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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Engaging the hard-to-engage – Local by social online conference

On Tuesday 9 November at 10:00 am I’m speaking at the Local by Social online conference. If you haven’t already come across it the conference is a brilliantly organised online event run by Ingrid Koehler and colleagues at Local Government Improvement & Development. The aim of the conference is to discuss:

  • Using social media to improve engagement between councils and citizens
  • Practitioners: creating and sharing knowledge online
  • Exploring Open data for improvement and innovation

I’ve been enjoying some excellent threads facilitated by familiar names including:

My talk is about a project I’ve been involved in for Cambridgeshire County Council in the Wisbech area of Fenland, exploring the use of social media by local public services to engage with communities. Here are some extracts from my session forum post.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Update on social media project in Wisbech

I mentioned in an earlier post a project I’ve been involved with in Cambridgeshire. Over the Summer we’ve been trialling ShapeYourPlace.org in Wisbech and the surrounding villages. It’s a community website where residents can raise issues and suggest ideas and local service providers respond. The site also pulls in feeds from other useful sources such as neighbourhood policing team details and meetings and community events and activities from Cambridgeshire.net.

I’ve been working closely with the exceedingly patient and helpful team at RuralNet Futures, who developed the website for us in WordPress. We’ve recently made a few tweaks to the design and the back-end processes that partners agencies use. The ShapeYourPlace.org website will be promoted to residents in Wisbech from the end of this month.

The website is managed and moderated by the Rosmini Centre in Wisbech, using their existing pool of volunteers. On Friday Anita Grodkiewicz, Community Centre Manager at the Rosmini Centre, was interviewed about the website for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Anita explained how local residents will be able to use the website to raise issues and local service providers will respond on the site. Anita also explained how the Rosmini Centre provide IT facilities and support for members of the community who don’t have access to the internet at home, or lack the skills to be able to get online easily.

My MSc dissertation research was closely aligned with this project. I interviewed residents in the area and Council officers involved in the project. There’s more info about the project on our project blog.

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.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Reflecting on my MSc research

For anyone that’s familiar with my posts on social media or usability this one is rather academic and self-indulgent, so bear with me!

I’m making fairly good progress with my MSc research, having completed a few interviews and some of my literature review. Every so often I take stock of the approach I’m taking and re-evaluate my research question and approach. I decided that writing about the issues I come across would be a good form of therapy and also a good way to reflect on my situation and decisions.

“[We] become reflective researchers in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict.”
Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983

I have chosen to research attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens to community engagement via social media. Because this is a potentially vast and complex area I have chosen to focus my research around a project I am working on in Fenland, Cambridgeshire. I decided to limit my research to council officers and citizens. Because within the scope of an MSc project I didn’t have sufficient capacity or time to also interview colleagues working in the Police and Fire services or elected members.

Because there is not much existing research or theory in this area of investigation, I’ve chosen to use a Grounded Theory method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Charmaz, 2006) . I’m carrying out semi-structured interviews to collect my data. Once I have transcribed the interviews I am carrying out a detailed analysis of the data to identify emergent concepts or themes. As I identify concepts I start to categorise them and compare them across all the data. As the process continues I am starting to develop theories which I can in turn test out by collecting and analysing more data. And so on until saturation point, or until I need to write up my dissertation and hand it in. Whichever comes first.

So far I’ve interviewed four colleagues and am lining up several more interviews. My sample is probably what you would describe as ‘selective’ rather than ‘representative’ or ‘purposeful’ (Coyne, 1997). Simply because of the constraints of doing research within your own organisation and in the timescales of an MSc.

I’ve encountered a few issues with the approach and method I’m taking so far. Using social media for community engagement is a new phenomenon, certainly within the organisation I work for. The colleagues I have interviewed so far do not have hands on experience of using social media for community engagement. So their stated intentions may well not reflect their actual behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980).

Now for me using social media has been experiential. I personally believe that you can’t really understand the possibilities and impact of the social web without experiencing it yourself. Hence the JFDI mantra which is so often mentioned by those who are active in the local social media or digital engagement field (see Dan Slee, Sarah LayDave Briggs and Steph Gray to mention a few). To get round this I have shown my participants a range of sites which I feel represent how social media can be (and is being) used for community engagement.

