council is doing to treat the roads.

If we go out at 2am to treat the roads and only two shift workers and a drunk see what we’re doing isn’t it a good idea to tell people?

It’s also talking back to answer questions and pass on serious problems like a burst water main that’s turning to sheet ice.

I’m not against the idea of the private sector. Far from it. I’ve spent a big chunk of my career there and there are plenty of freelancers and organisations whose time would enrich the organisations they help. You’ll know them by the track record they have. Others in the private sector? They’re poor bandwagon jumpers, to be fair.

What I see in the public sector with events like UK Govcamp, Localgovcamp and other events are people willing to share and develop ideas to make the world a better place.

That simply wouldn’t and isn’t happening in so much of the private sector.

What does the private sector Twitter Gritter look like?

You can read the text I’ve posted to a Google Doc here. I’ve taken out the name of the company to spare their blushes. Nothing against people looking to make a profit out of something, per se. But when someone you don’t know asks you to hand over the keys to your Twitter account so they can do a poorer job and charge you for it then forgive me for being underwhelmed.

Why is it bad?

I’m tempted to just leave it to Mike Rawlins’s 140 character reaction.

But here are FOUR cut and pastable reasons and can be shared with gritting engineers to help them avoid making the wrong decision.

1. If it means handing over access then don’t. You wouldn’t do that with your email. Don’t do it here either.

2. If it’s broadcasting then don’t. The social web works best when it’s two way. People can ask questions and report problems. Run simply and sensibly that’s possible. Talk to your council’s social media person. They’ll tell you. Don’t if it doesn’t.

3. If it’s not their area of expertise then don’t. It looks what it is. Something developed by people who don’t know how the social web works. You wouldn’t let non-engineers loose on an engineering project. Don’t do the same here.

4. If it costs when it can be done far, far better for free in house then don’t. So many other councils already do it. Look at what Birmingham City Council’s in-house freelancer Geoff Coleman has achieved on a budget of nil, for example. Good freelancers will always work with you to shape something. They’ll pass you the skills so you can flourish. If they don’t then don’t.

#WMGRIT: Innovation in Twitter Gritter

Get three things right in local government you may well be laughing: school closures, bin collections and gritting.

Those three horseman of the winter apocalypse can wreak havoc with lives.

Communicate them well and you are winning a big part of the battle.

Back in 2009, a handful of councils started to tweet when they were going out to treat the roads. Why? Because at 3am when there’s two shift workers and a drunk you need to shout about it.

Those pioneering early grit tweets opened-up a door and showed how real time information – and stories – is worth while.

By 2010 the idea had spread, thanks in part through SOCITM’s Twitter Gritter report which hailed best practice. I blogged a case study on it here.

By 2011, digital innovation looks to have taken another step forward with #wmgrit. This is a hashtag but so much more. A Cover It Live pulls Twitter Gritter tweets from eight West Midlands Councils – Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Solihull – as well as the Highways Agency which treats motorways.

You can click through to the Cover it Live here: West Midlands Gritting Alerts

The eight councils are looking to embed it in their websites and the embed code has been released for others to use.

Why does this work? Because often a journey in the West Midlands can start in one area and go through others. Travel from Telford to Dudley and you can pass through five council areas in less than 30 miles. Bigger areas like Northumberland probably don’t need this.

Giving simple real time information is a brilliant way to make life a little easier for motorists, shout alerts and lets not forget remind people what local government does for them.

Who is the brains behind this? Much kudos to the digitally-savvy Birmingham City Council press officer Geoff Coleman who has developed this idea. Geoff – who is @colebagski on Twitter – hatched the plan and got people on board.

The man is brilliant. It’s people like Geoff and his militant optimism and his spirit of innovation that makes local government such an inspiring place to work and I’ll look forward the case study Geoff writes.


Twitter Gritter SOCITM’s report.

Creative Commons:

Walsall Gritter

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