Last week I took part in the #lgovsm tweet up. For those of you who haven’t had a look, it sees anyone interested in how social media can be better used in a local government setting all logging on to Twitter at the same time and talking about a central topic. By adding the #lgovsm hashtag they can all then track the same conversation and respond to each other. @loulouk started this a while ago and it’s sparked many a fantastic debate.
Social media is a topic close to my heart. Communication is an area that has always fascinated me, ever since I realised that with a tonal change, a shrug of the shoulders or simply a….. pause, the entire meaning of words can shift and change. Growing up in a world getting to grips with IT meant that it was inevitable that these fascinations should merge, so with venn diagrams all over the place I find myself in the enviable position of ‘doing’ some social media as part of my job.
The funny thing is, I don’t get it personally. I don’t want to tell people meaningless snippets of information, nor do I want to always share my opinions on a given topic (understanding as I do the near permanence of anything published on the web). But for local government, for me the possibilities seem endless.
In the dark days of the distant past, Councils were made up of normal, everyday people who were good at organising things and seeing the bigger picture. As time wore on, this skill set seemed to become more focussed, until people actually worked for the Council full time rather than just doing it as needed. A barrier appeared between them and the population, resulting in a ‘them and us’ culture which has only been reinforced over time.
In my opinion, social media is one of the first things to come along which has the ability to effectively break this down. Using tools that were never really intended for this use, anyone off the street could theoretically easily track down the people in the Council who they need to speak with and do it directly, eliminating the need for hours spent in queues or being sent from phone extension to extension.
The trouble is that we in the Council don’t seem to like this. The current way of doing things, involving departmental rather than individual responses, allows a nice degree of anonymity and ‘I’m just following the rules’ responses. If people can speak to named individuals easily then they will have to change the way they work to be more flexible to such requests, and the Council itself would have to change culture entirely to allow them to do so.
And the Council doesn’t like change.
It strikes me that a prime reason for this is senior managers, and the world they grew up in. I’m not taking a cheap shot at them (they often perform a vital role in very trying circumstance), merely pointing out that when they grew up and earned their local authority stripes social media did not exist. Well, it did in some forms; e-mail and telephones have been used as tools to help people to communicate better for some time.
When they both were introduced to the workplace they were often joined by some very worried senior managers. Surely, all workers would spend all day phoning and e-mailing their friends about trivial matters? Well yes, sometimes they did, but this was more than made up for by the increased productivity and speed of turnaround that this technology opened up for them. Waiting for letters to arrive became a thing of the past (although many still insist on that, even today); people simply e-mailed a response and then saw it acted upon. Eventually even the most stubborn of managers conceded that they were useful work tools and embraced them.
In my eyes, social media is facing the same challenges today. Facebook was invented in 2006 – it isn’t even five years old yet – and You Tube predates it by less than twelve months. I can’t really remember a world without either, despite the fact that I inhabited it for a quarter of a century; that is how influential they have become. It’s taken a while for us to collectively realise that these can be used in a work environment, but now that we have local government is taking its first tentative footsteps into the unknown.
It’s not going all the way yet though. Recently I read a great metaphor to describe it: “[Local Government] are like a fat kid with under-inflated armbands, tentatively pacing around the pool wondering if they’ll be able to float.” We don’t know what might happen if we jump in. Will we suddenly know exactly how to swim and go on a Michael Phelps inspired swimathon? Will we sink and die? Will we flounder for a while, go under once or twice but generally bob for a bit?
All of us seem to be expected to be able to point to someone doing the backstroke and say “look, that’s exactly how to do it, let’s just copy”. Whilst some are going along quite nicely these are often not massively well publicised, eclipsed by any and all coverage showing someone sitting on the bottom of the pool with a grimace on their face. This results in us being allowed to get our feet wet in the paddling pool and little more.
If we don’t learn to swim soon we will be in trouble when global warming (stretching the metaphor, this is the groundswell of people using social media as a normal and regular occurrence) comes along; we’ll be swept away.
I for one would rather learn by testing the depth of the water with both feet.