To what extent is social media a useful tool for meeting the government’s local empowerment agenda? That was the question being asked in a panel session at an event last week organised by the National Empowerment Partnership which is managed by the Community Development Foundation.

‘Local Engagement: Sharing Practical Approaches’ was aimed at local authority officers and those working in the various organisations that make up the National Empowerment Partnership. The panel I was presenting at included Hannah Peaker from the London Civic Forum (who interestingly had spent time on the Obama campaign in 2008) and Stephen Frost from izwe.com. I was there courtesy of the work the role I’ve had with Digital Birmingham over the past year.

It’s worth noting that engaging, and hopefully empowering, communities isn’t just something that local authorities feel they have to do just because it’s the right thing to do; it’s actually an indicator by which authorities and local strategic partnerships (LSPs) are measured by government. If your LSP has chosen to be measured by National Indicator 4 (‘% of people who feel they can influence decisions in their locality’) then they may well be thinking about how social media can help them achieve their targets for that measure. And if the amount of people crammed into our panel is anything to go by then quite a few are thinking just that.

My presentation (below) was little more than a quick guide to interesting social media things happening in Birmingham that the audience might find useful. Those things are by and large being developed from the bottom up by those active users of social media tools who are attuned to the needs of active citizens. But in our discussion that followed two key questions emerged which I think highlights the issues that won’t go away unless we start giving answers based on research rather than anecdote.

“Where will I find the time?”
is the first of those questions, asked because public sector workers are already feeling under pressure and over-worked and the last thing they need is another engagement method to get to grips with. I don’t have a good answer to this. I do give an answer of sorts, but it’s an answer tainted by the fact that messing about with social media and the internet is part of my job. And public sector workers see through that straight away – they know that how I work is a world away from how they work. Research studies that offer clear evidence that social media creates efficiencies wouldn’t necessarily be helpful here. ‘Efficiency’ is the discourse of management and workers everywhere know that in its enactment it results in a reliance on technology rather than people. But it is clear than in order to answer “where will I find the time” an evidence base of some sort is what’s needed and what’s lacking.

“How do I manage the expectations of those I connect to via social media?.” Or to put it another way: people are going to get upset when I fail to respond to their twitter message at 10 o’clock in the evening. Hannah Peaker gave the helpful suggestion that if you establish a pattern of usage then people will respect that. But I confessed that I haven’t managed to do that. That I’ve let social media be a social part of my life and therefore I get asked work-related questions at all times of the day and evening and that creates a subtle pressure. Here were workers who could do without any more pressure than they’re already under – again, there’s little evidence that social media relieves rather than creates pressure.

Events such as this one tend always to have a ‘social media is great/interesting/sexy’ panel. But if we are going to see social media as a potential solution to community engagement – that is, a solution that actually produces measurable improvement – perhaps we need to take a step back and consider the research we need to do in order to address the real issues that public sector workers cite every time I get the chance to speak to them.

View more presentations from Dave Harte.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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