Research findings and recommendations for Councils

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Research findings and recommendations for Councils

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 or 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.

Study findings

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.

Trust and confidence

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.

Information gathering

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.

Managing participation

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.

Digital exclusion

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.

Recommendations for Councils

  1. Develop clear guidelines on managing privacy and personal information for practitioners. More guidance is needed to ensure officers use social media responsibility and safely (to protect themselves and citizens).
  2. If using social media to support deliberation or debate, ensure social media support anonymity whilst enabling identification for the purpose of accountability.
  3. Publish data and information openly (in line with the draft public data principles) so that it can be distributed widely on hyperlocal and user-generated websites. This will help improve public perceptions of trust and encourage participation.
  4. Where resources allow, monitor and signpost online discussions to relevant information and democratic processes.
  5. Use automated monitoring tools in small, pilot areas (e.g. one topic in one location) to evaluate benefits to services and policy development.
  6. Publish a public social media engagement policy which clearly outlines where, when and how engagement activities take place via social media.
  7. Combine social media and face-to-face engagement methods, for example by supporting citizens to carry out social reporting, to document and publicise public meetings and events on the internet.
  8. Define clear internal policies, processes, roles and responsibilities for officers managing engagement.
  9. Use and train moderators (in-house or community volunteers) and develop and evolve online community rules and etiquette.
  10. Evaluate the usability of social media solutions with target audiences.
  11. Ensure feedback is clearly visible to encourage users to participate, for example make latest user comments very prominent.
  12. Remember to support inactive participants (sometimes known as ‘lurkers‘) and use tools that support progressive levels of engagement to encourage them to participate.
  13. Encourage volunteer training schemes e.g. Social Media Surgeries to support the development of community and Councillor social media skills. Consider similar schemes in-house for officer training.

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.

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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11 Comments so far

Tweets that mention   Research findings and recommendations for Councils by Michele Ide-Smith — Topsy.comPosted on8:42 pm - Aug 20, 2010

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Hugh FlouchPosted on8:29 am - Aug 21, 2010

Well done on finishing Michele. Your paper looks fascinating. It will make a great companion piece to the study we’re running at Networked Neighbourhoods on the impact of local citizen-led media and the implications for councils.

I very much look forward to seeing the final paper and comparing notes.

Ingrid KoehlerPosted on10:54 am - Aug 21, 2010

Excellent work Michele.

Tweets that mention   Research findings and recommendations for Councils by Michele Ide-Smith — Topsy.comPosted on11:31 am - Aug 21, 2010

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Catherine HowePosted on5:08 pm - Aug 22, 2010

Firstly Michelle – HUGE congratulations on finishing – you must be delighted!

Its great to see some proper research emerging and would love to read the whole thing when you are happy to share.

Its reassuring to see no huge surprises in your initial findings – glad someone is working on proving some of the stuff we are all talking about

I would like to talk a but more about the point “If using social media to support deliberation or debate, ensure social media support anonymity whilst enabling identification for the purpose of accountability” at some point as this is very much along the lines that I have been thinking and it would be good to find out a bit more detail about this.

Best wishes and congrats again – gives me hope of finishing my thesis!!!


Michele Ide-SmithPosted on5:50 pm - Aug 22, 2010

Thanks all for the encouraging and kind words. I will check with my employer and faculty if it’s ok to publish the dissertation at some point soon (with or without the transcripts).

Catherine – I have to admit I did reference your Virtual Town Hall paper! Your views were very closely aligned with my findings which, as you say, is reassuring. The option of anonymity was really important to my participants. I have to say this may have been partly because of the area they lived in. Participants feared recognition and retaliatory attacks, if they posted certain views about their local area in the public domain. Officers were concerned about the representativeness of social media. So identification, at least to the moderator, would help in terms of accountability.

The whole issue of representativeness is a tricky one though. People don’t necessarily need to actively participate to get some benefit from discussions about local issues in social media. There is quite a bit of HCI literature about the role of ‘lurkers’ on online communities, which I found fascinating. Research shows that ‘lurkers’ can transition to fully fledged participants once they grow in confidence and become familiar with a community. An interesting perspective on this idea is Preece’s and Schneiderman’s paper “The Reader-to-Leader Framework:
Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation” (2009).

I am really keen to know if Catherine’s research (or the Networked Neighbourhoods research) throws any light on the influence of reading about local issues, but not necessarily posting/commenting/tweeting. E.g. increased involvement in offline activities in the community. This would have a big impact on how Councils engage with communities via social media. I had a few earlier thoughts about this here:

Tim DaviesPosted on6:22 pm - Aug 23, 2010

More congratulations on finishing the dissertation. Lots of great food for thought here and plenty to convert into practical action as well 🙂

Tom PhillipsPosted on8:29 am - Aug 24, 2010

Michele, many thanks for sharing this. You have condensed do much into a short space
This is a really useful overview just as it stands. I definitely agree with you on identities.

Carol LongPosted on8:52 am - Aug 25, 2010

Michelle (and Catherine too) your conclusions look like they are comprehensice and sensible. I hope Michelle gets to publish the full dissertation soon – the detail will help.

I’m sure that this is a great place to start for not-for-profit organisations too.

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