Twitter and its use in Local Government

There is a lot of social media platforms out there who all have a varying degree of popularity. YouTube and Facebook are just two of these, and probably the most popular. The real new-boy on the market is Twitter, a micro-blogging site that limits you to 140 characters. This platform has been around since 2006, but it is only in the last few years that Twitter has become really popular, now with over 200 million users.

The reason for this blog topic is a study I came across the other day called An Overview Study of Twitter in UK Local Government. This is an excellent piece of work that was completed in May this year. I am also grateful to the authors for allowing me to use their research on my blog.

While the public are quick to embrace these new platforms, local government is often slow on the uptake, and is often late in embracing new ways to communicate. Much of this is due sometimes ponderous nature of local government, with a policy needed to be written and approved before it is fully implemented. There are some very proactive local authorities, but this is not across the board. However, the real issue is not convincing council officers the bonuses of using social media, but those elected to office.

In the day’s before widespread use of social media in local government, the public only really knew the going’s on at a council by the print-media. Often, information did not get out due to journalist not being able to be everywhere. This was in many parts advantageous to a local authority because information could be controlled, or at least sanitized before its release. It is not like a local authority wanted to keep everything secret (some may argue that), but they know the wrong information, or negative information can be damaging to an authority reputation, including those political groups who are in charge during that term of office.

Twitter has blown that control out of the water, because the pure beauty of Twitter its instantaneous. This is a double-edged sword as five Cornwall Councillors found out back in January 2010 with Twittergate. However, it made Cornwall Council sit-up and take notice of this micro-blogging site. To the council’s credit instead of sticking its head in the sand, or trying to ban (well it did try, until the council realised the folly of trying) it, it has embraced it, and now has just over 5000 ‘followers’.

Cornwall Council is not alone in the use of Twitter, as some 84% of councils (363) have at least one Twitter account, compared with 73% last year.  There is 426 local authorities in the UK. 346 of these are in England, 26 in Northern Ireland, 32 in Scotland and 22 are in Wales. Furthermore, just under three-quarters (73%) have at least one Facebook account, compared with 62% a year ago. More information HERE

The use of Twitter differs with person to person. I tend to use twitter two ways. Information, and general communication, or what they used to call ‘back in the day’ as talking to people. In this study, it has found:

“Politicians devote limited attention on the conversational elements of Twitter, they tend to use the medium asymmetrically during and after elections and are also likely to draw an audience with elitist characteristics, e.g., established journalists. Variations in terms of political affiliation and audience seem to be highly contextual from one political system to the other”.

I find this a great shame, as the real beauty of Twitter being accessible to people not just in your area, but on a more global stage. If you just use Twitter to send out repetitive messages, then, you are nothing more than a bot. Using Twitter as a human will get whatever message you want to get out be better understood. Furthermore, the study points out:

“empirical findings show that their use of Twitter rather tends to support self-promotional models and interaction with the audience remains limited. Saebo (2011) found that tweets produced by Norwegian elected representatives lack deliberative characteristics and focus on general information dissemination, discussions with other representatives and publicly agreeing about non-controversial topics. Golbeck et al. (2010) found that members of the USA Congress are mainly using Twitter to promote links to their blogs or articles about themselves instead of attempting to provide the public with new insights about legislative processes”.

Again, I think this is a lesson to all political and local authority users of Twitter, and how we should all strive to be more human and engaging in our use of this micro-blogging site. The same goes for those who use twitter to campaign for a cause. Repeating the same message over and over again tends to make me click the mute, or unfollow option on Twitter. This study has certainly made me think how best to engage with my followers.

The study shows the date when local government authorities embraced twitter. The first authority to ‘go live’ was St Helens Council, which is a metropolitan authority in Merseyside. They did this in 2007. The majority of authorities signed up to Twitter in 2008/09 . Cornwall Council took the plunge in April 2009.

You would think London council’s would feature heavily in the top 15 council’s using Twitter. In fact they do not, with the top-5 followers and tweets list do not have any London authorities . The council with the most followers is Glasgow, with over 21,000. The most prolific tweeting council is Walsall Council who have tweeted over 11,000 times. Cornwall in comparison has tweeted 2,900 times. Either Walsall is just tweeting about everything and anything, or Cornwall Council is not tweeting enough.

As for the contents of the tweet, the analysis for the size of tweets revealed an average of 108 characters per tweet. About 20% of the tweets have 138 characters or more and 9.5% of them are at the maximum allowed size of 140 characters. Only about 28.7% of the tweets did not contain a single link to other content, while about 70.5% contained one link and the rest 0.8% contained between two and five links. Yes five links!

While Cornwall Council is one of the older users of Twitter, I still do not think it is using this platform to its full potential. This is not the fault of officers not interested, but the resources assigned. One of the fears is how the public would see tax-payers money being spent to employ dedicated social media officers. In the past, there have been headlines of ‘council officer paid xxx to use Facebook/twitter/social media. The public is outraged, and councils retreat, wary of attempting this again.  I believe the outrage could be minimised if more clarification was given on how important and powerful the use of social media can be in local government. To many people, social media sites are just gimmicks, or only for leisure use. This leads to a misunderstanding of its importance and usefulness.

There is a lot more work to do in trying to convince politician’s that social media is important, and council’s to resource the use of social media properly. After all these politicians are policy and purse-string holders . This will only come about if the public does not have a fit when they hear a council has dedicated social media officers whose main job is this to promote and advance these platforms.

I also feel the Leader of a Council, the CEO and the Directors should be on twitter as the corporate and political face of a council. For Cornwall Council only one Director is actively using twitter, and that is the Chief Fire Officer. Sadly he is now leaving, so we will be back to none. Furthermore, only two Cabinet Members are on twitter out of twelve. This enforces a culture of remoteness of senior council officials.

As for political group leaders at Cornwall Council, only the Liberal Democrats have their leaders on twitter. Maybe the other political leaders should be using twitter too, that way the public will see all sides of the argument. Cornwall Council has 123 Councillors, but only 22 (17%) Councillors have a twitter account. Out of those 22, five are regular users, with a 7 more occasionally using the platform. The rest are, well, idle. I always find it amusing when someone says they are on twitter, but never use it. Having an account is not a twitter user. Though this might all change the closer we get to an election!

Of course it would be unfair not to mention many Councillors use Facebook in their role. But, the very nature of Facebook is its heavily controlled by the user. It is not as ‘open’ as Twitter. At the end of the day, social media is not for everyone, nor should it fully replace the face to face contact a council and its elected official have. Still,  like the telephone and e-mail changed the way local authorities engaged with the public, social media has a very important part to play.

Anyway, have a think, and please read the study


One comment

  • Gill Martin

    I was at a public enquiry meeting all day yesterday and everyone was instructed to turn their phones off. Personally, I only ever put mine on silent. However, that policy clearly does not enhance the use of Twitter.

Please feel free to leave a comment to the post, as I like to hear your views! However, comments that do not meet the rules of the site (found in Blog Disclaimer) will not be published. Furthermore, all comment need to be approved by admin before publication.