Whilst initially I found it problematic that I was not interviewing participants about their actual behaviour and experiences, I feel there is still merit in my research approach. Many local authorities have been reluctant to adopt social media. Some are blocking staff access for fear of time wasting or the risks of security breaches or damage to reputation (Socitm, 2010). Other authorities are cautious of the benefits of allocating resource time to monitor social media spaces and interact with citizens.

By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement. I hope my findings can be shared with other authorities, organisations and researchers. I am also hoping my research could be a useful reference to anyone researching attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens who are actively using social media for community engagement.

At this point in time I don’t want to have too many lofty ideas about the impact of my tiny microcosm of research. But even as a student researcher I have to consider the value of my research to my employer and the wider research community.

I’ve also had concerns about interviewing colleagues who are unlikely to be using social media in a very hands on way for community engagement. This is primarily because they are at a more strategic level and not what you would describe as ‘front-line’ staff. But in reality they are quite likely to be the people who make the policy level decisions about how social media is used and incorporated within community engagement activities. So understanding more about perceptions and attitudes is important, to be able to sell the benefits and persuade senior managers to take risks and innovate.

So far the data I’ve collected has been fascinating and has led me to reflect on how we are approaching our project in Fenland. I’m really looking forward to interviewing some residents in Wisbech in the next couple of months to get their perspective.


Ajzen, I. and Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. Prentice Hall, facsimile edition.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd, 1 edition.

Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. SAGE Inc, third edition edition.

Coyne, I. T. (2007). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623–630, Blackwell Science Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction.

Schon, D. A. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books, 1 edition.

Socitm (2010). Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it.

Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Fenland social media project

I’ve been working on a project for the last few months up in the rural Fens of north Cambridgeshire. We’re piloting the use of social media by public sector agencies to engage local communities. I’ve blogged about governance and a digital engagement framework in relation to this project before.

We’ve now set up a project blog so we can share what we learn with other local authorities and public sector agencies. Or anyone that’s interested really. I’ve written a bit of blurb about the project.

It’s also an opportunity to share some ideas about community engagement using social media and reflect on how social media is changing local government and local democracy.

There are some other really interesting projects going on that I’m keeping an eye on:

I’m fascinated by top down vs. bottom up approaches to using social media to improve local democracy. I’m also researching the perceptions and attitudes of council officers and citizens towards the use of social media for community engagement.

If you know of any other projects in this area please let me know by leaving a comment.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Digital engagement governance – a dichotomy between hyperlocal or partnership managed

I’ve just started working on a project where we’ll be exploring digital engagement methods, using social media alongside offline forms of engagement such as neighbourhood panels. The aim of the project is to improve community cohesion in a semi-rural community. The project is being developed as a partnership between the County Council, District Council, community centres, a rural development agency, housing associations, the Police and the Fire & Rescue Service.

The partners are all relatively new to the concept of digital engagement but are aware that any form of social media (e.g. blogs or social networking sites) requires governance and moderation. In the initial meeting I presented what I think of as a ‘governance dichotomy’ which we, as public service providers, should be open to when we consult with the community. By this I mean that we may end up with either a community led or a partnership managed approach to governance, depending on what the community and partnership jointly decide will work best.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Useful links and resources – 31 October

Social Media and Networking

We’re doing a Social Media & Networking project at work. The aim of the project is to develop a ‘toolkit’ for staff. I found this online database of social media policies a starter for 10 – no point re-inventing the wheel.

Community Engagement

I recently started a project where we’ll be using social media to engage communities and improve community cohesion. For general guidance on engagement I found Engagement first five, the IDeA’s Practical ways to engage with your communities, Customer focus and community engagement and the older (but still useful) guide by David Wilcox The A-Z of effective participation. There is also lots of useful guidance on People and Participation

The community cohesion impact assessment and community conflict prevention tool has some pointers for planning and implementing a project which aims to improve community cohesion.

I read a couple of thought provoking blog posts by Dave Briggs and Tim Davies on the representativeness (or otherwise) of online engagement, which reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of months back about evaluating online engagement.

User research and design

I’ve also started up a project to improve customer experience on our corporate web site. We’re doing some remote testing with Loop11. I also thought the Five Second Test could be useful when we do the re-design. There’s nothing like an immediate customer response to make you feel humble ;D

I’m used to doing paper prototyping and using Visio, Dreamweaver and Powerpoint to mock up more interactive, hi-fi prototypes. I’ve not used any tools designed specifically for creating prototypes, but came across this great post on prototyping tools which opened my eyes to some alternatives.