With public-sector budgets under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever, having the ability to fine-tune services and to deliver them where they’re needed most is becoming increasingly important. Social media gives city authorities this opportunity, tapping into public sentiment in real time – albeit only that portion of the public using social media and in a raw form.
Crucially, it’s not just a case of passively watching and listening to what citizens are saying. The social web also makes it possible to reach out in new ways. Social networks mean local government can carry out surveys – and publicise them – at relatively low cost. Insights gained in this way not only represent a significant cash saving; they can also be carried out more rapidly than traditional opinion polls, with no paper processing delays and no risk of data transcription errors.
The use of social media also opens up potential for enhanced cross-departmental collaboration within councils. Local government is a major employer: for example, Merton London Borough Council employs upwards of 5,000 people, as does Brent Council, while Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe, employing 60,000 people – the same size as a multinational company. Tapping into that resource makes sense and can unlock real value, with crowdsourcing creating synergies that would otherwise be lost.
Perhaps the most important aspect of social media, though, is the potential it has to open up public participation. Social media has a decisive role to play in motivating and empowering citizens, as well as increasing engagement with the third sector, which includes charities, voluntary groups and not-for-profit organisations.
As the Coventry project reveals, the online environment can be “sticky”, with users tending to spend longer perusing material than they might in an equivalent paper-based exercise. CovJam participants each spent an average of two and a half hours online.
CovJam underlines the extent to which social media and new technology can help to improve the agility of local authorities, with complex public consultations made far more manageable and granular than an equivalent approach based on filling in paper forms. Web-based technologies also have the potential to revolutionise routine public interactions. Research carried out by the Society of Information Technology Management in 2010 reveals the scope of potential savings. At only 27 pence, the cost of a customer service interaction on the web is nearly 11 times cheaper than a phone transaction and nearly 25 times less expensive than an equivalent face-to-face meeting.
This does not mean that governments should slash all paperbased services in favour of digital – such a move risks creating a digital divide and excluding those without access to the internet. By offering more digital channels, however, service can be improved and the public feels it has even more options.