Between 2006 and 2010 I studied a part-time Masters degree in Human Computer Interaction with Ergonomics at UCLIC.

My dissertation research question was:

How do the attitudes and perceptions of citizens, Council officers, Councillors to the use of social media for community engagement compare and contrast?

I am very interested in how social media can benefit local communities, by re-building social capital. Clay Shirky has written about how social media can help ‘latent groups’ with a common purpose to come together, by removing barriers that previously prevented them from meeting up and joining forces. These ‘latent groups’ have great potential to resolve problems at a local level within their communities.

In 2008 the Department for Communities and Local Government released the white paper Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power which outlined how local government should be working with communities. The paper talked about empowerment of communities, citing social networking websites as a method to encourage democracy:

The answer lies in empowerment: passing more and more political power to more and more people, using every practical means available, from the most modern social networking websites, to the most ancient methods of petitioning, public debates and citizens’ juries. In this way, democracy becomes, not a system of occasional voting or an imperfect method of selecting who governs us, but something that infuses our way of life.

As a Web Manager at a County Council, my interest in social media has led me to investigate how local government might engage citizens through social media. In the last few years there has been an exponential growth in the use of social media worldwide. In the UK, research by Ofcom found that 3 out of 4 UK adults use the internet (75%) and the use of social networking sites is inceasing rapidly.

Almost twice as many internet users now have a social networking site profile than in 2007 (38% vs. 22%) and there has also been an increase in contributing comments to someone else’s blog (26% vs. 19%). Experience of other types of online content creation has not changed since 2007.

Compared to 2007, those with a social networking site profile are more likely to use these sites every day (41% vs. 30%), to have a profile which can be seen only by their friends or family (78% vs. 48%), and to use the sites to communicate with their friends and family (80% vs. 69%).

Some local authorities are already using social media (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Ning) and e-democracy tools (e.g. e-petitions) to communicate and engage with citizens, but other authorities have blocked staff access to social networking sites.

Many citizens are already active in using social media (e.g. blogs and social networking sites) to network with people in their local area, publish news and information, discuss local issues and garner support for campaigns. This phenomena has become known as ‘hyperlocal media‘ and pioneers include sites such as Harringay Online, a Ning social network, or Kings Cross Environment, a TypePad blog.

‘The charity MySociety have pioneered the development of citizen facing, easy to use web 2.0 tools to encourage active participation in the local democracy. For example a site that allows people to submit FOI requests, report broken street lights or potholes in their neighbourhood, create a pledge or find out details about their local Councillor. In a similar vein OpenlyLocal is a site developed by one individual which, by harvesting data from local government web sites, has made details of local councillors and council meetings much more transparent and accessible.

There is currently no official government policy or guidance on using social media for engagement. There are pockets of qualitative and quantitative research being undertaken to inform practise (for example Liz Azyan’s PhD studies, a number of other MSc researchers, The Young Foundation and Kevin Harris of Local Level). When I started my research project in October 2008, there was relatively little published research in this area.

This is a very challenging time for local government. Budgets are being cut each year and local Councils are charged with delivering efficient, citizen centred services and empowering communities to become involved in local democracy and decision making.

I hope that my research made a small, but useful contribution to the body of knowledge in this area and helped to inform my employer’s practise. Hopefully it will also be of interest to other local authorities and practitioners.

The results of my research are provided in a separate blog post.