I’ve finally finished my MSc dissertation which is a massive relief. After four years of part-time study I am looking forward to having my weekends back! And I plan to get back to blogging, now that I’ve more time on my hands.
My research study investigated:
Attitudes and perceptions of Council officers and citizens to using social media to engage with local government.
My research was driven from a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective, as I’ve been studying HCI and Ergonomics at UCLIC.
The study was conducted in parallel with a partnership project in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire which aims to engage hard-to-reach audiences using social media. This meant I was able to analyse some of the findings from a community consultation we did for the partnership project,in addition to the data I gathered myself.
I carried out semi-structured interviews with nine Council officers and nine citizens. The participants had varying experiences of social media and civic engagement. Some were keen social media users and some weren’t, either through choice or lack of skills, access or internet experience. Likewise, some were actively involved in the community, either as volunteers or activists and others had relatively little involvement in their local community.
One of my big concerns when planning the study was the potential scope. There are a huge range of ‘social media’ out there that can (and are) used to engage with local government, for example:
I wanted to make sure my study participants had a common frame of reference. This would have been much easier if there was a popular, local website which was actively being used to discuss local issues similar to pitsandpots.co.uk or harringayonline.com. But I found there weren’t any existing hyperlocal sites in the area where I was planning to do the research.
Based on personal and anecdotal experience, I believe social media are (to a large extent) experiential. You need to try it to fully understand how it can be used, and to find out if it’s useful to you personally. To get around the issues described above I asked participants to explore some websites during the interviews.
I analysed the data using a Grounded Theory method.
My study findings fell into six main areas as follows:
Participants preferred the option of anonymity when discussing sensitive or controversial issues and feared retaliatory attacks. Participants also wanted the flexibility to manage disclosure of personal information, depending on the situation. For example, if they felt strongly about an issue, they would be more confident to reveal their identity.
Officers felt using unofficial sites would increase trust and confidence, whereas some citizens felt reassured by official sites and perceived official Facebook pages favourably. Officers and citizens felt that social media would increase transparency of information and, in turn, trust in government and participation.
Participants felt social media was a useful tool to gauge public opinion and gather evidence for decision making. Citizens expected some monitoring to take place but officers lacked resources to monitor pro-actively.
Participants worried about negativity online and felt moderation would be required. Most citizens expected timely feedback, but officers were concerned about resource limitations and felt clear roles, responsibilities and processes would be required.
Participants felt social media made it easier to distribute information and enables communities to garner support for campaigns.
Participants felt social media lacked visual, social cues implicit in face-to-face interactions, but enabled more considered responses. Officers felt face-to-face and online engagement methods should be used together. Officers questioned whether social media engagement was representative, but felt they could reach new audiences e.g. younger people.
Participants identified barriers to engaging via social media, including lack of IT or literacy skills, aptitude, lack of access to the internet and language barriers.
Participants were more likely to use sites they perceived were easy to use and useful.
Based on the findings and a fairly extensive review of research literature (mostly human-computer interaction and political science research) I came up with some recommendations for Councils, which I wanted to share on my blog.
I plan to write a bit more on the findings and recommendations in due course and hope to be able to publish the findings in more detail once my dissertation has been assessed.
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